Researching Revolutionary Citizens

revolutionary city

Actor-interpreter Corinne Dame talks about the continual research necessary to give a living and accurate portrayal of Williamsburg’s 18th-century citizens.

Learn more: Revolutionary City


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Corinne Dame, and in Colonial Williamsburg, she’s an actor-interpreter. Acting and interpreting…what?

Corinne Dame: (Laughs.) History.

Lloyd: You’re part of Revolutionary City?

Corinne: Yes, Revolutionary City.

Lloyd: Who do you play?

Corinne:  Well, I have three characters at the present time: Frances Davenport; she’s an upper-middling wife, married to Matthew Davenport, who’s a clerk of the courts. I also play Barbry Hoy, whose husband goes off and enlists in the Army. I play a convict servant called Molly McGargey. And I’m also working on a new character, Elizabeth Maloney, who, in fact, has two children with a slave – one of Mr. Randolph’s.

Lloyd:  Oh, okay. Now I know the Hoy role, I’ve been to Revolutionary City a few times, because you in one scene are with him, and the next time we see you as Mrs. Hoy, she’s just come back from Charleston looking for her husband since his enlistment bonus is gone and so is her husband.

Corinne:  Yes, a very sad, sad, sad scene. She’s walked 300 miles from Charleston, she has no idea where her husband is, she has word that he might be on a prison ship, but she doesn’t know for sure. And I think that’s probably the hardest part of this is that she just doesn’t know.

Lloyd: But that was – I hate to sound harsh – kinda typical for the Revolutionary War.

Corinne: Very much so.

Lloyd: A husband would go away and that might be the last you ever knew about him.

Corinne: Yes, that’s very true. It just represents one of the people that it affects in Colonial Williamsburg because it affected so many people in the City. And a lot of people never received word on their husbands or sons or brothers that enlisted in the Army. Although, we do find out that Alexander does come home in about, I think, ‘82 he comes back, so, that’s a happy story, but…

Lloyd: ‘82 is quite a long time after Charleston.

Corinne:   Yes. They took a while to release him. But they don’t have any record of him actually being released; they just have record of him showing back up in town. There’s very little that we have on the Hoys.

Lloyd:  On the other hand, I like the story because it makes it clear that this was not all fifes and drums and flags and beating drums and walking around.

Corinne: Right.

Lloyd:  What attracted you, as a 21st-century person, to the 18th century?
Corinne: It’s kind of hard to say that. I don’t know – it’s just like us. It seems there are so many connections from the 18th century to the 21st century that we deal with. It’s just a matter of…I really honestly don’t know…

Lloyd: Were you an actress before?

Corinne:  Yes …

Lloyd: (Interrupts.) Sorry, sorry, sorry, an actor?

Corinne: … I’m an actor more before I’m a historian.

Lloyd: Where were you?

Corinne:  I actually work at a dinner theatre, currently, as well. And I’ve been there for several years. And I came over to Colonial Williamsburg because I wanted something new and fresh and they said they were hiring for actors. I thought I was going to be in one of the evening shows, but then I find out that I’m working Revolutionary City.

And it’s been even better than I could’ve imagined because I never really loved history at all growing up and in school. But being here and actually having a job that deals with it, you learn to care about it. And I’ve actually enjoyed going and researching other lives that happened because I’m portraying real people, whereas, in a lot of acting jobs, you don’t. You play made-up characters.

Lloyd: What do people ask you on the streets?

Corinne:  “Is that hot? Is that outfit hot to wear?” Pretty much, that’s one of the main questions that we have. Or, “Does your husband ever come home?” And because I don’t know if he’s come home yet, I have to somehow let them know that, yes, he will come home, but I can’t really tell you that because I’m in character. So I’m like, “If I hold hope in my heart, I believe he will return to me.” And I kind of give them that look. Some people get it; some people don’t.  

