Imagine being welcomed through the gates of the Governor’s Palace for an evening of drink, dancing, and delightful diversions. Now imagine everyone—you included—is suitably attired for their 18th-century personas. Then sprinkle in some fireworks.
That’s just a little of what’s in store at “A Celebration of May: An Immersive Palace Garden Party” on Friday, May 5 from 7-9 p.m. The guiding light of the festivities is Bill Schermerhorn, who recently came to Colonial Williamsburg as Creative Director of Events after 34 years with Macy’s, where his duties included putting on their vaunted annual Thanksgiving Day parade.
In Williamsburg, Bill is in charge of directing our signature events, including the Fourth of July, Halloween, and Grand Illumination. The garden party will be his first Colonial Williamsburg production. The challenge is how to take advantage of our 18th-century stage to relate to a 21st-century audience while paying heed to history. These are not, after all reenactments.
Bill resolves this with a guiding question: if a celebration didn’t exactly happen, how might the citizens of the 18th century have approached it if it did?
So in this case, no, a cross-section of colonial Virginians wouldn’t have been going to outdoor cocktail parties with Thomas Jefferson. But Bill sees this as an opportunity, to welcome people from all walks of life in a celebration of the season and community. We know all too well the inequities of two centuries ago. This is the garden party we would have wanted to see.
Bill calls it “the May of the mind and the heart” after a 1775 lyric by Thomas Arne (who, by the way, wrote the music for “Rule, Britannia”):
With the treasure of spring, let the village be dress’d,
Its joys let the season impart;
When rapture swells high, and o’erflows from each breast,
‘Tis the May of the mind and the heart.
So what’s in store for those who take the plunge?
A footman will welcome you to the Governor’s Palace at 7 p.m. as fifes and drums herald your arrival. You’ll be free to explore the ground floor of the Palace and the upper garden. Admire music from the harpsichord in the ballroom. Listen to a vocalist singing traditional 18th-century music. Mingle with new friends who share your appreciation for Williamsburg.
You may be thinking that you don’t have a period costume hanging in the closet, and you don’t have the faintest idea where to find one. Fret not.
A limited number of costumes are available for rent (contact us at the Mary Dickinson store, or call 757-220-7581, to check availability). But there are other solutions. Create your own interpretation of 18th-century attire. Have your wardrobe reflect your personality. How would you imagine your 18th-century persona?
Add a cocked hat and a waistcoat to a cocktail dress. Wave an 18th-century fan. Go with a banyan (a man’s dressing gown–they were fashionable in Virginia back in the day). Be bold. And the more people who wear costumes, the more immersive the event will become.
Still struggling? A word of reassurance from Bill: “Following Jefferson’s democratic principles, no one will be turned away.” We’ll also have a pop-up store on the Palace grounds before the event begins that can meet your needs for last-minute accessories. The photo above shows some of the items you’ll find there.
But back to the festivities. President Jefferson himself will deliver a toast around 7:30, at which time the entertainments will loosen up a bit. Court dances will give way to country dances, with guests invited to participate. The Chowning Players will offer some lighthearted diversions, including a reenactment of an 18th-century maypole dance unlike any other.
A scavenger hunt (quill pen provided!) will help guests explore the space, and hopefully even long-time visitors will discover some new details. There will be plenty of opportunities for great photos and conversation. Commission a shade or a pen-and-ink portrait from itinerant artist Zachariah Hill. Remember, there is no audience, only participants, at Mr. Jefferson’s garden party.
Fine Virginia punch and tasty desserts are included with admission. Guests will be able to use cash or credit cards to purchase drink tickets for alcoholic beverages in the form of specially-made 18th-century currency. “We’re printing money,” jokes Bill, “but just like a lot of 18th-century currency, it won’t have any cash value.”
As the sun sets, cressets and lanterns will turn the garden into what Bill calls “a twinkling fantasyland.” The evening’s finale is an elegant pyrotechnic display, presented by the same company that sets off the Grand Illumination fireworks.
But the evening doesn’t need to end there. The Chownings will lead a festive procession to Chownings Tavern, where the libations and entertainment will continue into the night.
Don’t just imagine being magically transported to the 18th century. Make your plans now to join us for what is sure to be a memorable event, with more surprises in store.
More detailed information and tickets are available online. (Early discount price ends April 14!) Hope to see you there!