Producing history with accuracy

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November 21, 2008

1:12 AM

While Colonial Williamsburg buzzes with historical accuracy and dynamic reenactments, just across Lafayette Street, Colonial Williamsburg Productions thrives on the same energy with an added bonus: plus state-of-the-art equipment to share it with the nation through Emmy award-winning broadcasts. A steep bridge on Capitol Landing Drive divides historic Williamsburg from the Bruton Heights School where the studio is housed, but the company links history with technology to bring the past to life in classrooms across the country.

Using CW Productions, American students across the nation and abroad can easily visit Colonial Williamsburg through Electronic Field Trips. While technology brings Williamsburg closer to engaging students with virtual learning, an internship program with CW Productions brings students of the College of William and Mary nearer to their careers in film, history, English and education. From fact-checking during the research process to crowd control during filming, the varied academic focuses make College interns necessary in an educational film production company where historical accuracy is valued.

The company’s Electronic Field Trip series reaches more than 900 school districts and hundreds of homeschoolers, as well as military bases abroad. Aimed at grades four through eight, classes and students can call in with questions. In a live, in-studio segment, re-enactors such as Patriot and Loyalist generals from the battle of Yorktown engage in debate about the Revolution, offering multiple sides of the story.
“The acting can be pretty cheesy sometimes,” Erin Mearns ’09 said. An intern at CW Productions, Mearns remembers watching Electronic Field Trip broadcasts when she was younger.

For Mearns, though, CW Productions alleviates the manner in which American history can sometimes be taught. “So often you only see the American side of history,” she said. The most recent broadcast, “Yorktown,” featured the stories of Loyalist, Patriot, British, French, German and black soldiers and their families.

“The trouble with any educational show is to entertain while educating,” Associate Producer Steven Koernig ’08 said.

Participating schools pay a fee of $500 for the series or $120 for individual programs. The most recent broadcast, “Yorktown,” aired Nov. 13. “We are hoping to make it free eventually” Koernig said. “It’s education — we don’t want to limit it just to schools that can afford it.”

Though the field trips don’t require permission slips or even leaving the classroom, they are intensive and interactive. In addition to the live call-in, e-mail and video question-and-answer sessions, students can participate in games, polls and other interactive learning activities on the website. CW Productions got its unofficial start in the 1950s when a Hollywood crew visited Williamsburg for the filming of “Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot.” According to the Internet Movie Database, this 34-minute film has been shown daily in Colonial Williamsburg since its 1957 release. Today, much of the filming occurs on-location in historic Williamsburg, thanks to the company’s 38-foot satellite truck.

“We are actually a pretty odd production company” Koernig said. “We are the only museum with a production company, so we are very accurate about what we do.”

Its association with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation provides CW Productions with funding as well as easy access to historical accuracy. Its proximity to the College also helps, as student interns with interests in history, English, film and education bring skills long- perfected at Swem.

“A lot of people on staff are amateur if not professional historians. Everything we do is well-researched. That’s where the William and Mary interns come in,” Koernig said. “We really love the interns because we don’t have time but we have to be accurate. You learn how to research really well at William and Mary.”
Producer and Director of Operations for educational programs Frances Burroughs was first exposed to distance learning at the Medical College of Virginia. There, doctors participated in a live teleconference and could call in questions through toll-free telephone numbers.

About 15 years ago CW Productions became the first production company to employ educational outreach in the form of Electronic Field Trips; since then have earned four Emmy Awards and seven nominations. Their 55 programs employ the accuracy and attention to detail that the historic area and resources allow. According to Burroughs, the shows are “very curriculum-driven — we get in what schools need to teach.”

Student interns from the College aid in this attention to detail.

“We look for people who don’t mind doing menial stuff — but that’s important here,” Burroughs said. “The smallest things are important.”

“We look for students with a strong interest in history and education, because that is our central mission. We look for ways in which this learning experience will enhance their studies and prepare them for graduate school. They run the gamut of doing everything from crowd control to just yesterday talking to historians nationwide. We look at them as colleagues — we don’t think of them as gofers,” Lisa Huevel M.A. ’05, associate producer of education outreach productions, publications and learning ventures, who helps select and direct the interns, said.

This semester the interns include two history majors, a government and film studies double major and an English major — fitting, because the size of the production company necessitates well-rounded people.
“There’s a lot going on during broadcasts — a lot of people always in a hurry” Keornig said. “Because we are a small broadcast company, everyone has to wear a lot of hats. No matter what their role is, pretty much everyone knows how to do everything.”

Beyond fact checking and beta-testing, sometimes the interns’ inter-disciplinary learning experience involves surprises. History major Melanie Zucker ’10 recently realized a passion for material cultures preservation, particularly working with the collections department where artifacts, replicas and historical props are stored.

“We don’t know what’s in a lot of these boxes,” she said about the storage room, “It’s kind of like Christmas morning,” In particular, “We have found a surprising amount of fake food.”

Besides plastic grapes and dusty ceramics, Zucker said, “One of the coolest parts was during our first week, filming ‘The Will of the People’ doing crowd control. The tourists were all so nice and interested.”
Working on location in historic Williamsburg using actors as historical interpreters allows CW Productions to achieve a high level of accuracy. “Everyone who works here is an historian in their own right,” Koernig said. Many of the historical interpreters who act in the productions have researched their personas for more than a decade. “They know their characters inside and out, and can contribute subtle but accurate additions,” Koernig said.

Some of the actors’ fames extend nationally, and sometimes even outside the historical arena.
“I was working on updating IMDb, and it is so cool because you can click on actors in our shows and they are in, like ‘Austin Powers,’” Mearns said.

One of the CW Productions stars is relatively well-known outside of the local community.
“The guy that plays TJ is nationally known. It was pretty cool finding that out and then watching him during filming,” Zucker said.

As a link between campus opinions and working with re-enactors on set, Mearns has found that “there are a lot of misconceptions about historical interpreters. They devote their [lives] to learning about someone else’s and they know so much — you can read hundreds of books and not know as much as they do.”
The upcoming Dec. 11 broadcast, “Making History Live,” will feature a behind-the-scenes look at character portrayals in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. With a focus on Black interpreters, the show will explore the research and techniques that go into the recreation of historical personas.

Interns from the College offer different focuses and capabilities all essential to the educational outreach that CW Productions offers. Their diverse responsibilities are all relevant to the mission of the studio, enhancing their potential futures in film and television production, historical material cultures preservation and education.

“For me as an educator, what we do here is so critical to the next generation of students — to understand the meaning of citizenship and democracy,” Heuvel said. “The future really can learn from the past. From what I’ve seen, the interns come to believe this too.”

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