Lloyd:  That’s a good answer. Holding hope in your heart would’ve been a little bit tough at that time, though; there wasn’t a lot to be hopeful about.

Corinne: Oh, yes. Indeed, the way that they have portrayed Hoys…she’s a camp follower. And not a lot of people understand what camp followers really do. They always think that it leads to prostitution, which is not the case; that was more of the rare things that they did.

They took care of all of the soldiers. They didn’t get a lot of the rations that the soldiers did; a lot of the times the husbands had to divide what little ration they had with their wife, or whatever. And if your husband is not there anymore, they just order you to leave – if he dies or is away. So, it’s a very hard life for them. They had to scrounge for themselves.

Lloyd:  How did you – for the Revolutionary City job – how did you prepare for it?

Corinne: A lot of research. I spent so much time in the library. One of the things is, when you get to know these characters, a lot of the women roles – and that’s one of the biggest problems – a lot of the women roles aren’t recorded as well as a lot of the male roles in history. And you have to – my Frances Davenport character – she’s known only by her husband. Everything before she got married -- there’s nothing there for her. So you have to do a lot of educated guessing, a lot of research of the type of women that they were or what they could be. So it’s a lot of guessing, but I try to make it as educated as possible.

Lloyd: Well, it actually has one benefit: if there’s not much to research, they can’t challenge you too much, either.

Corinne: (Laughing.) That’s very true. They can’t. But at other times, as an actor, that I’m portraying a real person, I feel like I have a duty to keep as real as possible and accurately portray this person. I don’t want to say that they were a loyalist when they were really a patriot, or vice versa. So I want to try and make it as accurate as possible.

Lloyd: So, suddenly you’re a historian!

Corinne:  Suddenly I am! I know, my mother never would’ve guessed. It’s much different than, as I said, I work in a dinner theatre, it’s much different, because there, we’re doing a show about Civil War history, but it’s all made up, everything’s made up. And it’s so different from Revolutionary War. Because that one, I can just make stuff up. Here, I have to make things up, but I have to be accurate in doing so. And the language, the language is a big tackle, too.

Lloyd: It is summertime in Virginia. Hard to work outside?

Corinne:  Oh, much. Very much so. I’ve always lived in Virginia, so I’m very used to the heat and the weather of Virginia. The humidity is one of the worst parts about Virginia. But, the clothing, it’s not as hot as a lot of people might think, but it is still a bit stifling and heavy and it’s just one of those things you have to get used to.

Lloyd:  When you’re not – I can’t say on stage, because you aren’t on stage at all – when you’re not in the street, can you escape the heat a little bit?

Corinne:  Yeah, well, the buildings, even though a lot of them are reconstructed or original buildings, they still have air conditioning. So you can duck in from time to time. There’s always water in all the buildings because it is so hot out there. They have to watch out for us and make sure there’s plenty of water. So, but, we try to be on the streets as much as possible.  

Lloyd: Who came up with the fourth character that you’re trying to learn about?

Corinne:  Well, the fourth character – two of the characters I was assigned – one of the characters, I created – the convict servant. And the fourth character, Elizabeth Maloney, my supervisor, Richard Josey, decided that her story wasn’t being told. That aspect of society wasn’t being told in Revolutionary City or in all of Williamsburg, pretty much.

The slaves – the enslaved community – that story’s being told. The upper-middling, the middling society and gentry society’s being told, but the cross between the two is not being told at all. Because there were a lot of slaves that would jump the broom because they could not legally get married, they would jump the broom, in essence, with a lot of free whites, and produce a lot of children that way.

Lloyd:  I will take it that in 18th-century Williamsburg she was not what you would call a terribly popular woman.

Corinne: Well, believe it or not, I only have two things on Elizabeth Maloney, and that’s just registering her children being born and being bastard children. That is the only piece of evidence we have on her. We have a lot of on Moses, the one she jumped the broom with, or the one they say she jumped the broom with. A lot of it’s second-guessing. The character was played many, many years ago, but it was all educated guessing, and pretty much that’s what I’m having to deal with.

