“We get that this is a weird job,” says Nicole Brown, who portrays Hannah Powell on the streets of Williamsburg. She and her colleagues know all too well that speaking to someone who is “living” in the 18th century is outside the comfort zone for many people. Which is why I asked a group of our talented folks to tell me what advice they would offer guests who may be reluctant to engage the living part of this historic town.
Here’s what they told me, more or less in their own words…
#1 Embrace the unknown
The past is another country. Like any foreign land you might travel to, it’s natural to have some assumptions about what it’s like. In the case of Colonial Williamsburg, your assumptions may come from your high school history class, or what you heard from a friend who has visited. We encourage you to bring your natural curiosity and be prepared to enlarge or revise your thinking.
#2 Put the screen down
It’s hard to immerse yourself in the 18th century if there is a screen between you and an interpreter. Don’t let yourself get distracted taking photos or texting. There will be plenty of opportunities to pull your phone or camera, but you’ll have more fun if you set it aside for at least a little bit.
Remember, we’re not just models for vacation pictures, we want to talk to you.
#3 Start a conversation on the right foot
Begin a conversation just like you would with any stranger: exchange some small talk. Share some pleasantries. Just say Good Day, ask how they are doing, or where they are from. Comment on the weather.
Pick up some tips about how to speak like a colonial Virginian
Some guests hesitate, especially in potentially sensitive situations. Perhaps they wonder if an African American interpreter is portraying an enslaved person (after all, about half of the colonial capital’s residents in the 1700s were indeed enslaved). But you don’t need to address an African American interpreter any differently than one portraying a Cherokee or a future president.
Just say hello, and rather than ask, “Who are you supposed to be?” try something like, “What are you doing about the city today?”
Simply being polite goes a long way.
#4 Let your guard down
Let go of the present and go into the moment.
Colonial Williamsburg’s interpreters think of themselves as “playful scholars,” people who are deeply committed to conveying their passions to you. Every interpreter has different interests and expertise. Immerse yourself in the past, don’t worry about what is going to happen in the future.
Play the game by letting us be your guide. Bring your own perspective. Are you a visitor from the Ohio frontier in Williamsburg to do some trading? That’s fine. We’ll meet you wherever you want, and help you be whomever you want.
At the same time, we know this isn’t actually the 18th century, it’s a representation of it. We know they didn’t have street signs or credit card machines. We also know it smelled a lot, um, more.
#5 Ask us anything
We’re all afraid of feeling dumb sometimes. Even when your high school teachers insisted there are no dumb questions, you never really believed them, did you? Well, you can believe it here.
We know that many of our guests have little frame of reference for an 18th-century world, and that means that sometimes they have to take a risk to make a connection.
But we know that you’re calling up whatever frame of reference you have and trying to make connections. And we appreciate it! So start with something simple, and work your way toward deeper questions.
Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions, either. Even if we don’t know the answer, we probably know who does, and it’s bound to lead to an interesting conversation in any case.
And if you need to ask Martha Washington where to find a restroom, don’t hesitate. She won’t mind.
#6 Say yes
If we ask you to join us in a conversation, or a game, or just to hold something, say yes. Trust us, and we promise not to let you look foolish.
We’re not trying to trick anyone, so believe our sincerity in helping you make the leap back in time. We appreciate the effort!
When you’re watching us, we’re watching you too. We generally know when to leave you alone, and we certainly respect you for choosing to spend your time and money visiting us.
#7 Make connections
It’s ok to talk to us more than once during the day. We’re not following a script (at least most of the time), we’re having conversations, so you can always come back and see us again, to continue a discussion, ask a follow-up question, or get another picture. You might be surprised that we remember you!
As you meet people during the day, try to put some of the historical pieces together. Make connections by figuring out how we relate to each other. What’s on everyone’s mind? Do the issues resonate today? And why is Mrs. Braxton so annoyed with Mr. Purdie?
Have fun connecting the dots.
One final point. There are more than a hundred costumed interpreters, but not everyone is interpreting a specific person. Some are tradespeople, of course, who are not really “living” in the 18th century. Other people in costume are primarily guides, but many still take on a character. But that doesn’t need to affect the way you talk to any of us. We’re all here to help you have a wonderful time.