Why do people stare at Natalie Zanin? Maybe it’s the hoop skirt and bonnet. Or maybe it’s because she often runs down Tenth Street Northwest alerting passersby that President Abraham Lincoln has just been shot.
Zanin is founder of Historic Strolls, a theater troupe that performs a variety of interactive historical tours throughout Washington, D.C. On Saturday, the group will stage its monthly production of “Courage! The Civil War in Washington,” a 90-minute glimpse of life in the nation’s capital between 1860 and 1865, featuring a chronological tour of Civil War-era structures. With regular appearances by contemporary figures such as Clara Barton, Matthew Brady and Walt Whitman, Zanin and her fellow actors — each decked out in period garb — bring the past to life with personal anecdotes and obscure trivia.
“I’m just fascinated with stories,” said Zanin, a self-described history buff who recently finished the script for a new World War II tour, scheduled to debut June 19. “I really enjoy creating vignettes from the past and showing people little, different slices of Washington history.”
Performed the first Saturday of every month until December, Zanin’s Civil War stroll includes stops at what was the studio of war photographer Brady, the Barton home, the city’s first post office and the original City Hall. The tour concludes at the Petersen House, the rooming house where Lincoln died after being fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre across the street. “People have told me they’re very moved by that part,” Zanin said. “When I tell that story I just always well up with tears. I can’t help it.”
To keep things fresh from tour to tour, Zanin said she and her crew of actors make slight changes to the script, alternating historical characters — “You just never know who you are going to meet,” she said. For example, on this weekend’s tour, she revealed, participants will encounter Ulysses S. Grant, Helen Wright and John Wilkes Booth.
For Zanin, who will don a hoop skirt in her fictional role as narrator Demetria Parish, acting is only half the fun. “I love the research part of it. I love just spending hours cracking the books and finding obscure facts.” In the past, Zanin’s expertise has landed her a spot on the History Channel to discuss ghosts in Washington, a topic she will revisit this week for the Travel Channel.
Zanin said she tries to weave into the script amusing obscurities and little-known facts that listeners might find interesting. Barton, one of Zanin’s favorite characters, is a good example. While most people are familiar with Barton’s reputation as the founder of the Red Cross, few are aware that she also founded the first missing soldier’s office after the war, in addition to later becoming the first female government employee to receive pay equal to a man’s during her tenure as a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office. “It’s pretty amazing,” Zanin added.
In her role as Parish, Zanin said she purposefully composed a fictional narrator from the diary entries of several different people. “I wanted to be anonymous,” she explained. “If you’re anonymous, you can talk about your life.”
Aside from the “Courage!” tour, the troupe’s repertoire includes “Bad Olde Days,” a “Gangs of New York”-themed look at late-19th century gang life in the area; “Ah Wilderness!,” a history of theater in the city; and seasonal productions of “Ghost Story” in October, followed by “Charles Dickens in Washington” during the winter.
“I block out these tours in my head,” Zanin said. “I walk through town and I have all this research that I’ve done and then I match it to sites. I write a script for the actors, give them lines and we rehearse it a couple times. Then we throw it out there.”
A former Historical Society of Washington employee, Zanin began acting in community theater productions on the weekends and now multi-tasks as writer, director and producer of the troupe she formed in 2002 after leading tours and programs for children at the society’s Heurich House. “It was going to be part time, but it’s really kind of taken over,” said Zanin, who operates Historic Strolls out of her home in Silver Spring, Md.
According to Zanin, the size of a tour group typically ranges from 10 to 20, while chartered tours tend to run larger. The scripts are written to include interaction between characters and audience members, ranging from trivia questions to scavenger hunts. Zanin added that she is always sure to bring chocolate for the kids and a popular recipe from the time for parents.
During its two years of existence, the Historic Strolls troupe has encountered everything from inclement weather and freezing temperatures to being mistaken for protestors. Alice Anne English, a local actress who has appeared in the Civil War tour as newspaper reporter Jane Swisshelm and surgeon Mary Edwards Walker, said the period costumes have precipitated several embarrassing moments.
“Everyone assumes we are city-sponsored tour guides. People come up and ask us for directions,” said English, who recalled her cell phone going off during a performance and having a bystander mistake her for a man in women’s clothing. “I must have looked very strange,” she laughed.
“The worst is when we’ve had to get on the Metro,” Zanin said. “You get two reactions — one is, people stare. The other one is, people look and then they quickly turn away and are just like, ‘Oh my God.’”
Although Historic Strolls is a for-profit business, Zanin sets aside part of the proceeds from each tour for various nonprofit organizations, an idea that she said came to her after staring at a jar of Paul Newman’s Marinara Sauce. “It’s not like a huge sum of money,” she said. “But it was really cool to go and hand a check to the Red Cross.” Proceeds from Saturday’s tour will be donated to the Arlington Chapter of the Red Cross.
English agreed that the tours may not be lucrative, but said, “It’s just kind of fun to get people out of their own cocoon.”
Zanin said her family is getting used to her unusual job. “My husband was an actor when I met him so he’s very understanding about it.” As for her 4-year-old son, “Every week he’ll say to me, ‘Mommy, who are you this week?’”
When asked if she had any new tours in the works, Zanin immediately replied, “Oh yes. But it’s top secret.”
Tickets for this Saturday’s “Civil War in Washington” tour are $12 for adults and $6 for children. Visit www.historicstrolls.com or call (301) 588-9255 for more information.