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The Birth of Living History

Character interpretation, now a Historic Area mainstay, was once a foreign — and frightening — concept

Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area guests now expect to run into people from the past. These interpreters take on the role of anyone from George Washington or Thomas Jefferson to the enslaved preacher Gowan Pamphlet or the Virginia Gazette printer Clementina Rind. For many guests, these interactions are the highlights of the visit.

In the late 1970s, though, when Colonial Williamsburg’s historians began to consider first-person interpretation, the idea seemed revolutionary and fraught with risks.

The idea grew out of a Colonial Williamsburg Foundation curriculum committee formed in 1977 and chaired by Cary Carson, then director of research. Historians wanted to translate their new research on social history — history that focused not just on the famous Founders but on people of all classes, races and genders — into programs that would bring alive a range of stories. One way to do so was through what at first was called “role playing.”

“Here was an organization that had been in business for 50 years,” Carson recalled. “It was pretty clear that it was ready for something new.”

“Change was afoot,” agreed Dennis O’Toole, who left the National Portrait Gallery to become Colonial Williamsburg’s director of group visits and educational programs and later became vice president of Historic Area programs and operations. The Portrait Gallery had been experimenting with role playing, O’Toole recalled, “as a way of making a room of not necessarily interesting portraits come to life.” Historic Area Vice President Peter Brown got behind the initiative.

Among those Carson recruited was Shomer Zwelling, a historian whose job was to build bridges between the research department and interpreters, and to find ways to present to the public both the new social history and new styles of presentation. Zwelling saw an opportunity to do so when, in 1978, Colonial Williamsburg contracted with actor Harvey Credle, who proposed adding some skits to the programming in the Historic Area.

Credle had already portrayed a Scottish officer at the Moore House at Yorktown and had also developed a play about Thomas Nelson that was performed at the Nelson House at Yorktown. And in 1976, for the bicentennial, Credle had read the Declaration of Independence from the Courthouse steps in Williamsburg.

Credle and Zwelling crafted five characters from various walks of life.

During the summer of 1978, the first scene hit the streets of Williamsburg. It featured Credle, who played a runaway indentured servant named Andrew Kelly. After he was captured, the drunken Kelly was thrown in the pillory from which he interacted with visitors.

Other characters were soon introduced, including a gardener at the Governor’s Palace, a militia officer who rounded up visitors to join in a military muster and an officer of the court who sold off a debtor’s property. Guests could buy the goods, which came from Colonial Williamsburg stores.

Credle and the historians continued to revise the scripts throughout the summer and Credle often improvised in response to guests’ questions and comments.

“If you limit the scope of knowledge of the character, you can become an expert in a short period of time,” Credle said. “The power of theatrical living history is the encounter with the attitudes, ideas and opinions of the character.”

One scene envisioned for the first summer never happened. Zwelling and Credle had prepared a vignette involving a white master searching for a runaway slave. The master was to confront various African American interpreters and tradespeople in the Historic Area, and they would pretend to know nothing of the runaway’s whereabouts. But the premise made some of the African American interpreters uncomfortable. The idea of interpreting slavery would wait another year.

In 1979, the Foundation hired six actors for the summer with Credle as artistic director. Jo Spiller played Annie Shields, who owned a tavern in Williamsburg. Cameron Andrews was a grave digger in the cemetery at Bruton Parish. Mike Levick was a gentleman walking about the town.

But the programmers and executives were still eager to represent the half of the town’s population that was black. That same year Colonial Williamsburg also added Monty Cones as an enslaved woman who belonged to Henry Wetherburn, Darin Taylor as an enslaved man hired out from a plantation to learn the trade of coopering, and Rex Ellis as the enslaved preacher Gowan Pamphlet.

“The story we felt needed to be told concerned people who had been left out of history for the most part,” Carson said. “It was then, as it continues to be still, a history that includes women and blacks and children. They needed to be included because they were part of what made their communities in the past work, just as we all, to one degree or another, are part of what makes our communities and our society work, or not work.”

There were practical as well as philosophical reasons for portraying little-known people along with famous ones like Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson. “It’s hard to get somebody to look exactly like a famous character,” Credle said. “And if you get into questions and answers, unless you’re a well-learned historian you’re not going to be able to answer those questions and you break the vision.”

Only gradually did Colonial Williamsburg make the commitment to prepare interpreters with extensive training and study.

