Where now for Re-enacting?

Recent Developments and challenges
What happens next?

An address to NAReS AGM 20th November 2011 National Motor Cycle Museum Birmingham by HOWARD GILES of EventPlan, formerly of English Heritage. To infinity and beyond!!

1. Introduction

I have been asked to talk about trends in re-enacting and challenges to re-enacting that I see developing. I don't intend to dwell on recent challenges as groups and their coordinators will know of them but there certainly have been some! e.g.

  • Government legislation on violent crime, firearms, deactivated weapons, etc.
  • Accidents, including the one involving the much missed Paul Allen.
  • The state of the economy and its implications.
  • Changing public tastes.
  • Changes within the hobby itself.

Despite all this, re-enactment has prospered, probably due to clients like English Heritage, public popularity, the work of NAReS and the enthusiasm of re-enacting groups. Some years ago I spoke to NAReS members about the future, and much of what I then said seems to have come to pass. I do not have a crystal ball, but maybe I have some insight, so let's all look forward rather than backwards. But obviously I can offer no guarantees of accuracy! The only certain thing about the future is that there will always not only be challenges for re-enactment, but opportunities as well. Some of these themes will pop-up more than once in my talk.

2. Good News and Bad news


  • We re-enactors are mainly still alive and kicking! And fortunately there are quite a few younger ones too!
  • History has never been more popular with the public, probably as a result of films and TV etc.
  • Historic properties appear to need events, including historical ones, to enhance


  • We are getting older. Whilst impressions are more accurate kit-wise, there is a disproportionate amount of re-enactors who are quite old and do not always look the part as a result. Some impressions e.g. Confederates or Home Guard are pretty much "age-proof" but others e.g. elite WWII fighting units, are not.
  • The state of the economy.
  • Public tastes are changing, not always for the better.
  • Fewer filming opportunities.
  • To the world at large, re-enactment 'doesn't matter'.

3. Threats and opportunities

    • Old age and retirement - more re-enactors are leaving than are joining.
    • The economy. This effects what the public can affordto go and see. Today people are making careful choices of their leisure activities, and counting their pennies. Also re-enactment has to bear in mind what its clients can afford. English Heritage, National Trust, Local Authorities, independent stately homes - all have had their budgets cut. Frankly, some groups charge too much in these changing circumstances, but this only works against them when clients have no choice but to choose others instead. Also what re-enactors personally can afford to do becomes more limited, e.g. cost of fuel to travel.
    • Changing public tastes.
      Because of video games and CGI the appearance of 1000 men in the field no longer seems 'unusual'. Also a lot of younger members of the public today have very reduced attention spans. There are other activities out there competing with re-enacting such as role play, paint balling and air soft and other 'less disciplined' activities which are easier/cheaper to do. Today people want entertainingand 'self indulgent' events are uninteresting, whilst the teaching of history in schools is not that thorough these days - and thus enthusiasm for it. Some eras are increasing in popularity e.g. the 1940's whilst others are declining in interest e.g. English Civil War.
    • The Olympics (although not apparently as much as a threat as first thought).
    • 'Entrenched' thinking by re-enactors e.g. on event content and/or fees and/or flexibility.
    • Historical events are in demand if entertaining and good value for money.
    • Re-enactors continue to be enthusiastic.
    • The public are still interested - re-enacting is 'known' by many, but not all, and use of re-enactors in recent TV programmes e.g. Lewis and Downton Abbey have been a help

4. Trends

    • WWII.
    • WWI.
    • Niche eras and groups, except perhaps some of those that are not particularly UK orientated.
    • Cheap and 'easy' groups. Those who are relatively inexpensive to hire, quite small, and 'come complete'.
    • Things that children like e.g. shiny knights and 'action'.
    • Things that families like e.g. 'something for everyone'.
    • Larger groups - limited resources, hiring fees, facilities needed and limited space are factors.
    • Groups that are perceived to be 'difficult' i.e. not user friendly.
    • Large battles - they are too expensive.
    • Self- indulgent groups who don't bother much with entertaining the public.
    • 'Plodding' groups - no imagination, just plod along with the same boring old thing time and time again.
    • Groups that price themselves out of the market through "chasing the £".
    • Poor quality groups.

5. Possible Changes

As I see it, as the years roll forward

  • Multi-periods and big battles become rarer because they can be too expensive to put on.
  • Most larger groups become smaller, probably except WWII.
  • Groups become more regional e.g. because of fuel costs, those in a national society will increasingly come together to put on smaller regional events.
  • More caravanners as we age = a problem for venues, because of the extra space for the 'family camp' or 'modern camp' needed, and appropriate "caravan-friendly" access.
  • There is likely to be more 'pay to play' or performing just for group expenses, rather than for a fee.
  • Clients will become more choosey.
  • Smaller, successful groups will also become more choosey about which event invitations to accept.
  • Government initiatives may well complicate things and inevitably increase re-enactor costs e.g. by combining firearm & shotgun certificates and (inevitably) at a higher fee. It is not terribly likely that such costs could be passed onto to financially embattled clients.

BUT there will still be plenty of opportunities for groups of all sizes and themes that 'get the balance right' both in what they do/present and how much they charge.

