“Yorktown” Electronic Field Trip

On the October 19th debut of Colonial Williamsburg’s Electronic Field Trip “Yorktown,” participating students across the nation will learn history almost by accident. October 16, 2006


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. 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. Today, I’m talking with Frances Burroughs and Linda Randulfe, who produce and direct Colonial Williamsburg’s Electronic Field Trips. October 19th is the premiere of the Electronic Field Trip “Yorktown.”

And there’s one thing more: May next year, 2007, is the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown. But before that, October 19th is the 225th anniversary of the decisive Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown. Rather a big day. How are you going to commemorate it?

Frances Burroughs: Well actually, we’re going to commemorate it, as we have in the production of the Electronic Field Trip “Yorktown,” by, on that very day, going live from Yorktown with a crew and a cast. Also, here at Colonial Williamsburg we’ll talk to students across the nation.

Linda Randulfe: It’s the premiere of our Electronic Field Trip series for this year. So we’re very excited about kicking it off with such an exciting event.

Lloyd: Now, I’ve got this terrible question. Yorktown didn’t happen in a day, it was spread over several days, and it was a long siege. How are you going to do it in 30 minutes?

Frances: Well that has been a challenge. What we did was wrote a script with some certain stories and focuses that took the stories of the people of that period of the 18th century who were affected by the war, and brought it to a head.

That period of 30 minutes that is the actual dramatic segments of the program, and brought it to a head with the surrender and a lot of the educational materials that go with it. But it was a challenge. We tried to do it with stories of people that could walk you through a larger and much bigger picture.

Lloyd: Linda, what people?

Linda: Well, so much of the history of Yorktown is focused on the battles and the military maneuvers and that kind of thing. So what we tried to do was to personalize the history a little bit more by focusing on a family that was actually torn apart by the Revolutionary War. So that we had: the father who was a loyalist, the son who joined the revolution, and a family that was caught in between. So that was one pivotal story that I think tells a lot from the civilian point of view of what people went through here in Williamsburg and how that all came about in Yorktown.

We also did a bit of research that really paid off, and focused on a group of soldiers, black soldiers, and their unit. And that was a particularly interesting story, because I don’t know how many people are really aware of the important role that these soldiers had at the Battle of Yorktown.

So that was a chance to tell a story, again, not from the big scope of maneuvers and that type of thing, but from what the individual soldiers probably went through – the long march down from New York, the poor food, the unknown that was ahead of them – they knew that they had a large battle, they had to dig trenches: all of these circumstances. Dealing with soldiers from another country, from France, who were there also. So that was another story that we told.

And then the third story that we focused on was of Colonel Laurens, whose father was a diplomat, and who ended up in prison in London, and who had, of course, that fire in him then because of what had happened to him personally with his father. And his desire to see Britain defeated, and you know, his story was quite poignant. That was one of the other thrusts that we used in the story.

Lloyd: You said, at the premiere of the Electronic Field Trip, you were going to go live. You can’t go live with battles and things, can you?

Linda: Not with that part of the show. Again, the dramatic segments that we’ve taped over the course of a year almost, that will tell that part of the story. But what we’re going to do, which is a little unique, we haven’t done it yet, is we’re splitting our live broadcast and coming from our studios here at Bruton Heights as we usually do, for our hour-long Electronic Field Trip show.

But we’re also, via satellite, having a crew out at Yorktown, where we’ll have a student reporter touching on the events that will be happening out at Yorktown, and doing interviews with some of the staff from the park.

Frances: And another portion of this live broadcast we’re talking about is actually when students call in – registered school students call in from around the United States – they ask questions of three of the main characters: Nate, Mr. Hubbard, and Colonel Laurens. And they also have an historian to give them a context of what the story was and help them understand it as 9 through 14 year olds.

So they see the dramatic segments, they get to call in with their questions, and we’ll be going live with these young people on the air, plus a young person who’s going to be our host out at the park, at the National Park.

Lloyd: Unless young people have changed a great deal since I was one: They like battles. So you’ve got that covered, right?

Linda: Yes, it absolutely is. We’ve went to a great deal of care to re-create the battles, one of the redoubts, redoubt nine at Yorktown. We shot this last October, and we got a group of re-enactors, and a great deal of research went into exactly what happened, versus the perception that we might have of how a battle like this might have taken place. Over the course of the day, we had …

Frances: Several hundred re-enactors.

Linda: Yeah, 200 to 300 re-enactors, charging across the field. And it was a cooperative day, because access to the park is very limited. They don’t often let camera crews in to do this kind of work.

Lloyd: They don’t let things happen on the ground. They won’t even let you picnic.

Linda: Exactly, exactly.

Frances: They were perfect partners with us, with Colonial Williamsburg.

Lloyd: Curious: was that the 5th Rhode Island Regiment?

