By Tara Mae
Legacy is where man and myth intertwine. More than a summation of his best ideals, the heritage of President Abraham Lincoln’s humanity takes the stage on his birthday, Sunday, Feb. 12 at 1 p.m. when he visits the St. James Community Cultural Arts Center in Celebrate St. James’ latest Living History event.
Garry Rissman, an Abraham Lincoln presenter, is the conduit for the 16th president. His interactive presentation will consist of scenes from three different plays in which Rissman inhabited the role, a monologue from the movie Lincoln, a game, and an audience Q&A session.
“Many attendees are history buffs and their questions display their knowledge of the historical figures. So far, the Living Historians have been great — they really assume their character — costumes, persona, mannerisms, etc. They are knowledgeable and able to answer audience questions. You would think you are actually in [the historical figure’s] presence,” said Celebrate St. James President Patricia Clark.
Historical re-enactors and living history interpreters showcase an amalgam of artistry, history, and theatricality. They make the past present, facilitating scenarios in which audiences are not simply observers but rather cooperative collaborators participating in the presenter’s paradigm.
In this spirit, Rissman’s Lincoln interacts with his supporters, engaging with them throughout the program and creating an immersive experience.
“The audience members who volunteer to read lines in the Civil War plays really feel more involved by being the characters. It is very fulfilling to see them enjoy a living history lecture,” said Rissman.
A member of the Association of Lincoln Presenters for nearly six years, Rissman, who also belongs to the Screen Actors Guild, has appeared as Honest Abe on stage and screen as well as in private and public occasions.
Not unlike Lincoln, Rissman’s preferred profession is a second career. Whereas Lincoln was first a lawyer, Rissman was initially a working actor. Both roles benefit from a gift of oration. “I decided that being a living historian was more fulfilling than being an actor in a play with little to no pay and usually no possibility of getting a copy of my performance. I can do things my way,” he said.
Having found his path, Rissman had not yet selected the persona he would portray as he walked it. Initially, Rissman experimented with representing other prominent men of history, but they were not the right fit, so he sought inspiration from his previous occupation.
Like the five o’clock shadow that eventually yields a full beard, Rissman’s association with President Lincoln grew from portraying him in a play at the Incarn Theatre in Brooklyn to embodying him as a full time job.
“I was playing Lincoln in a Civil War play from [the] Incarn Theatre when I decided to go to the yearly Lincoln festival in his hometown of Hodgenville, Kentucky,” he said. “I believed that I needed to experience the Association of Lincoln Presenters first hand before deciding to spend the $200 for a lifetime membership.”
Finding resources and community to support his passion, Rissman, who is based out of New York City, embarked on his campaign of traveling Lincoln presenter. While he has been stumping, the staff and volunteers of Celebrate St. James have been organizing innovative programming to facilitate not only its mission of rejuvenating the town but buying the historic building in which it rents space.
Celebrate St. James resides in the historic Calderone Theatre. Built in the early 1900s, the organization hopes to purchase the building and restore it as a functional theater and creative arts space. Fundraising efforts are in the early stages and the Living History series, highlighting speakers and living history presenters, is a means of spotlighting the town’s robust history and paying homage to its theatrical roots.
These talks constitute Act One of the organization’s ongoing initiative to engage the public in local culture by invoking the past into the present.
“Our goal is to bring attention to the history of St. James, which is a hamlet with a very rich past,” Clark said. “We want to revitalize St. James as the flourishing hamlet it once was by bringing the cultural arts to our community to drive economic growth.”
Clark and members of her team have been inviting living history presenters to speak at their events following successful visits from Mark Twain, George Washington, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, President Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest daughter, among others. Rissman and Clark connected via the Association of Lincoln Presenters’ official website.
“The historical recreations have become a regular series of events … Living History: Abraham Lincoln is a very family friendly educational/entertaining event and we encourage attendance from families with school age children to see the Living Historians bringing these historical characters to life,” Clark said.
Other Celebrate St. James endeavors include art exhibits, art classes, senior fitness classes, comedy shows, a virtual book club, various children’s events, a classic film series, and summer concerts at Celebrate Park this summer.
St. James Community Cultural Arts Center is located at 176 Second Street, 2nd floor (no elevator), in St. James. Tickets to Living History: Abraham Lincoln are $25 per person, $20 for members, $10 children ages 10 and up. The event will be followed by a Q&A and refreshments will be served. For more information, visit www.celebratestjames.org or call 631-984-0201.