Learning to Perform without a Live Audience: A Student Docent’s Experience

Editor’s Note: For the inauguration of our new Student Tour of the Ford’s Theatre Museum, Nadia Duncan, 17, tells us about her experience as a student docent leading a tour—in front of a camera.

In my career as a young actress, I’ve always been a bright-lights and center-stage kind of girl, so filming is sort of uncharted territory for me. Being chosen to record a student docent video at the Ford’s Theatre Museum was an incredible honor, and the implications of being the vessel for other students to learn about the legacy of Abraham Lincoln are not lost on me.

At the beginning of the process, we had a series of rehearsals. This isn’t a new concept to me, but they were completely different from what I expected. Usually, when I think of a rehearsal, I think of running lines, singing songs, blocking scenesand a whole lot of waiting around for your turn at the director’s attention. But during the student docent rehearsals, we explored the Museum, visited the Peterson House, and listened to a Ranger Talk, learning all the details of Lincoln’s assassination.

This level of drastically improved my understanding of the greater picture surrounding the historical significance of Ford’s. I pondered the atmosphere of unrest in 19th century D.C., just as the Civil War was ending. I learned the identities, “back stories,” and eventual fates of the conspirators. I considered the actions of the movers and shakers who met in the Petersen House to discuss the fate of the Union, as Lincoln lay dying nearby.

Yet the assassination, though so familiar to many of us, was only the end of Lincoln’s story. There was much more to understand about Lincoln as a person. I learned about his humble beginnings and his commitment to his family. I saw the tough decisions he was faced with during his presidency and I came to see him as a thoughtful and just leader. I appreciated his passion for keeping the Union together and I was inspired by his integrity – he didn’t back down when he felt he was right, but he was willing to admit when he was wrong.

Learning so much about Lincoln’s story helped me grasp the importance of leadership in the context of my own life. As the oldest of the student docents, I was proud to serve as a leader within the group. It’s always been fulfilling to me to teach and guide my younger peers, especially when it comes to the arts. I led warm-up exercises, helped other students rehearse their lines, gave my peers advice about working as an actor and strove to set a positive example of professionalism and focus.

When the recording day finally arrived, we each were given our mic and, one by one, we moved through the exhibits of the Museum, delivering our respective monologues to the glassy stare of the camera lens. Storytelling has always been something that came naturally to me, but with no instant gratification and no live audience, this experience was very different.

Luckily, the Ford’s staff was very helpful in giving me direction and letting me know how I was doing as we went along. I felt my confidence growing with each take, and soon it was easy to channel my inner Vanna White and gracefully indicate the exhibits as I shared my piece of Abraham Lincoln’s story.

It’s pretty shocking that, at least in my experience, there’s so much about one of our most famous presidents that we never learn about in school. Working on this project really fleshed out the story for me. Lincoln, his family and his cabinet members were real people, and even though their photos are black and white, their stories aren’t.

Not everyone is a short Metro ride from Ford’s Theatre, like I am. Our student docent video is a great way to show the Museum to anyone interested in American history, no matter where they are in the world. I expect that students who watch this video will find it compelling because the stories of these historical figures are coming from their peers. I am proud and honored that I was able to use my acting craft to contribute to this project, and I am grateful for all that I learned in the process. Check out the video here.

Nadia Duncan is a high school senior who loves singing, acting, science and writing. She plans to study Musical Theatre or Classical Voice in college.