A conversation between Barbara Brown, an associate producer and Internet editor, and Abigail Schumann, an associate producer, scriptwriter, and performer with Colonial Williamsburg who has interpreted numerous 18th-century characters, including Clementina Rind, who became publisher of the Virginia Gazette following the death of her husband, and Polly Clark, a midwife.
Abigail, for more than 20 years, you have immersed yourself into the characters of the 18th-century women for Colonial Williamsburg. What draws you to these women?
I'd have to say that it's their personal stories and how those stories can help us illustrate what life was like in 18th-century Williamsburg.
So women, then, let us see the commonplace, is that what you mean?
Yes, in a lot of regards they do. They give a real personalized approach…not to say that the male characters that are portrayed can't also do it, but I think people expect more of that personalized touch when they encounter female characters.
Founding Fathers, for example, they seem almost larger than life to us – Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson – those people just seem unreal to us.
Well, I think that's very true, I mean those characters obviously have a very important part to play in telling the story of what happened in pre-revolutionary Virginia, but theirs is only part of the story. Half of Williamsburg's population was enslaved. There was a small community of free blacks living here…and of course there were women in all walks of society. Female characters are a wonderful way to get at the ordinary, because what was taking place here was a community of people trying to live their everyday ordinary lives just as we are – provide for their families, put food on the table, stay out of debt, enjoy life – against the backdrop of an incredible time.
Do we have factual information about the characters you portray, or do you just make it up? How do you go about portraying these people?
Well, it is a little bit of everything. For example, the character Clementina Rind is one that I have portrayed. We have record of her because she was a public printer here in the colony of Virginia. She took over that role when her husband William Rind died and maintained that public office for a little over a year until her own death. But there's a lot we don't know about her, in fact, we wouldn't know that much if her husband hadn't died and she hadn't been forced by necessity of supporting her family to take over the business.
So, in essence then, Clementina Rind was "born" to history because her husband died.
Yes, that is very true. But portraying Clementina Rind helps to start dismantling some of the myths … some of the misconceptions that people have about the role of women in the 18th century. We tend to think that just because they weren't prominent, that they weren't as a general rule holding public office, as Clementina Rind did, that they weren't having an impact on what was taking place then, but that is simply not true. They did make significant contributions.
Didn't Clemintina actually play a small role in the Revolution in that she published some important papers of Thomas Jefferson? What was that about?
Oh sure, the Rind Press both under William and later under Clementina was a very significant voice in forwarding the patriot cause here in the colony, and probably the most significant document to be published by Clementina Rind was Thomas Jefferson's "Summary View of the Rights of British America."
That singular document was the first time that the colony's grievances with the crown were published en masse in a public forum. It's interesting to note that when it was initially published, it was anonymous, but later Thomas Jefferson was identified as its author.
How would 18th-century businessmen have reacted to Clementina? Would she have been accepted? Was she accepted legally as a businessperson? How would that have been?
Legally, yes. That is one of the misconceptions I was speaking of earlier that we try to break down. Single women, or widowed women have all of the same legal rights as a man. They don't have the necessarily the same privileges of a man, they don't have the privilege of serving in the house of burgesses, for example, but they do have the right to enter into contract, the right to bring lawsuits, the right to be sued, if you call that a right. But, the misconception that women did not have any of the rights of men is one that Clementina really shatters.
Abby, you portray several other characters for Colonial Williamsburg. Don't you portray a midwife?
Yes, I have portrayed Polly Clark in the past, a practicing midwife.
Tell us a little bit about her. Is she based on primary source material or did you create her?
Polly Clark is what we call a composite character. The development of a composite character is done to get at specific interpretive points, and midwifery obviously is a very important subject in 18th-century Virginia. And developing the character of Polly Clark allowed me to get at a lot of women's issues and women's daily life that is generally left out of the political story.
And Polly Clark would be quite a different type character from Clementina Rind.
Oh yes, very different and that is evidenced just in the sort of questions that guests ask her…and the expectations that guests have when they encounter a midwife verses a female public printer. Midwifery is an occupation that you would expect women to be in.
How have you seen character interpretation evolve at Colonial Williamsburg over the years, Abby?
Well, when I first started portraying characters 20 years ago, it was quite different. We wrote out scripts that were memorized verbatim and went out onto the streets of the city and spoke to as many people as we could, basically reciting the same script over and over again. There were some opportunities to get into conversation with people, but it was more "maximize exposure with this one script and then move on to the next group."
The evolution is really wonderful, because now, people portraying characters
in the Historic Area are so thoroughly grounded in their character and in every
aspect of colonial life that you can have a conversation about anything that
interests you. Even if you are talking to a Founding Father, you don't have
to stay on subjects that are political. You can ask about their family, ask
about what they feed their horse. They know just about everything. The female
characters out there are no different. Each character you encounter gives you
a different approach to what life was like, and all of the stories are very
valid and revealing.