Communicating Complicated Concepts

Rats on a ship smuggle a story of transatlantic trade and a colonial global economy. It’s a big idea, but the concept is made simple by the team of writers, researchers and producers who create Colonial Williamsburg’s Emmy-winning Electronic Field Trip series.


Harmony Hunter: Hi! Welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. You might be surprised to learn that colonial Americans competed in a global economy. From trade routes to consumer goods, the world was easily crossed to bring consumables to Williamsburg. This is the topic of a new Electric Field Trip. Joining me now is producer Leslie Clark, and museum educator Cash Arehart, who both brought this to life. Thank you both for being here today.

Cash Arehart: Thanks for having me.

Leslie Clark: Thanks for inviting us.

Harmony: Well, before we start talking about this show in particular, I want to just refresh for folks the concept of the Electronic Field Trip. What is this program, and how can people take advantage of it?

Leslie: The Electronic Field Trip is a multimedia event that teachers can use in their classroom. It’s a TV show, and part of that TV show is kind of like a movie. It’s a pre-produced story that we shot years ago, and then we intermix that with live question and answer segments. So we have students calling in from all around the country, and we have characters in our studio that were on the show so they can ask their questions. They can tweet questions. They can email questions. We go back and forth between the pre-recorded segments and the questions.

Harmony: So it’s a whole event for a teacher’s classroom.

Leslie: It’s a whole event. Teachers can subscribe, and they can get lesson plans, and they can get games for their students, and they can make it more than just the show on the day of the broadcast.

Harmony: Let’s talk about this show in particular. Cash can you talk to us about the concept of the global economy and bringing that to a young audience?

Cash: For a lot of students today, the global economy of foreign trade and commerce are very modern concepts. But they go back hundreds of years. In the colonial era, the American colonies were a part of a huge global network of trade. There are things coming into the colonies, many of which come through England, but before that, they come from throughout Europe, India, and China.

Then the things that are being produced, the raw materials here in colonial America, they’re in turn getting shipped out all over the world. So it’s a very complicated network that’s much older than a lot of our students recognize. And further complicating that are a series of laws and acts passed by Parliament, such as the Navigation Acts that determine what goods and what commodities, the different things like iron, or tobacco, or lumber, that are produced in America, have to be shipped directly to England first instead of being traded with France or with Spain.

Harmony: Did you bump into the assumption that, might be commonly held, that people in the colonies were making everything, you know, on the frontier? They were carving/whittling everything out of wood; getting everything locally. Was there an assumption that international trade was not really happening; that we were much more self-sufficient?

Cash: Oh, absolutely! I think everybody grows up with that assumption. All of the clothes the colonists made, they made themselves. All of their furniture, they made themselves. And it’s quite the contrary. Fashion is being set in France, and then it’s going to London, and then it’s coming here to the colonies. George Washington, before the American Revolution, he always purchased almost all of his clothes from England. Then he was always complaining about that they didn’t fit right when they got here.

So a lot of the idea that America is completely self-sufficient, we were all hacking our lives out of the wilderness, out on the frontier, it’s quite far from the truth. Very large cities like Philadelphia, like New York, even though they are able to produce a lot of their own goods, they might have dozens and dozens of shoemakers in those larger cities in America. There are still hundreds of stores, thousands of stores that are importing shoes made from England, because those things are cheaper made in England, and to have them shipped into America than they are to have them made here in America. The cost of labor is so much higher here in the colonies than it is back in England.

Leslie: People want the goods from England because they’re the most fashionable, and they are the most trendy. Just like today, people want to keep up with the trends. And it was the same thing in the 18th century. It’s not like they bought them because they had to: they wanted them.

Harmony: And this is a topic that can be fairly dry, even for adult listeners. You had to spin this concept for a young audience. So Leslie, you were key in trying to make this idea really fun, and really vibrant. Tell us about how you presented this show, this program, with a young audience in mind.

Leslie: Well, we used rat puppets. One of my colleagues and I were talking and she was saying, “Well you know, it’s a shame we really can’t do animation because we could have a story of rats on a ship. Wouldn’t that be really fun?” We said, “That’s really too bad,” and I had this “Eureka!” moment, and I said, “No, but we can do puppets!” So that’s where the idea was born.

