WILLIAMSBURG Actors present street theater
Directors of other sites suffering from dropping attendance will be watching.
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (AP) -- Until now, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg have been able to stroll the streets of Virginia's restored 18th-century capital for free at all times, needing tickets only to enter trade shops and historic buildings or watch special performances.
Since March 20, though, an area about the size of a city block has been closed to the public for two hours each afternoon for "Revolutionary City" -- a program officials hope will jump-start annual paid attendance, which has fallen by a half-million since the 1980s.
This new piece of street theater, with costumed actor-interpreters bringing to life key events during the American Revolution, will be open only to those who pay admission or have IDs from the nearby College of William and Mary.
Colonial Williamsburg is trying to attract more paying visitors while staying true to its mission -- "that the future may learn from the past," said Colin G. Campbell, president of the private, nonprofit Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which operates the 301-acre living history museum.
"Among our goals is to make it fun ... make it more engaging," Campbell said.
Tim Beggans, who watched a dress rehearsal with his wife and 8- and 10-year-old daughters, said Colonial Williamsburg has succeeded.
"I love it. This is much better than when I went here as a kid," said Beggans, 40, of Keller, Texas.
"This got them inside the period," he said of daughters Briana and Samantha, who dressed up in Colonial gowns. "They felt like they were part of the show."
What's behind this
Colonial Williamsburg officials have put blame for declining attendance in part on less focus on Colonial history in schools. Annual paid attendance fell from about 1.2 million in 1988 to 710,457 in 2005.
Colonial Williamsburg's research found that visitors to historic sites want to make emotional connections, find relevance to contemporary life and have interactive experiences that appeal to adults and children, Campbell said.
"Revolutionary City" is a dramatic departure for Colonial Williamsburg, where costumed workers had led educational programs. Now they're performing a play, improvising a bit as they walk among the audience, asking observers whether they want to break free from England and encouraging people to shout "Huzzah," a Colonial cheer.
The 35 actors portray real people who lived in Williamsburg, from a haughty Lord Dunmore, the British royal governor who announces that he has dismissed the Colony's House of Burgesses, to a slave named Hannah who tells the crowd she can't understand how people can talk of liberty when her master took her 11-year-old son from her.
In another first, the performers wear microphones to amplify their voices above the crowd.
"We want the action to surround our guests so there's no place they can escape" as the stories unfold, said Rex Ellis, vice president of Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area, where the program takes place.
This is the first time Colonial Williamsburg is focusing on the Revolution, Ellis said. Until now, it has primarily interpreted the period leading up to the war.
How it's set up
"Revolutionary City" actually is a two-day program. Day One focuses on 1774 to 1776, finishing with a performance by fifers and drummers as the British flag is taken down from the capitol building because Virginia has declared independence from England.
Day Two runs from 1776 to 1781, ending with George Washington leaving Williamsburg to confront the British at nearby Yorktown.
Each program has three major scenes, such as a horseman riding down Duke of Gloucester Street and stopping in front of a tavern to share news of the Revolution's first battle. "Blood has been shed in Massachusetts!" he shouts.
Smaller scenes also play out around the enclosed area. An unemployed carpenter mulls whether to enlist in the Colonial army to provide much-needed money for his hungry family. A loyalist mother and her patriot daughter argue about the pending war. Slaves meet in secret to discuss a British proclamation freeing slaves, but only if their masters are rebels.
Chip Lenkiewicz, 47, of Fairfax said there's so much to see that he plans to return to Colonial Williamsburg soon to catch some of the scenes he missed.
"I call this Disney World for the mind," Lenkiewicz said.
Jim Golden, director of economic development at William and Mary, said "Revolutionary City" could have a big impact on tourism in the area, where Colonial Williamsburg is a major economic driver.
"It's well worth the try," Golden said. "It's really important that they be able to generate more excitement about the place."
Other living history sites, also battling falling attendance, will be watching to see how "Revolutionary City" fares, said Lynne Belluscio, president of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums.
"Colonial Williamsburg is saying 'living history is still a viable thing for people, especially in today's world,' " Belluscio said. "I'm really pleased that they're going in that direction instead of saying "We're going to have to close buildings.'"
XCOLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG: Midway between Richmond and Norfolk on Interstate 64; www.history.org or (800) 447-8679. Open year-round; times vary. Several admission options available, including one-day ticket, $34 for adults, $15 for ages 6-17; and yearly "Freedom Pass," $59 for adults, $29 for ages 6-17.
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