Behind the Scenes at Behind the Bars
Ahead of Unharvested Histories this fall, our latest ‘Off the Page’ feature spotlights Huron County! Behind the Bars’ night tours at the Huron Historic Gaol are a popular summer attraction for both residents & tourists in Goderich, Ontario looking to meet their friendly neighbourhood criminals, lunatics and vagrants. On Tuesday and Thursday nights in July and August, visitors to the gaol step into the past to interact with volunteers portraying the real men, women and children who lived and worked at the building when it was an operational jail (1841-1972).
Although she no longer spends her summer evenings in jail as a pregnant vagrant, Staging Our Histories co-director Sinead Cox contributed to Behind the Bars as a volunteer interpreter and coordinator while a student employee at the Huron County Museum. She caught up with current coordinator Madelaine Dunbar-Higgins, Museum Assistant, for behind-the-scenes insight on how staff and volunteers turn primary research into a one-of-a-kind interactive historical experience.
How long have you been working with Behind the Bars? Have you noticed any significant changes in the program over that time?
This is my third summer working on Behind the Bars. I spent my first year learning everything I could about the event, and have been able to improve my organization since then. We have many returning volunteers, and I believe my relationships with each of them has helped to make the program run more smoothly, as well as boosting their confidence to “perform” and ask questions.
Other changes include the increase in audience numbers each year, likely a result of word-of -mouth promotion – our most common response to the question “how did you hear about us?” Audiences seem to be becoming more engaged throughout their tour, asking questions and participating in dialogue as opposed to solely wandering through the building. I find that the level of excitement is increasing, and visitors are keen on telling their friends and families about the event, and to return in coming years as they anticipate changes in characters. Locals and tourists are becoming more aware of the event (and the fact that the Huron Historic Gaol is #1 on TripAdvisor’s “Things to Do in Goderich” list helps too).
This year, I am co-coordinating the event with Mackenzie Bonnet, who is also a University summer student. We are hoping that our collaboration and joint contributions will make 2016 the best Behind the Bars yet!
What kind of stories and characters are featured this summer?
We try to portray a variety of crimes at BTB. This year, these include theft, vagrancy or destitution, and insanity, we well as more serious crimes such as assault and murder. A new (and notable) character that we have this summer is the infamous James Donnelly. His is a story that many have heard of and that really resonates with people.
Can you explain how the character stories featured in Behind the Bars are researched and created? What kind of historical sources do staff use?
A great number of our character stories were assembled by past Museum Intern
Sinead Cox. Our main source of information comes from the Gaol registry, which lists inmates’ names, age, date of committal, offence, authority committing, length of stay, and then personal details like their hair and eye colours, whether or not they partook in “the drink,” and whether or not they can read or write. The registry also includes information on their behaviour or conduct while in Gaol.
Next, [using dates or details form the registry] we turn to local historical newspapers (Huron Expositor, Goderich Signal, etc.) hoping to find additional information on each crime. This helps to give a bit of background information on the nature of the crime and to add some real drama to each story. We also use census and land records, as well as birth, death, and marriage certificates which provide details on the inmates’ families, occupations, and residences. Old County Council minute books often provide information on peculiar prisoners whose stories were given extra attention, or inmates who required services beyond what the Gaol could provide (straitjackets, special remedies, transfers to other institutions).
Usually a month is spent editing previous stories and compiling new ones based on the ages and genders of our volunteers. Once given their story, volunteers create their own interpretation of their character and bring individual experience to the information provided. They are encouraged to come up with a “hook”, or a piece of information that will draw people in to chat with them, which helps bring a sense of creativity to the event.
How many volunteers and staff work on bringing Behind the Bars to life?
In 2016, we have a total of 33 volunteers, several of which participate out-of-costume by helping to serve refreshments and answer questions about the general history of the gaol. 26 of our volunteers participate as inmates and staff sharing their true stories. Myself and my co-worker, Mackenzie Bonnet, are co-coordinating the event this summer, and there are generally 1-2 other [staff members] working on Behind the Bars.
