PLEASANTON -- History lessons don't always come from wordy textbooks. For those seeking a more personal experience, the Museum on Main in January will launch a 10-month series of presentations by actors who portray historical figures and historians who are experts in their fields.
The annual Ed Kinney Speakers Series will feature actors portraying notable figures, including Mark Twain, King Henry VIII, Henry Ford, Donner Party survivor Margaret Breen and Albert Einstein. Other real-life speakers will include Seabiscuit historian Jani Buron, Civil War researcher Ernie Manzo, author Steve Minnear (who wrote about Tri-Valley military activity during World War II) and architectural expert and local historian Charles Huff.
"We like to have some variety," said Jennifer Amiel, the coordinator of the series and the museum's director of education. "If we had a particular topic each year, people would get bored."
Some of the speakers' presentations center around Pleasanton and Tri-Valley history, such as author Minnear's book about the military base and hospitals in Camp Parks and Camp Shoemaker, of Dublin, in the 1940s or Charles Huff's presentation about the architecture of historic downtown Pleasanton.
Other speakers were chosen based on the popularity of the performances of historical figures, Amiel said. While in early years, the series featured panels of speakers discussing specific topics, the lineup has shifted in the last three years toward mostly historic character performances, which have drawn the largest crowds.
One such performer is Frank Mullen, who will portray King Henry VIII for the June series event. Mullen participates in a particular style of performance called Humanities Chautauqua, a living-history presentation active in about 22 states in which scholars take on the personas of historical characters, deliver a monologue and answer questions, in character, from audience members.
Mullen began performing at Chautauqua events after he wrote a book about the Donner Party 30 years ago and was later asked to perform as a Donner Party member. He has channeled about 12 historic figures in Chautauqua performances.
It's important that the performer is an expert about the figure he or she portrays in order to be able to tell stories and answer audience questions, Mullen said.
"You get up and do a monologue and tell stories as the character -- it's not a resume -- you just get up and start talking as the character and tell them about the life conversationally," he explained.
It can often take about a year to prepare for performing one character.
"It's more than just a stage play," Mullen said. "It's supposed to be educational to learn more about the character and identify [with him]."
The speaker series has already generated a lot of interest for the character performances, Amiel said, and much of it is from families who are seeking a fun way to educate their children about history.
Last year, some shows were so popular that they sold out, including the Mark Twain performance that will kick off this year's series.
"We're seeing a lot of people who have discovered the series and are coming for all the shows," Amiel said. "Some families have started to figure out that this is a way to introduce their children to history. You're not just learning about physics -- you're watching Albert Einstein on stage."
All events are general seating at the Firehouse Arts Center, 4444 Railroad Ave. in Pleasanton. Tickets are $10, $7 for seniors, $5 for members and $3 for students and teachers with identification. Tickets may be bought at Museum on Main between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday or call the museum at 925-462-2766.