Playing the Part

Taking the shape of a founding father takes equal parts of preparation and imagination. Interpreters John Hamant and Steve Holloway detail the process. November 26, 2007


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.

The Electronic Field Trip "Founders or Traitors?" premieres Thursday, December 6, 2007. Here with me in the studio are John Hamant and Steve Holloway, who portray Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in the program.

It's 1776 in Philadelphia. The Declaration of Independence has just been written. We're talking about who supports it, who doesn't support it, and what's likely to happen. How do you prepare for those roles? How do you get to be Benjamin Franklin?

John Hamant: How do you get to be? Well, it's a long, long difficult road, believe me. There is so much information about Benjamin Franklin. It's virtually endless. You go and you read as much as possible. You try to get inside the mind of the man, if that is indeed possible, and to humanize him. To discover his motivations, his thoughts, his fears, and his hopes for his own life, for America, for his fellow citizens. I think you add to that the spice: his incredible humor, his wry wit, his politically incorrect statements, on occasion.

Lloyd: His occasional dalliance with someone other than his first wife.

John: Exactly. You try and don all of those clothes, so to speak, and put that sparkle in his eye. You really present all of that in what is a remarkably short amount of time, when you consider the entire Electronic Field Trip.

Lloyd: Now John Adams presented a rather dour personality, although from the letters he and Abigail exchanged, he was not like that personally.

Steve: No, not at all. That was the perception, but behind the mask, he was someone else completely different.

Lloyd: How do you do that?

Steve: Well, the short answer to prepare for this is, "To learn your lines." The long answer – I've been playing John Adams, off and on, for the past five or six years. I was recruited by Bill Barker, who is renowned for his portrayal of Thomas Jefferson. I think he wanted me to be Thomas Jefferson's straight man. We would go on debates. We still do, once or twice a year we tour high schools down in North Carolina. So, that's how I got into doing John Adams, and trying to learn the fellow. Mr. McCullough's book, I mean, I've got a copy of it here and it's just marked up, and torn up. It's my bible, where Adams is concerned -- for the purpose of these hour presentations with Bill's Thomas Jefferson.

When this EFT came up and I heard about it, I expressed an interest. But I'm fascinated with the Royal Navy, I wanted to play Admiral Howe. Then they said, "Well, OK, good news – we cast you. But we want you to be John Adams." I went, "Well, OK." But I'm a great admirer of Adams. Apparently, we have some things in common. I don't know if this is good or bad, but one of the reasons Bill [Barker] chose me to be Adams against his Jefferson is that, apparently – I don't perceive this in myself -- others seem to see in me someone who gets passionate about certain political things. I've been called obnoxious and disliked.

John: Frequently.

Lloyd: (Laughs heartily.)

Steve: In highest praise, I'm sure. I think a lot of John Adams, and I'm in complete agreement with him when it comes to the role of government, and how we must ever be mindful of the abuses of power. Government will dissolve into tyranny if you let it. That's the history of the world, over and over again.

Lloyd: Franklin said much the same thing on two different occasions that I know about. Franklin, while he fought for the Revolution as fervently as anybody else ever did, if you read some of what he said, he did not like government, and didn't like the people in government even more. Government was not one of his favorite things.

John: No, not at all. He saw it -- I believe, and this is something we try to bring to it – as an opportunity for people to seek opportunity. You didn't have to rely upon your name, or money, or family, your connections, or government – any of the traditional props to elevate you. It was by your own talent, and the sweat of your brow. By joining those two talents together, you could go as far as your abilities would allow.

Lloyd: Franklin's life was something like that. He started off as a printer's apprentice, which is a road to nowhere, unless you actually make something of it. One of the things I can't abide about Franklin – I'm sorry to tell you this – he said some of the most cornball things in "Poor Richard's Almanac" that I have ever read anywhere by anybody. People took it as the most wonderful wisdom.

John: He did. He came up with some very cornball statements. But I think also he was producing larger ideas in a format that would be understood and appreciated by the common man -- someone who was not educated, who would not necessarily understand subtlety, nuance, irony. But, if put straight out in a very, as we say, cornball statement, it would come to them. They would understand.

Lloyd: I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I want to be sure that I understand. You both study your characters to be sure you've got it factually correct. But to bring the role out, you try to learn the inner man as well as the outer man. I would think that would be harder to do.

Steve: Not really, if you think that all of us have more things in common than not. You look for the similarities in the character that you're playing. With Adams, with me, that was fairly simple. It's a matter of concentrating on those aspects of character, then being yourself.

Lloyd: When you're doing the Electronic Field Trips, basically, they are for youngsters, high school students. Do you think the students catch on to what you're doing?

John: Well, I would hope so. In fact, these programs seem to be very popular, which would seem to indicate that they are getting something out of it, and that the school systems keep subscribing to this. From that, I would deduce that, yeah, they're getting a lot out of it. Of course, I want to believe that. 

Lloyd: Ever since I've been here, I've liked the Electronic Field Trips, because when I was taught history in a military academy, I could not have imagined a duller subject if you had worked at it.

John: I think this is part of the magic of what we do, and why it's such a privilege to do it. It's putting the skin on these people, and showing, I think, communicating the emotional turmoil that they go through in making these decisions. We all know how it comes out, obviously. But there was turmoil. There was indecision. There was second-guessing. All of that existed. To show that, instead of these icons that we have in the history text, I think that makes an emotional connection to present-day audiences. People haven't changed. We still love, we still hate, we still lust, we covet – all of those things.
Steve: We laugh the same at the same things.

John: To bring these men to life, I think is an incredible, incredible honor.

Lloyd: It might be an honor, but it's also work.

Steve: It's a work of love, it's fun work. It's not a labor.

Lloyd: You and Bill, otherwise known as T.J., take your show on the road in Carolina. That's a live audience. That's different from a television audience. Very different. What kind of audience feedback do you get when you're out with a bunch of high school kids?

Steve: A lot of feedback. Each of us has a prepared statement, we basically introduce ourselves, but our purpose is to debate each other. There's conflict, and kids love conflict. They take sides. The questions that they ask – the fact that they ask questions – but the types of questions that they ask me, they have chosen one over the other and they're taking sides. They want to see one of us win, and one of us lose. It's always nice to see a metamorphosis when you go into these auditoriums full of high school kids, and they don't want to be there. The best thing is that they've gotten out of class, and they're talking and they're doing whatever. By the end of it, they're all sitting forward. You have their rapt attention, and that's instant gratification. It's wonderful.

Lloyd: That's the way I think people should react to history. You ought to want to know where you came from and how you got here.

Steve: Here are these two marble heads: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. We all assume these people were the best of friends. Of course, Adams and Jefferson were the best of friends, although there were times when they had falling outs and you would see them going at each other. That just immediately grabs their attention.

Lloyd:Who did Franklin dislike?

John: Well, actually he disliked anybody who didn't agree with him.

Lloyd: Pretty much like the rest of us.

John: Very much so.

Lloyd: John Hamant and Steve Holloway, Colonial Williamsburg actor interpreters. The Electronic Field Trip "Founders or Traitors?" airs December 6, 2007, on and local Public Broadcasting Stations. That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Visit to learn more. Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.

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