It’s really great because the rats can go places on the ship where people can’t. They can go inside crates where obviously humans can’t. It was nice from a production standpoint. Rats can go up to a crate or a barrel, and they can sniff and they can tell us what’s inside without us having to actually see inside. So that saves us from having to get a crate full of raw indigo, or bolts and bolts of fabric, prop items that would be more difficult. And the kids just really, really loved them. They really responded to them.

Harmony: So tell us about your crew of rats who you have on the ship here.

Leslie: We have four rat puppets on the ship. There’s kind of a rat storyline and a human storyline. The rat story kind of centers around Margarat Ratlidge, or Maggie. Maggie has found herself in England by accident. She got on a ship thinking she was going to Plymouth, Massachusetts, and she wound up in Plymouth, England by mistake. She has to find her way back home to Rhode Island where she lives. She meets a British rat on the ship in England. She travels through the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, through Jamaica where she meets another rat who helps her along the way.

Eventually she winds all the way back up home, and meets her dad at the end. We have those four rats. Maggie, Lord Stuffington Whiskerby is our proper British rat. We have Gnarly, our rough and tumble ship’s rat who’s from Jamaica, and then Maggie’s dad, Ben, is back in America.

Harmony: This was a really fun way to lighten up this subject, but you took it very seriously. They were all costumed at the Costume Design Center where all our costumed interpreters get dressed as well.

Leslie: We hired a puppet designer in New York City to build them. We didn’t just make sock puppets. They were professionally designed and made for us. We got them with no clothes, and so they were clothed by the costume design center. We had actors on set who would recognize the fabrics that the rat’s clothes were made out of and say, “Hey! I have a waistcoat made out of that.” I think Lord Stuffington’s coat was actually silk.

Cash: Lord Stuffington had a better costume than I ever had when I used to work in costume in the historic area. This rat had a lot of pull over at the Costume Design Center.

Leslie: They had some really nice duds.

Harmony: So talk to me, Cash, about some of the concepts that it was important for you to communicate. We’ve talked about how to make this message more palatable to children, but what were the messages that you wanted to share and how did those tailor in with the learning standards that you’re trying to match up with for teachers to use in the classroom?

Cash: That’s something we always consider thoroughly any time we’re producing or planning an Electronic Field Trip. We recognize that a lot of teachers are looking to Colonial Williamsburg for help with dense material, with things that are complicated. That they just don’t have a lot of other resources to help them teach topics like the transatlantic trade, otherwise known as The Triangle Trade.

It is commonly associated with going back and forth between England and Africa, and then somewhere on the other side of the ocean, whether it’s in Central or South America, or into the Caribbean, or up into the North American colonies. So making sure that we’re able to demonstrate that thoroughly in the video part of the program with a scene. Then we can come back and reinforce it with lesson plans or online activities in the program. It’s all about reinforcing some of these basic concepts in the program.

So a lot of these topics are things that we’re putting into the program specifically because we know that the teachers have to meet these standards. Their students are looking for resources to help them with their testing, with a better understanding of the events that lead up to the American Revolution eventually.

Harmony: We are proud of these shows, and we work hard to make them right from two years before production begins there is script writing, there’s historic research, down to the costuming on the puppets, it’s accurate. Leslie, tell us about some of the recognition that the EFT program got.

Leslie: Well, we won an Emmy! This past June we all went up to Maryland, and we were awarded an Emmy from the National Capital Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. We found out we were nominated earlier in the spring. Then we went to the awards, and we got the Emmy. That was really exciting. The awards are judged from other television professionals all around the country. It’s not just that we think we’re great, other people think we’re great, too.

Harmony: There a lot of love and a lot of passion and a lot of joy that goes into the creation, I’m sure there are tough moments, too, that goes into the creation of these programs. They take a cast of thousands almost to bring it all together, but there’s a real standard of excellence that’s upheld here. I think that it shows when you see these programs. Where can people learn more about the EFT program, and the season, and the online activities for children?

Leslie: Well, anybody can watch the broadcast of “The Global Economy.” You can go to our website and you can watch the stream online for free. If they want to learn more about subscribing and getting all those extra things, then they can go to and explore all those things.

Cash: That’s going to get them access to those online activities, the lesson plans, and all of those other resources for students. It’s not just this program. We have over a dozen different programs online in “Hero”, several of which have also received Parents’ Choice Awards, including The Global Economy. We’ve been recognized not only for the quality of our video production with the Emmy awards, but also for the caliber of our educational content as well.

Harmony: Thank you both for being here today and talking to us about this program and the wonderful series that it’s a part of.

Cash & Leslie: Thank you!