Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Colonial Williamsburg’s Washington, Jefferson, Madison Actors Humanize Historical Figures in Today’s World

Ahead of CW’s Presidents Day weekend program, the three Actor-Interpreters who portray George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison discuss bringing historical figures to life in today’s political landscape. (Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

WILLIAMSBURG — There are not too many places where one is given the opportunity to converse with people who lived hundreds of years ago.

Ron Carnegie, Kurt Smith and Bryan Austin are Actor-Interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg (CW), who portray Founding Fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison respectively.

The three are tasked with the heavy responsibility of portraying well-documented people and humanizing them to visitors.

“There’s something very fascinating that can happen when you see someone living and breathing in front of you saying real words, and suddenly the humanity seeps back in and we begin to see them for who they were, all of their faults and their hopes,” Smith said. “I think the ability to present these people as humans can’t be found in books. And that’s a powerful part of what we do.” 

Now, the Actor-Interpreters are preparing to take part in “An Evening with the Presidents,” a special program at CW over President’s Day weekend, where the three will sit down in-character with Barbara Hamm Lee to discuss, “how their administrations navigated party, faction, and the extensive differences that challenged America during their times.”

This year, the event will be held both in-person on Saturday, Feb. 19 and Sunday, Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. at the Hennage Auditorium in CW, as well as in a virtual livestream on Sunday.

The program will be unscripted and will include a portion where they will take questions from the public.

“Because it’s never scripted, you’re never going to get the same program twice,” Austin said. “There’s definitely going to be humor, there’s going to be provocative ideas. But I think at its core, there’s also going to be inspiring hope through the course of it.”

To be able to interact as the persons in which they are portraying would have, the job demands extensive research.

Each one of the actors had a different pathway to their current jobs.

Carnegie, who has worked at CW for 26 years, was asked to play George Washington around ten years into his tenure with the museum. He was given about a year’s time to research and prepare for the role.

Meanwhile, Austin is coming up on his tenth year at CW, where he started out as an orientation interpreter before auditioning for the core ensemble of interpreters who play multiple characters.

Actor-Interpreter Kurt Smith portrays Thomas Jefferson. (Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

The role of James Madison was chosen for Austin, and, from then, he successfully lobbied to have Madison become a more featured presence at CW.

“I started when I was 25, which was the age Madison was when he came to Williamsburg,” Austin said. “He and I have kind of aged together.”

Smith was living in New York when he came to audition for Thomas Jefferson’s younger self. His audition process included a conversation with Bill Barker, the older Jefferson interpreter.

After getting the part, he was given around six months to study Jefferson.

Not only do the three Actor-Interpreters have the challenge of bringing these historical figures to life, but they also strive to make them relatable to visitors.

“I think bringing people from the past to life is one of the most effective ways of teaching history and reminding people that these people of the past are just humans,” Carnegie said. “They have their own biases, their own challenges, their own strengths and weaknesses. And I think it makes history a lot more interesting, and they don’t know where the story ends and where they’re going. They’re just trying to find what their role is in it and do the best they can.”

“We get to put on this mask and use it as a vehicle to teach,” Austin added. “We get to tell history the way history was originally designed, which was through story. We get to be storytellers.”

Smith noted another element that the Actor-Interpreters bring that might not be on the forefront of guests’ minds.

“I think we teach civil debate on a daily basis,” he said. “And that’s, I think, a lesson that we can all learn again and again, especially today, that a difference of opinion is healthy, but we should be careful in how we can present that difference of opinion.”

This is something that the actors have to keep in mind, as the three presidents each dealt with a politically contentious landscape, not unlike the current political landscape.

“All three of the men that we represent were very much aware that our country was an experiment,” Carnegie said. “They didn’t know if it was going to work or wasn’t going to work, they didn’t know where they were going, and what direction they were leading. That’s still just as true today. So I think what we do in some ways is more important than it’s been in the past, as our country finds these challenges in front of us.”

“People are talking about the same things that we each three were talking about in 1796, or 1784, or in 1776,” Smith added. “We don’t have to reach far to make this stuff relevant. It’s relevant on the surface. And I think that can be a challenge, because I believe there are probably some audiences who might walk away from a performance and say ‘They were talking about 2021 or 2022,’ when the truth is, we were talking about 1796 and 1784 and 1776.”

For the Actor-Interpreters, some topics are easier to discuss in-character than others.

Actor-Interpreter Bryan Austin portrays James Madison. (Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

“You’ll get frequently asked, ‘What do you think Washington would think of the way government works today?’ Well there’s no way to address that without going through my filter,” Carnegie said. “So to even guess what Washington would think, it’s going to be what i think.”

“But something like COVID[-19] is a little easier with Washington,” he added. “Because Washington required an inoculation for an entire army to protect against an illness. I don’t think he’d have any trouble with any of the actions that we’re taking regarding COVID[-19].”

Austin noted that when talking about the pandemic, they dive into the philosophy of how society responded to the opinion of safety.

“Germ theory was not known in their time,” he said. “They knew to avoid cities because that was where disease spread. But the taking of precautions against illness, and especially the embrace of the scientific method, was something that their particular age was really excelling in.”

Smith said that he is confident in what Jefferson’s viewpoint would be.

“Jefferson was very clearly on the side of science. He was the one that discovered that keeping the smallpox vaccine cold would keep it viable longer,” he said. “Were he around today, I can pretty firmly stand on what side he would fall on.”

The three expect topics like this to be brought up during “Evening with the Presidents,” which is more accessible this year due to the livestream component.

“It opens it to people who have never had the chance to see it,” Carnegie said. “And now you don’t even need to be in the state or the country.”

While Saturday and Sundays’s live performances have already sold out, the livestream option on Sunday is still open.

“What we offer is unique and extraordinary, but what we offer on that stage is only a small piece of the puzzle that can be offered at Colonial Williamsburg,” Smith said. “We all know we portray three white wealthy men, and we can only speak from that perspective. But if you’re interested in a deeper story, then the answer is come to CW and listen to those stories.”

CW’s free, virtual programs also ramped up over the course of the pandemic.

“What a great democratization of knowledge to be able to log in any time you want and watch our plethora of livestreams through multiple perspectives,” Smith added.

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