Credle did play some famous people, including Henry and Lord Botetourt, the royal governor, but he knew enough not to ad lib. “I would make a speech and disappear,” he said.

Even though the first-person interpreters were generally portraying people who weren’t famous, they were often able to bring up well-known figures. Steve Holloway, who was hired in 1981, played John Connolly, whose landlady was Martha Washington, and Connolly was not above gossiping about her to visitors. “People love gossip,” Holloway said. “That hooks them right in.” Holloway also portrayed the valet of Lord Botetourt in programming that took place after the Governor’s Palace was refurbished and reinterpreted in 1981.

Portraying enslaved people remained a sensitive issue and many black employees were reluctant to take on these roles. While Colonial Williamsburg had hired African Americans as, for example, tradesmen or scullery maids or carriage drivers, they were expected to show how those jobs were done by people who happened to be black.

“There was no expectation or desire on the part of those who were hired that they would talk about being enslaved,” said Ellis, who ultimately became a Colonial Williamsburg vice president in charge of the Historic Area. “After all, they were third-person staff people who were sharing their knowledge of a trade rather than their knowledge of the people.”

Many thought it was humiliating to portray enslaved people. “Even if you have the most upstanding African American or black citizen of the 18th century, you were still a slave,” Ellis said. “Even in my best dress, I didn’t look as good as a militia man or a fife and drummer or anyone who was white.”

Ellis recalled that the African American interpreters were subjected to hurtful comments that made those early years “very difficult years for those of us who worked there because we did not have a training program that helped us deal with the unkind things that visitors were saying.”

The African American actors chose therefore to break character and introduce themselves as actors, a practice ultimately abandoned as audiences came to understand what was going on.

Ellis noted that the African American interpreters spent a great deal of time researching their characters, both from sources provided by historians and on their own. “We were painfully aware that accuracy and authenticity were our only defense against career third-person interpreters, as well as visitors, who questioned our legitimacy, our professionalism and our dedication to doing the best job possible under extremely difficult, and at times, very emasculating circumstances,” he said.

African American employees weren’t the only ones to resist first-person interpretations. “It was still the era of the famous hostess with the big wide skirts,” Carson said. After one of Carson’s presentations to the staff, he was approached by one employee who remarked that “we have seen directors come, and we have seen directors go,” implying Carson — and first-person interpretation — would not last.

Some employees were concerned about actors with a limited knowledge of history taking on these roles. Mary Wiseman, who worked closely with Credle from the program’s start and who became manager of character interpretation and then artistic director for character interpretation, was herself an interpreter. She brought to her role a studied approach to the period’s history and to the characters she played. Wiseman coined the term “character interpreters.”

“I gave them that name because I wanted so much to influence Harvey and influence others with the fact that we were now getting people like myself who were interpreters,” Wiseman recalled. “I was still trying to bridge that gulf between the interpreters and the actors, and I wanted everyone to see that we knew our history.”

Among the people Wiseman portrayed were Martha Washington and tavernkeeper Christiana Campbell. “I’m very proud of that method of really knowing a character so that you didn’t need a script,” Wiseman said.

In general, visitors were excited about the new forms of interpretation. “Museum storytelling is theater,” Carson said. “It’s unlike stage theater because the audience wanders around on the stage and mingles with the performer-presenters. Furthermore, the play unfolds differently for each and every visitor.”

The first-person interpretation was in its early years a small program, at least compared with what guests encounter today. “We didn’t intend to make a big initial splash,” Zwelling said. “With pilot programs like this one, the initial investment is relatively small and manageable, but the opportunities for growth and transformation can be immense.”

During its first five years, the program grew from one actor to close to 20 and added re-creations of historic events and 18th-century plays.

“If you can stay flexible while you’re being humbled, you can eventually make significant changes,” Zwelling said.

Over the past 40 years, how and what Colonial Williamsburg interprets in the Historic Area have evolved. “As areas of historical research have developed, we seek to incorporate these new ways of understanding the past into our interpretations,” said Peter Inker, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of historical research and digital history.

“No matter how it is interpreted, however, our goals are the same as in the beginning — to reflect the diversity of people and opinion of our shared past, and to be true to the stories of all the people of Williamsburg’s history, wherever they were in America’s story,” Inker added.

Colonial Williamsburg’s “Nation Builders” programming, as well as other first-person interpretation, evolved from an experiment that began 40 years ago. Among today’s Nation Builders is George Washington as a young man, here portrayed by Daniel Cross. (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

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