How do you find actors for Behind the Bars and match them to the stories you’ve researched?
Our main source of volunteers is the growing number of actors that [have already] participated in Behind the Bars and who return each year. We advertise volunteer recruitment through public service announcements and social media, and I think many people become interested after attending the event themselves, or if they know someone who has volunteered in the past. Our youngest volunteers are 12 years old, and range to middle-aged adults and seniors. We match each one to a character who is of roughly the same age, meaning that the characters we have each year vary…We try to include the stories of inmates that worked well [with audiences] in the past, and also introduce new ones to add some variety to the evenings.
Staff ultimately don’t provide the volunteers with a formal script to be recited, but a compilation of the facts and context information gathered through research. What do the volunteers themselves bring to the interpretation?
Volunteers are given very basic information on their character, and must fill in the blanks while being as historically accurate as possible. We encourage them to stay in character as much as they can. Our volunteers are eager to add their own twist to their story, or to bring previous knowledge to what they have to say. We hold training nights to share with them the general history of the building, and offer some acting tips, as they piece together tidbits of information. We ask them to spend time in their assigned locations, and to get a feel for how inmates would have lived during their stay, and what emotions they may have felt. Volunteers may also choose to find additional research on their character based on their interests (such as searching family histories or even finding their gravestone).
What about the audience? Since the tour is interactive, rather than scripted, what do the visitors bring to those interactions?
As the nights progress, the volunteers become more comfortable in their roles and learn what visitors are most interested in hearing, adapting their stories accordingly.
What makes BTB successful is the visitors’ participation with each volunteer. To enhance their experience, visitors must ask questions, and participate in day-to-day activities like tasting bread and molasses, playing crokinole, or helping to read letters to inmates from their family members. Last year, a character who was planning to escape from Gaol had visitors help him come up with an escape route – these are the kinds of things that make BTB so intriguing.
Can you walk us through briefly what the typical visitor’s experience is at Behind the Bars?
Visitors enter the building through a long and narrow hallway that leads to what was once the Gaol’s visiting room and “intake office”. On their way through, there is a guestbook to be signed, where visitors can come up with a reason as to why they were committed to gaol. They pay a small fee and are given a card that lists all of the staff and inmates they will encounter. They are given general instructions for making their way through the building (3 floors, spiral staircase, Governor’s House), and we often suggest they start by meeting an inmate who is not already acting with another visitor. After this, it’s all up to them! On any given night, there will be up to 20 actors to interact with. Behind the Bars is self guided, and visitors wander through at their own pace. We often recommend at least 45 minutes for a full tour, but you could spend hours at the Gaol if you wish to hear everyone’s story. We also serve lemonade in the large courtyard beyond the Gaol kitchen on the main floor of the building, where museum volunteers are situated to answer any questions that couldn’t be answered upstairs.
How does the surrounding space—a 175-year-old building with a panopticon layout, and narrow spaces– itself impact the program? Are there specific challenges or advantages to live performance in the Huron Historic Gaol?
The fact that this building is a National Historic Site makes these evening tours appealing. Visitors comment on [the] eerie experience of the narrowing hallway, the same echo-filled space that prisoners walked through upon their committal. The Gaol is octagonal in shape and was based on Jeremy Bentham’s ideas on prison reform – totally different from any jail one might see today. The panopticon layout…helps visitors to share the same feelings and experiences that prisoners once had, and to envision day-to-day life in this facility that was built almost 175 years ago. The layout can also be a bit confusing, and visitors have to learn to find their way up the spiral staircase and around the set-up of each room – something that seems so second nature to myself and my coworkers.
So the setting of the gaol–where these characters actually lived, and in some cases died– lends important visual and spatial context to the stories. Do you think the program could be successfully transplanted to another space and still work?
I don’t think that the program would carry the same effect if it was moved to another space…The history of the building is essential in conveying each character. One of the most effective ways of conveying the Gaol’s history is allowing people to walk the same halls and wander through the same courtyards that inmates did until 1972 when the Gaol closed. People often ask whether or not we’ve witnessed any supernatural phenomena, which wouldn’t be the case outside of this space.
