"I've lived this long because the Norns decreed my fate when I was born," Tofa the Fair Minded says. "I couldn't have done anything to change it, one way or another."
The gray-haired viking has an easy manner, and before long she has befriended an eleven-year-old girl visiting the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
"You are just one year younger than I was when I first married," Tofa tells her. "But the world is always in need of strong women, don't you think?"
Played by Boulder native Janice Estey, Tofa is one of several characters developed for Vikings: Beyond the Legends, running through August 13 at the museum. For the past decade, the museum has employed professional actors to enliven both temporary and permanent exhibits ranging from The Titanic to Traveling the Silk Road to Vikings. Performers embed historical facts into stories and invite audience members to participate.
Enactment “gives you a more visceral view of what life was like on a day-to-day basis,” says David Allison, who helps manage programming for the museum. When history is marked by rulers, elections and wars, he explains, daily concerns are too often forgotten.
“If you think about us as individuals, we are only tangentially associated with, let’s say, the most recent presidential election,” says Allison. “Maybe we all voted, but that’s it. And in history books, that’s the only thing that’s going to get recognized – not what we were doing in our day-to-day lives, or the things that matter, which are relationships and love and connections and all of those things that make life rich. That’s what enactment can provide.”
The field of historical reenactment sometimes comes with baggage. Its reputation has been tarnished by badly mannered reenactors; some critics might see employing performers as a mere marketing ploy or a photo op. But Allison says it’s so much more.
Enactor Jose Zuniga, who first joined the museum staff to play the naturalist Edmund Dalton more than seven years ago, recalls that his first day on the job, after months of researching twentieth-century ecology, "the first question I was asked was, ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ And I had no idea what was a common breakfast food at the time. So it’s more than memorizing names and dates and places. It’s about trying to encapsulate life.”
Hiring begins three months in advance of an exhibit's opening, giving enactors time to read, meet with scholars and practice new skills. For Vikings, performers even learned to blacksmith and chop wood.
“We really put it on our actors to own the character,” says Allison. “When they’re in costume, they’re in character.”
Sometimes the performance continues well beyond the confines of a normal work schedule.
“Much to the chagrin of my co-workers, I stay in character even on my lunch break,” confesses Zuniga, who is channeling the role of Odinkarr Thorbjornson. He uses the word “channeling” because over his eight-hour shift, Zuniga fades away, allowing Odinkarr to take charge.
Diving into history often means grappling with unsavory aspects of humanity. For Zuniga, embodying Odinkarr means wrestling with his character’s ninth-century sexism. “Last week...a group of middle-school girls were asking if they could join the army, which to Odinkarr, it’s a ridiculous idea that women would fight,” Zuniga says, his voice sliding into Odinkarr’s harsh accent.
“The power of enacting isn’t saying, 'Well, you girls go back and play with your dolls,'” says Zuniga. “What he said was, 'Oh, so if you want to join the army, tell me what makes you worthy. Surely you girls know how to sew and weave, and how does that make you a good soldier?' Then the girls were able to say, ‘I’m great at this sport and that sort of thing,’ making it into a conversation.”
In other roles, Zuniga has discussed with children the scientific method with creationists and Middle Eastern stereotypes. Sometimes visitors take away not just historic knowledge, but also an understanding of their present.
“Like with most theater, on some level there’s a suspension of disbelief,” says Zuniga. “On some level, the person I’m talking to knows I’m not real, but they treat me like a real person. I think that is a unique avenue for exploring some of those difficult things.”
At times the job becomes almost therapeutic. “I’ve had people break down into tears and share really, really secret moments from their lives with me,” Zuniga recalls. “Just yesterday, when I was in the exhibit, my character mentioned losing his brother on the battlefield, and I sat with a seven-year-old kid who opened up with me about losing his uncle in Afghanistan.”
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The conversation between the young visitor and the performer continued for an hour and a half. “We sat there, a stranger and a child, talking about death and loss and grief, but also the feeling of looking forward to seeing someone in the afterlife,” Zuniga says.
While some guests feel at ease around the actors, others experience anxiety. Not surprisingly, Zuniga encourages visitors to confront their fears.
“I think the thing that is most frightening is that we are going to try to put you on the spot,” he says. “But that’s not why we’re there. You can come talk to us, and you won’t have to pretend to be in the past. Just come with us and learn, and let’s share a moment together that bridges time.
Vikings: Beyond the Legend runs through August 13 at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. For more information, visit the museum online or call 303-370-6000.