WILLIAMSBURG — As a crowd began to form on the street outside Colonial Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern, they were greeted by everyday people telling stories of the impending war.
A shout echoed across the street and, in an instant, the crowd was sent back in time to 1775 as the street suddenly filled with people milling about in the square.
A man, angered by events in Lexington and Concord, expressed fears that Virginian sovereignty was in jeopardy. A row erupted over Britain’s intentions and the growing tension towards revolution.
Almost daily, Colonial Williamsburg’s street theater program, Intersections, offers visitors the chance to step back in time and get a glimpse of what things might have been like for ordinary people in the city.
The program is the first of its kind, offering both performers and visitors a unique experience, according to Katrinah Lewis, Artistic Director of the Performer Actor Unit. For the performers, they embody the merchants, doctors, parents and common people of the time and show how they felt about the nation’s early events.
For visitors, Intersections offers a better understanding of the city’s complex history and multiple perspectives and how they co-existed together.
“When you come to Intersections, you don’t meet famous people, you meet people like you and me, people who actually lived here,” Lewis said. “That’s where we can walk the line of something that’s irresistible and entertaining to people. The task is always to humanize. This is what makes it appealing to people. We are talking about a time that set our history in motion.
With nearly 20 cast members overall, the program hosts two shows alternating five days a week. One show, set in 1775, highlights the thoughts and feelings of the citizens of Williamsburg after the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
Lexington and Concord – coined the gunshot heard around the world – is seen as the start of the American Revolutionary War in which hundreds of British soldiers marched from Boston to Concord in order to seize weapons . In Williamsburg, tensions were high as its own powder keg had been seized days earlier.
The second show, set in 1780, follows the lives of two slaves and how their lives could be altered following the move of the state capital from Williamsburg to Richmond.
The shows embody the essence of street theater in a historical context, featuring both live first-person re-enactments and impromptu conversations in the crowd.
For interpreter Michelle Smith, the main cast member of the lineup who plays Ann Blair, a Loyalist sympathizer of the 1775 show, Intersections allows visitors to Colonial Williamsburg to dive deeper into history with the chance to ask questions. Questions.
Although part of the show is scripted, much of it is improvised as they meet the audience, Smith said.
“I had done improv before working here, but not in this context. It requires you to be so grounded in a world that has to be precise,” Smith said. “Here you have to make sure that everything that comes out of your mouth is based on research. I could go out and play, but I have to play in the bumpers of the story.
It’s a difficult feat made possible through extensive research. Everyone highlighted in the show lived and existed during the period. One of the main aims of the program was to shine a light on people who may not have entered the history books, but who were affected by the events.
Although some roles are assigned, actors often find their own people through research. While they dig deep into diaries, historical documents and writings, if someone stands out and talks to them, then more often than not they’re fair game, Lewis said.
In order to be able to answer questions from the audience, each actor must know enough about their character and the history of the time to better portray their people.
“That’s what makes this so unique,” Lewis said. “We’re creating theater about people who were actually living in that space at that time, and I think that connects us to our history in a really visceral way. People don’t know these people, but they come here and engage with them and see stories built around them. We put ourselves in their shoes, we wear their clothes and we imagine what they might have thought and felt, going out and giving guests an experience.
In 2019, the foundation began planning its return to street theater after seeing the need to “live the streets” after Revolutionary City, its previous street theater program, closed, Smith said.
According to Lewis, the ensemble began researching potential shows with plans to open the new Intersections program in April 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the foundation closed the living museum to visitors.
Once reopened, the program has been postponed to ensure the safety of visitors. Now that restrictions have been lifted as COVID cases have plummeted, the foundation has made the decision to launch the program this month.
The program is expected to run for the rest of the year, with a break for the winter, with plans to launch new shows in the future.
After her debut, Smith said the audience response was better than anyone could have imagined.
“There’s this cool thing that happens in more traditional theater and [we get that in] what we’re doing here, where you hear the audience enjoying and you feel them enjoying, or you get that kind of inclination feeling,” Smith said. “When you’re in the rehearsal room, you’re like, ‘Is that right?’ and then hearing it come back to you in a positive way is really nice.
For more information, visit colonialwilliamsburg.org.