Lloyd: Okay, what are you educated guessing?

Corinne:  Well, so far, I’ve just been starting the research for a week now, but I’m having to do a lot of research on how society would’ve reacted to them, not just the white community, the free white community, but also the enslaved community. Because I’m sure on both sides she would’ve had two different views from people. Some would’ve accepted it, and a lot would not. It’s just a hard thing to deal with.

Lloyd:  It doesn’t sound that much different from today.

Corinne:  No, it’s not. It’s pretty much the same. In fact, it seems, almost, as if it was a little bit more accepted then than it is today sometimes. I mean, in politics today, I sometimes think it might’ve been easier then. If you were a free white – a lot of whites did buy the slaves’ freedom that they were involved with. And, well, not a lot, but there were some cases of that and it’s – those are happy cases.

Lloyd: How long will it take you to finish your research for that part?

Corinne:  Pretty much it never stops. I’ve been doing Frances Davenport and Barbry Hoy since March and I’ve been researching them since February and I’m still researching. It’s one of those things that you come up with new things every day. Because there’s so much out there, it’s just finding it is the problem. And we have some great historians that work here that assist us in that matter.

Lloyd:  I think, that were I doing something like that, I would want to find a place that gave me enough of the character that I could act it and then I wouldn’t want to learn any more for fear that it would mess up my interpretation and my act.  

Corinne:  Well, it’s done that for me, with my Frances character, I could not find a lot. And when we opened in March, I had to go with it. And that’s what I’d been doing. Well, I’ve just come across some recent documents that might – I’ve always portrayed her as a patriot because in a lot of the scenes that’s how they portray her. And now I’ve come across something where her husband would’ve been a little hesitant to sign for the patriot cause. And so it kind of makes you question if she really was a true patriot or if she had a conflict there.

Lloyd: Or, let’s for the sake of your part, say that she and her husband didn’t get along. So there you are.

Corinne:  Very true.It’s a possibility

Lloyd:  He can be a loyalist and you can be a patriot. Take care of that little problem.

Corinne: Yes, that’s very true. But it’s also found in the Davenport family that most of the Davenport family married when they were – they didn’t marry as young as a lot of the Colonial people did. And I believe, and a lot of people believe, it’s because they waited until they found someone they were actually in love with instead of marrying for status or whatnot. So I believe they might have been very close.

Lloyd: Well, I know that 25 to 30 percent of the people in Williamsburg were loyalists, so it’s …

Corinne: (Interrupts.) Yeah, there were a lot more than people think.  

Lloyd: … possible that – Oh, well. You could have been a conflicted patriot on Monday, a loyalist on Tuesday.

Corinne:  Sometimes I do do that! Sometimes on day one I play a patriot, and on day two with the war continuing, I just make it, “Well, the war’s been going on, people say it’s only been a year, it would only be a year, but it’s been five years now, and I don’t know how much more I can take. I just want to kind of give up.” And so that’s how it’s – in ’77 her husband dies so she’s a widow – so it’s a lot more difficult for her.

Lloyd: Other than asking you, “Are you hot in those clothes,” have you gotten any interesting questions from guests? That you really had to stop and think about and say, Well, gee golly, I’m not sure I know that?

Corinne:  There’s a lot of questions that I get that I don’t know the answer to – there are so many out there. As far as interesting, I would say that most of the people, when they come up, they would ask me 21st-century questions, but try to stay in character. They would try to play along with me, but try to trip me up, as you can say. They would ask me about, “Are you familiar with President Bush?” or, “What do you think of the immigration problem?” you know. I’d have to twist it around to the 18th century. They’re always trying to trip me up. That’s probably as interesting as I’ve had so far.

Lloyd:  Actually, that would be…

Corinne:  Don’t you get any ideas, now!

Lloyd: No, no, no, no, no. No, no, I promise – I won’t do it. That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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