WILLIAMSBURG — For years, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg (CW) have flocked to experience an authentic witch trial and participate in deciding the fate of a Virginia “Witch” – is she guilty or innocent?
CW’s courtroom dramatic program, “Cry Witch,” has attracted audiences since the late 1980s with its immersive and interactive retelling of the 1706 witch trial of Grace Sherwood.
“Over the past few months, I’ve been getting a ton of emails about when ‘Cry Witch’ is coming back,” CW’s Director of Entertainment Robert Currie said. “It’s a tremendously popular program and it’s a legacy program. People who visited and experienced ‘Cry Witch’ 20 years ago will come and and want to see it with their kids.”
The program was written and, for many years, directed by Carson Hudson, based on his research on witchcraft in Colonial Virginia.
The demand for performances of “Cry Witch” became so great that by 2000, the program was moved to the former Williamsburg Lodge’s theatre, which sat around 400 people.
Its most successful venue, however, was in the Capitol General Court, where Grace’s trial would have originally taken place.
While the pandemic delayed the program’s return in 2020, audiences can now experience the dramatized trial on the Charlton Stage; the program’s first time ever being performed in an outdoor venue.
Abigail Schumann, who first joined the show’s cast in the late 1980s, is now directing the program.
“It’s very immersive, especially when you’re in the Capitol, but that will convey also through the Charlton Stage, because people get to question the witnesses,” Schumann said. “The audience is part of the procedure and they get to interact with the cast, and they are actually the ones who decide the fate. There are ultimate endings whether she is guilty or innocent and that is totally in the hands of the audience.”
Schumann said that the biggest challenge is for each cast member be as authentic to their character as possible in order to allow audience members to judge the trial as if they were on a modern jury.
“You’re guided from the beginning to participate as if it’s truly the 18th century,” she said.
After all these years, what still makes “Cry Witch” such a popular program for CW patrons?
“I think it’s just the whole popular fascination with witches and witch craft and to know that this is an actual historical account,” Schumann said.
While historians presume that Grace stood trial and was found guilty in Williamsburg, the records of her actual trial in colonial capital have disappeared.
Pre-pandemic, CW’s trial programs ran seven nights a week; a model that Currie hopes to return to by spring 2022.
“We do plan to have trials return to the Capitol in November, so if you do want to see ‘Cry Witch’ in an outdoor setting in the historic area in the darkness of night, now is the time to do that,” he said.
Schumann said that she looks forward to having audiences experience the show outdoors, but said that nothing else about the program has substantially changed over the years, thanks to Hudson’s timeless script.
“It’s just a really good script,” she said. “It’s a fascinating story, but without a good script it would not have this longevity.
To purchase tickets to “Cry Witch,” visit CW’s website.