You also staff the gaol during the day. How does the visitor experience change from the daytime (when there are no costumed interpreters) to Behind the Bars nights?
Daytime visitors read about historical facts, objects, instruments (musical and surgical), and uses of the gaol (or hear about certain artifacts and spaces using our audio wands). The Gaol really comes to life during our evening tours, providing the same sorts of information that our daytime visitors experience and SO MUCH MORE. I feel that Behind the Bars is a program that’s essential to sharing the history of the building and the municipalities it represented. Visitors want to be engaged and active. This is what brings them back year after year. The program’s popularity stems from its potential beyond guided educational tours. The enthusiasm shared by staff, visitors, and volunteers inspires others to come see what the event entails!
What kind of feedback or questions do you commonly get from audiences?
Visitors (and volunteers) often provide feedback and commentaries that will help us to improve the event and brainstorm ideas for years to come.There have been suggestions for new characters to include in BTB, such as a judge or any infamous inmates. It is through feedback that we learn what works and what doesn’t. Visitors always enjoy our volunteers’ ability to remain in character despite attempts to make them [break]. I can honestly say that we receive little to no negative feedback, and our guests seem to always leave satisfied with their visiting experience.
What’s the best part of working at Behind the Bars?
My favourite part of Behind the Bars is hearing the comments and reactions of audience members/visitors. Their enjoyment of the event helps to remind me that my hard work has paid off. I love explaining the event to people, and seeing returning faces each year. I also love hearing the thoughts of our volunteers as they share with me particular encounters that made them happy and excited or shocked and confused.
Do you have a favourite character?
My favourite character would have to be Gaol Matron Mrs. Margaret Dickson (sorry everyone, you’re all great!). She is played by a local community member who is extremely devoted to our event. She has gone above and beyond to find information on her character outside of what she has been provided with, and she helps to set the tone of the event by keeping true to her time period (between 1876 and 1895). She is incredibly knowledgeable and encourages visitor participation, especially for those who seem hesitant at first. Each inmate has a different story, so it’s hard to pick just one.
Behind the Bars highlights histories of poverty and crime that aren’t visible at a lot of other local historical sites. Why do you think these stories are important to tell, and why is Behind the Bars the right platform? How do you balance a family event that attracts tourists, campers and young families with some of the darker themes and tragic stories attached to the gaol?
Behind the Bars is different from the presentation of other local histories in that it often focuses on the negative aspects of life in Huron County. Behind the Bars highlights the fact that the gaol was used to house not only prisoners, but also acted as both a poor house and asylum. This is a commonly asked question from daytime visitors and Behind the Bars attendees. It’s important to tell these stories because they are easily forgotten and are part of the unwritten history of the area. Characters in Behind the Bars portray real people and personify the struggles of the past, which is far better understood than reading an excerpt on the wall. We are able to create a balance between historical interpretation and entertainment, keeping in good spirits although some stories may not necessarily be happy ones.
What’s the best reason new or returning visitors should visit Behind the Bars this summer?
Visitors should attend Behind the Bars for a unique community experience that is both entertaining and educational. I encourage past visitors to return since each year is different, and they have the opportunity to speak with inmates and staff they haven’t met before. Our event and our audiences are ever-changing, and there’s always a new piece of history to be discovered with each visit!
Everything you need to know to visit Behind the Bars this summer:
Behind the Bars takes place every Tuesday and Thursday night beginning on July 5th, and ending on August 25th. Special admission rates are $10 for adults, $5 for children, and $25 for families. Children ages 5 and under as well as Museum Members attend free of charge. We open the Gaol doors at 7:00 pm, and encourage visitors to arrive before 8:00 to allow them to experience the event in its entirety. They have until 9:00 pm to find out everything they can about those who lived and worked at the Gaol!
Reminder: If you have an unwritten history about Huron County you want to share on stage this fall, the submission deadline for Unharvested Histories is July 4!