Bringing History to Life
As a living-history interpreter, Shari Carney portrays the lives of twenty famous women, ranging from Grace Kelly to Rosie Riveter. Each year, after months of research, she writes a script, creates a costume, and steps into the historical role. She never knows how her audience is going to respond.
“I once portrayed Edna St. Vincent Millay, the first woman to win a Pulitzer for poetry,” Shari said. “I started reciting one of her works, and a gentleman stood up to quote the poem with me. Then two other men joined in. They’d all memorized Millay’s work—and it stayed with them. It was touching to evoke such a spontaneous response.”
Shari’s best-known portrayal is of Sacagawea, the Native American woman who went on the Lewis and Clark expedition. “In 1999, I was recovering from a burn accident, and my friends asked what books they could bring me to read. I’d just become interested in Sacagawea, so they brought me every book on her they could find,” Shari said. “They convinced me to start speaking at book clubs and various groups. I’ve done a new character every year since.”
Shari spends countless hours diving into the lives of each woman she re-enacts, feeling drawn to the woman’s story. “I felt like Anne Spencer Lindbergh, the wife of Charles Lindbergh, never got proper attention, but that she deserved to be heard. On the other hand, I once planned to do Coco Chanel, until I learned how she helped the Nazis during WWII. It upset me to the point that I decided not to do her after all.”
As a 40-year, tenured Political Science teacher at the University of Central Oklahoma, Shari strives to provide both entertainment and education as accurately as possible. Even Shari’s costumes are carefully researched. When she noticed that the pockets on her Susan B. Anthony suffragette costume had visible zippers, she wondered when zippers were invented. When she discovered they weren’t common until after their introduction at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, it was doubtful Susan B. Anthony wore them, so Shari changed her costume.
Her efforts at accuracy often pay off, and Shari is frequently surprised when audiences forget that she isn’t actually the person she is portraying, which includes Martha Washington, Alice Roosevelt, Kate Barnard, Sonia Sotomayor, Lauren Bacall and more.
“I always end on a happy note, but the life of holocaust-survivor, Gerda Weissman Klein, is haunting. She nearly died in a labor camp, marched barefoot in the snow, and experienced horrible things. I was performing Gerda for a group when two women in the front row started crying, one sobbing to the point that I nearly stopped. When I finished, these women jumped up to hug me, their clothes soaked with tears. One pulled up her sleeve and showed me the prison numbers tattooed on her arm, evidence that they were holocaust survivors.”
It was a moment Shari will never forget. “I never know what I might encounter, but I do want my audience to feel like they’ve been carried away to spend time in another era. Each of these characters has intrigued me, so I try to capture the essence of that woman for other people.”