Performing a nation’s history

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March 21, 2008

4:40 PM

For most students at the College, the periodic colonial reenactor sighting in Wawa is enough to satisfy any anachronistic urges.
The historical setting that unfolds as they walk down Duke of Gloucester Street is simply a quaint attraction to visit. As such, if one asked a student about Colonial Williamsburg’s interactive Revolutionary City, chances are he wouldn’t have anything to say.

p. For those who are unaware, Revolutionary City is a daily program that runs from 3 to 5 p.m, with each two-hour performance featuring a series of vignettes throughout Colonial Williamsburg that, together, help to tell the tale of how the American colonies earned independence from Great Britain.
The performance is a bit of a departure from Colonial Williamsburg’s normal interactive style.

p. “Most of what Revolutionary City is are scripted performances,” Colonial Williamsburg Historian Kevin Kelly said, although visitors can also interact with secondary characters who ad lib responses based on their knowledge of the period.

p. Another unfamiliar element of Revolutionary City is that, like a stage production, the movements of the primary characters are all choreographed.

p. “We’ve used scripting and blocking to make it more dramatic,” Kelly said. “To do this, we had to take a few liberties in creating the dialogue, but the guests seem to like it.”

p. The numbers seem to support Kelly’s assertion. March 17 marked the beginning of Revolutionary City’s third season, and Kelly said that he estimated seeing 800 people during yesterday’s performance, a turnout he called typical for days with good weather.

p. The idea for Revolutionary City sprouted five years ago.
“The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation wanted to do something to look at larger issues, such as citizenship, in a historical setting,” Kelly said. “We wanted something that was more than just a civics class, and that showed actual people making choices and dealing with the consequences.”

p. The foundation formed a committee to lead the project, and it decided early to focus on the period beginning in 1774 and ending in 1776.

p. “A lot of things happened very quickly in that short period of time,” Kelly said. “It was like a rolling ball in that, once it got started, it moved rapidly.”

p. After a tremendous amount of research, interpretive training and rehearsal, the program was ready to be unveiled. It received positive reviews and, according to Colonial Williamsburg Spokesman Jim Bradley, the program has helped boost attendance in the historical area.

p. The program is broken up into three parts that can stand by themselves or be seen in successive days.

p. On Mondays, visitors will see “Building a Nation,” which features both recognizable and unrecognizable characters to demonstrate that everyday people were just as active in the pursuit of freedom as figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

p. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays feature “Collapse of the Royal Government.” This installment focuses on the events that occurred in Williamsburg as Virginian colonists began to assert their desire for independence.

p. The final installment, “Citizens at War,” is performed on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. This section begins with the reading of the Declaration of Independence to the citizens of Williamsburg in 1776 and ends with General George Washington’s address to his troops as he prepares to march to Yorktown in 1781.

p. “Our programming typically doesn’t extend beyond 1776,” Kelly said. “But we wanted a better story of what citizenship means. The fight for freedom did not just end when we declared our independence. There was a war that had to be won, and we wanted to incorporate that into the program.”

p. Kelly said he thinks the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has done well creating a program that is both engaging and educational. But he made clear that historical accuracy is his primary concern. He illustrated that fact by referencing a recent review of the HBO miniseries “John Adams” by Washington Post columnist Tom Shales. In his column, Shales referred to Colonial Williamsburg as an “amusement park.”

p. “Colonial Williamsburg is not an amusement park. It is an educational institution,” Kelly said. “Our job is to provide a relevant, engaging presentation of history. I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”

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