- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2001

The home of George Washington is borrowing a page from Colonial Williamsburg, and greatly expanding the use of 18th-century role players to tell visitors about the life of the first president.
The interpreters have been training this summer under the direction of William Sommerfield, a dead ringer for Washington who has been playing the Founding Father for more than 10 years.
"Washington in the 19th century became an icon, up on a pedestal," Mr. Sommerfield said. "Our interpretation is designed to show him in his real environment, as a real person. … If he comes down off the pedestal, then his true traits — his honesty, his integrity — are more believable."
Mount Vernon has used a limited number of first-person interpreters, but that will greatly expand this fall. A 20-person troupe, the George Washington Players, will perform for groups and during special events.
Mount Vernon also will increase the number of free-roaming interpreters, who will interact with visitors as they wait in line and tour the grounds.
"People have come to expect first-person interpreters, seeing people in historical costume," said Ann Bay, Mount Vernon's associate director for education. "If they don't see that, they're very often disappointed."
The use of first-person interpreters also provides some very practical benefits: It will provide an opportunity for weary visitors to sit down when they watch a troupe performance, for instance. And the roaming interpreters will be able to entertain tourists as they stand in line to tour the house. During busy periods, the wait can be as long as an hour.
The success of Colonial Williamsburg, which uses nearly 50 first-person interpreters to demonstrate life in the 18th century, has inspired numerous historical attractions to do the same. Jim Bradley, public relations manager for Colonial Williamsburg, said many groups have approached Williamsburg in the past three to five years to seek advice about establishing a first-person-interpretive program.
"First person really tends to draw the visitor in and get them involved," Mr. Bradley said.
First-person interpretations do have limitations, though. For instance, during a dress rehearsal last week at Mount Vernon, an interpreter was asked whether Washington owned slaves. She replied that he did. But she was unable to add that he freed his slaves upon his death, which would have required her to either step out of character or see into the future.
Miss Bay said such gaps will be filled in by regular tour guides and interpreters, who can add a modern perspective and context.
"This is just one element, one way of telling part of the story," Miss Bay said.
Mr. Sommerfield said the interpreters did a good job at the dress rehearsal, deftly handling questions from guests. Many of the players are former tour guides who know their George Washington history stone cold.
The problems, he said, were mostly theatrical. Stage whispers needed to be louder, for instance.
"They've got the substance down very well," he said. "What we're trying to do is maintain the skills of a good interpreter while learning the skills of the theater."
The newly trained interpreters said they like the opportunity to be more creative, and that visitors enjoy the first-person approach.
"When you're interacting with visitors, it gives it a different framework," said Peg Henry-Pokusa, who plays Lady Jane Fairfax, an acquaintance of the Washingtons. "It's a chance to humanize General Washington in a way, to lighten up the interpretation. He wasn't some immobile statue."


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