Dressing Up History Re-Enactors' Passion for Past Enlivens First- Person Portrayals

Article excerpt

For many, the craft of historical re-enactment begins with simple curiosity and becomes an all-consuming passion.

"It's probably like getting into drugs," said Bryan Cunning, known for his portrayals of George Washington. "You say, 'I'll try just a little of this,' and it becomes an obsession."

As the home of many historic forts and battles, Western Pennsylvania has an abundance of people like Mr. Cunning who become immersed in stories of the past and spend countless hours and dollars to re-enact them.

Popular places to see re-enactors are public events such as Fort Ligonier Days, the three-day festival last weekend to commemorate the Battle of Fort Ligonier, fought on Oct. 12, 1758, during the French and Indian War. The battle was re-enacted Saturday and Sunday.

Mr. Cunning, a native of Washington, Pa., was attracted to the world of historical re-enactments 15 years ago when he came across a group of men at a gun show who were donning colonial garb and shooting black powder from flintlock rifles.

It looked like fun, so he bought a shirt that a man from Revolutionary times might wear -- the first purchase of the thousands of dollars he has spent on his craft -- and joined them.

The rest is history.

"Unfortunately, when you learn history in school, it's very dry," he said. "There isn't much excitement in it. People tend to have you remember more dates than what is happening or really going on.

"The re-enactments are great because the people who are participating are reading up on it all the time. They become historians, in some cases, experts."

Standing 6 feet tall with red hair, his resemblance to Washington, who also had red hair, landed him the leading role in a trilogy of films on the first president produced by Paladin Communications, a company based here.

His first film, "George Washington's First War: the Battles for Fort Duquesne," premiered in 2003. Shortly after, schools, museums, community groups and festivals began asking him to re-enact the character.

"There is some artistic license taken to it. If I were to portray Washington as he was, people would think I was very standoffish," he said.

"I kind of have to let some of his true traits go so I can interact with the people I'm talking with."

Mr. Cunning has dozens of books on Washington, but pretending to be a man who fills chapters in thousands of American history textbooks is a challenge.

He often relies on primary sources, such as the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, and only portrays Washington during the French and Indian War. He hopes to be able to age with his character.

For other re-enactors, finding first-person accounts of the historical figures they portray is difficult because some of those figures made it nearly impossible.

Ann Traegar, who portrays Bess Truman in a performance called "Tea With the First Ladies," said the first lady was disenchanted with the media after she was offended by newspaper coverage of her father's suicide. The wife of the country's 33rd president, Harry Truman, held only one press conference in her tenure in the White House and, in an attempt to protect her privacy, she was careful to burn every letter she wrote to her husband before she died.

Nonetheless, Ms. Traegar has found enough material on her character, and in the process of reading books and articles, the Trumans' love story enchanted her.

"I fell madly in love with Harry Truman," Ms. …