For some, it might seem odd to see Benjamin Franklin using Zoom and Facebook, but for many it’s become the only way to salvage a livelihood.
B.J. Pryor has loved history ever since he was a student at William & Mary in 1974. He spent time teaching history to students and eventually became a historical interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg for 38 years.
Pryor decided two years ago to go out on his own and become a freelance historical interpreter specializing in Benjamin Franklin and runs the website Franklin Lives.
But the coronavirus pandemic cut his dream short just as he was starting to establish his reputation.
“People were starting to know me and I thought maybe I would start to get more work, but then the virus came and put an end to all of that,” he said. “No more school visits, museums or special events and there’s no change for the foreseeable future.”
Pryor said while the pandemic has been devastating to the field of historical interpretation overall, those who are freelance workers are struggling even more. Without the backing of an organization or company, Pryor only has himself to rely on for an income or support.
But even small businesses who specialize in historical interpretation are feeling the burden.
Lee Ann and Bill Rose own the local tour company Shades of Our Past and have a combined 50 years of historical interpretation experience between them. The small company was prepared for a busy season doing shows for Military Through the Ages and puppet shows at the Blackbeard Festival in Hampton.
But after the pandemic hit, the company was just left with a list of canceled events and a huge hole in profits. While the pair has tried to come up with creative solutions for the problem, such as Facebook live events and Zoom experiences, it hasn’t been enough to make up for the loss.
Prior to the pandemic, the Roses were operating the company full-time and thriving daily in their passion. Now the couple has had to look for part time work at local shops to try and keep themselves going.
“It’s frightening to think after all the work we put into bringing up our small business,” Bill Rose said. “Now to see it blasted and have to go work for other people, it’s disheartening.”
In June, the company had started a new World War II tour in Yorktown to try and supplement some of the lost events, but Lee Ann Rose said even that effort has only had a meager response.
Both the Roses and Pryor believe the key to moving forward in this pandemic is becoming technologically savvy.
“It’s in flux,” Bill Rose said. “It all depends on whether or not we really start working towards adapting to the [pandemic] rather than running away from it.”
The Roses have started doing historical interpretation through video chat for some museums and Pryor has been trying to do the same with schools and local organizations. But for Pryor, the experience has still been a struggle.
Pryor said with schools starting virtually in the fall, many aren’t interested or don’t have it in their budgets to have historical interpreters perform through online platforms. While he has been offered to perform in-person at some museums that require hours of travel, many can only offer him a boxed lunch as payment.
“I feel bad because while I love what I do, I would like to have something coming in because, as people say, your labor is worth something,” Pryor said. “But on the other hand there’s so many people hurting right now and so many places where help is needed.”
While the Roses have been able to find more work through virtual platforms, it’s a struggle to provide the same quality of experience, they said. This problem arises because a huge aspect of historical interpretation is playing off the audience’s reactions and environment.
“Our primary interpretive tool is character interpretation,” Bill Rose said. “When you’re talking to a camera lens, you can’t read the audience to determine exactly where they want to go…at some point it becomes memorizing a script, which is something entirely different.”
The Roses and Pryor are continuing to find ways to make their historical interpretation work but it also makes them concerned for the future of their businesses. Without a steady income, Shades of Our Past might have to move back into a part time business for the couple and Pryor might not be able to continue working even after life returns to normal.
“It’s frustrating and makes me wonder if I’ll ever actually go back to it,” Pryor said. “Because things are so disrupted right now, it’s like a dancer who doesn’t dance for six months—it’s hard coming back.”
Learn more about Shades of Our Past and Pryor’s interpretations online.
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