6. What can groups do to survive in this changing and challenging environment?

  • Do nothing and fade away.
  • 'Get real' = meet the client and public requirements, offer better value shows and be more entertaining in their shows.
  • Make life easier for the hiring venues and organisers by:
    1. Minimising group costs.
    2. Maximise entertainment without losing accurate Living History. Think 'show biz!'
    3. Reduce the length of larger battles and make them more entertaining.
    4. Work to set scenarios for tight, fast moving action - no more 'muddling through' or poor co-ordination. Be professional!
    5. Maximise the living history camping to minimise modern family camping space andoffer more living history to clients.
    6. Offer clients a PA system "within the package" and a good narrator who explains clearly what's going on and why.
    7. Co-operate with other groups even if they are 'rivals' if clients ask them to e.g. at multi-periods or large scale single era multi-group displays/battles.
  • Minimise the costs to clients
    I still so often find little correlation between group fees and the artistic/entertainment value of their displays to the client. Some groups still try to extract as big a fee as they think they can get away with, whilst others are incredibly good value and generous - it doesn't take much to work out who clients would prefer. Perhaps it would help if re-enactors (as opposed to just their coordinators) more clearly understood the cost to an event provider of staging a whole event e.g. costs of infrastructure (toilets, wood, water, parking, marketing, and staff, fee for hire of the site, security etc.). Quite often group fees only represent 25% or less of the whole. For example, marketing is absolutely vital but can be very expensive.
  • Engage the public
    It's not enough to just perform. Tomorrow's adults are used to interacting with video games. They just don't want to watch passively any more. It is important in the future to engage with children by allowing 'hands on' stuff so that they can have fun. Also it's often important to have music, song and dance: and for certain displays people expect background theme music appropriate to the event. For example, like Regia Anglorum, EventPlan plays carefully planned film music during some battles and displays, "lifting" the whole experience for visitors used to this at the cinema and on their TVs. The public in future will expect lots of variety, and because they will have shortening attention spans, what groups DO needs to be short and fast. Obviously there are issues with 'have-a-go' activities e.g. safety supervision and insurance cover, but it really is worth putting in the extra effort to do it. Also do stuff for charities e.g. Children in Need - be very visible: it raises the profile.
    • Groups should provide 'must see' shows, with an emphasis on SHOWS if they want to charge a fee. It's no longer about the public paying to watch re-enactors 'playing'.
    • Recruit! Recruit! Recruit! Re-enacting needs new, young re-enactors. Thus groups need to market re-enacting to teenagers and those in their 20's on its chief strength - it's real! (Not just on a TV screen!) i.e. Don't just game it (i.e. video games) - Touch it! Feel it! Smell it! - Get a LIFE! ReallyDO it!
    • Offer a chance to have-a-go on the day with no waiting - so provide enough spare kit and training sessions, advertise this facility and make it easy to buy the kit e.g. 1940's is easy. Get people to come along by contacting those who would want to join in the activity e.g. singles groups or clubs
    • Be 'professional'.
    • Be affordable.
    • Be entertaining.
    • Be easy to deal with.
    • Be flexible.
    • Market the hobby!

SO, what era is most likely to meet public and client expectations at present?

7. The 1940's: A success story - simply exploding with popularity

  • So much variety and 'stuff' on offer.
  • Much more for women to do.
  • Easy to join in and easy access to kit.
  • Easier for those no longer into 'battling'.
  • Public understanding and empathy.
  • Veterans and remembrance.
  • And the one big thing that nobody else has - Spitfires

EventPlan is arranging six 1940's shows in 2012 alone!

What does the 1940's offer and what can other eras learn from this? Is the 1940's scene a threat or an opportunity for other eras?

  1. "Stuff" confined to WWII and other 20th Century groups include; Vehicles (tanks, trucks, jeeps, cars), motorcycles, cycles, aircraft, machine guns and other serious firepower, and 'strollers' i.e. visitors in realistic kit, often "civilians", who just turn up. There is a lot of interest in 2nd World War because school children are taught it as history today.
  2. Other eras can include the following, too (if appropriate);
    • Short, exciting displays with a continuous programme throughout the day.
    • Music, song and dance.
    • Ships.
    • Food and cooking demonstrations(as opposed to 'just' Living History).
    • Puppet shows.
    • 'Know your enemy' talks (e.g. as offered by Le Voix de Nord group. Their presenter is a British SOE Officer with all the German kit laid out and the crowd/the public watching are treated as SOE trainees about to be parachuted into enemy territory. The officer explains what the enemy kit looks like, what it does and what they can do with it if they capture any - why not translate this into other eras?
    • Have a go activities.
    • Comedy - living history can be perceived as too serious sometimes. A bit of comedy can hugely enhance an event.
    • 'Walking through' a battle - "muster" blocks of the public with a re-enactor at each corner and an officer out the front shouting what's to be done, "versus" another similar group coming at the group from the other side. Issue each participating member of the public with a "fate card" in a sealed envelope. Walk through a battlefield scenario, littering the battlefield with "casualties" as you go - it shows them that war is hell. Then the participating public open their 'fate' card envelopes, and this brings home to them the "lottery of war" and how many die of disease or wounds, or even if somebody gets promoted to General! Naturally the cards have to accurately reflect what happened in the chosen era.
    • Give fantastic value for clients' money (excluding costs of big battles) - indeed quite a few groups, period vehicle owners and 'strollers' do not charge at all.
    • Don't forget 'Remembrance'. A minute's silence from everybody at the end of an event, in memory of everybody who has died in war, brings poignancy to the occasion for the public. We are currently remembering the 70th anniversaries of WWII - but WWI is about to follow - 100 years in 2014.

9. I finish with a question for all of you re-enactors - What will your society do to prosper and survive?

Howard Giles
©Howard Giles 2011.

The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Spring 2012