- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

WILLIAMSBURG — Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg historically have been able to stroll the streets of Virginia’s restored 18th-century capital for free, needing tickets only to enter trade shops and historic buildings or watch special performances.

Recently, though, an area about the size of a city block has been closed to the public for two hours each afternoon for “Revolutionary City” — a program officials hope will jump-start annual paid attendance, which has fallen by a half-million since the 1980s.

This new piece of street theater, with costumed actor-interpreters bringing to life key events during the American Revolution, is open only to those who pay admission or have IDs from the nearby College of William & Mary.

Colonial Williamsburg is trying to attract more paying visitors while staying true to its mission — “that the future may learn from the past,” said Colin G. Campbell, president of the private, nonprofit Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which operates the 301-acre living history museum.

“Among our goals is to make it fun … make it more engaging,” Mr. Campbell said.

Tim Beggans, who watched a dress rehearsal with his wife and 8- and 10-year-old daughters, said Colonial Williamsburg has succeeded.

“I love it. This is much better than when I went here as a kid,” said Mr. Beggans, 40, of Keller, Texas.

“This got them inside the period,” he said of daughters Briana and Samantha, who dressed up in Colonial gowns. “They felt like they were part of the show.”

Annual paid attendance fell from about 1.2 million in 1988 to 710,457 in 2005.

“Revolutionary City” is a dramatic departure for Colonial Williamsburg, where costumed workers had led educational programs.

Now they’re performing a play, improvising a bit as they walk among the audience, asking observers whether they want to break free from England and encouraging people to shout “Huzzah,” a Colonial cheer.

The 35 actors portray real people who lived in Williamsburg, from a haughty Lord Dunmore, the British royal governor who announces that he has dismissed the colony’s House of Burgesses, to a slave named Hannah who tells the crowd she can’t understand how people talk of liberty, yet her master took her 11-year-old son from her.

In another first, the performers wear microphones to amplify their voices above the crowd.

This is the first time Colonial Williamsburg is focusing on the Revolution, said Rex Ellis, vice president of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. Until now, it has primarily interpreted the period leading up to the war.

“Revolutionary City” is a two-day program. Day One focuses on 1774 to 1776, finishing with a performance by fifers and drummers as the British flag is taken down from the Capitol building because Virginia has declared independence from England.

Day Two runs from 1776 to 1781, ending with George Washington leaving Williamsburg to confront the British at nearby Yorktown.

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