Frances: Actually we’ve found that the Rhode Island Regiments were probably coming in a little bit later. It would more likely have been an integrated regiment – something you don’t see again until World War II – that is coming from the North, that has African-American troops along with white troops fighting side-by-side. So while it could have been, it looks like recent research brings the Rhode Islanders in a little bit later, doing more of the clean-up of the battle after the significant portion of fighting is over.

Lloyd: You’re doing this coming live, with a student reporter. Part of it you taped last year, and you’re putting it all together and you’re going live. You really are making it hard on yourselves, aren’t you?
Linda: Well, it’s such an exciting story. There were so many opportunities to do different things with this show, and combine that with the 400th anniversary, we just thought that if we had a chance to do it for any occasion, this was certainly one that merited this kind of effort on our part.

Lloyd: You said you had perfect partnering from the National Park Service, so that’s good. But there had to be problems. Come on, you can’t do this and . . .

Frances: Actually, we can give a good example. We would have loved to have gone live, completely live, from an interior. However, during the October 19th date, they are celebrating with dignitaries, martial exhibits with troops and music and parades, so anything in the historic town of Yorktown would have not worked very well for us going live with the sound and audio being clear.

Lloyd:  Two celebrations in one place may make it difficult.

Frances: Stretching their resources very thin, also. And then the other one …

Linda:  I think another interesting aspect is, again, coming from a television and broadcasting background, and trying to match the historical facts of this event, I think posed an interesting balancing act for us. Because many times, when we watch battle scenes, we have visions of cannon going off every other second, and dust flying, and tons and tons of guns going off and that kind of thing. Whereas actually, much of the battle at Yorktown was a very orderly, precise event …

Frances: (Interrupts.) The siege.  

Linda: … The siege that was going on. And the cannon operators really went in a very meticulous order. It took time to re-load, so it wasn’t a constant barrage, as far as a quick-paced barrage. And so trying to balance those historic facts, and the fact that it was a more meticulous and paced battle, with the urge to try to create a really dynamic scene for television, was a bit of a challenge to try to find a middle ground between what we really wanted: to get the kids’ interest, but to make sure that we were accurate. And that’s always something that we strive for very much.

Lloyd: Well remember now, if you’re trying to do it in 30 minutes, you can speed it up a little bit.  

Linda: (Laughs.)Exactly so.

Lloyd: We’ll get a lot of “booms” in there close together. I am not often working with young people, and so I get very confused about young people in my day and young people now. Are young people now as interested in history and military things as they were when I was a kid – well it was still World War II, so everyone cared about military things.

Frances: I think it is. I think that history in general is something students find interesting, and if it’s woven into other class work, whether it’s through the sciences, or art, and language arts in particular. It can be great stories that they learn from, and learn history by accident almost. If they don’t have to think about it as always dates and names and faces only, they can think of it as movements and activity and excitement, then that’s really good.

I don’t think you can underestimate that current-day politics and military actions don’t make an impression on students. I think they hear about it, they see it, their families are involved in it. Their parents are the ages of people involved in conflicts today in foreign countries and so I think it is – probably not as much as World War II making an impression – but certainly making one that resonates with a program like “Yorktown.”

Linda: I think that’s one of the strengths that Colonial Williamsburg brings to this kind of effort of history education. It’s taken the forefront in trying to make history interesting to students in a medium that they understand, which is television. And now also, through the Internet and computers.

We’ve made a very large effort to try to make sure that we’re reaching the kids through a medium that they understand. As a matter of fact, we’ve been recognized quite a bit in this past year with a number of awards, including an Emmy for interactive programming. I think the fact that we’re telling these stories in a very visual and active way, in a language and in a style that the kids can relate to, really is something very unique.

Lloyd: How long have the two of you been working on this?

Frances: From the concept: probably about three years, two years. From script and Web activities to production was probably 18 months. But it was almost one full year of filming, even video and working on all the audio.

Linda: And a lot of cooperation with a lot of different people. That day in October, again, because access to the park is so limited, we had two teams of directors and camera people out there: one part of the park, shooting the cannon and getting that activity, the other part doing the re-enactment of the battle. A lot of effort there, just within our own organization of bringing as many people as we could into this effort.

Lloyd: Now you don’t have to answer this; but I can’t help but ask. Did it go as you planned?

Linda: Actually, from my perspective, it went so close according to plan that it was pretty impressive. I had to storyboard out the battle scene to make sure that we didn’t waste time and didn’t waste effort and were as efficient as we could be on the field. Bill Wagner was the director who was interpreting my storyboard and shooting with the crew that day.

And, so many of the shots that we got matched so closely to what we visualized, that from that perspective, going into the edit room and putting it together was actually very easy production-wise. I think the story that we told really encompassed a lot of message points that we thought were important. I think, in that sense, it went very well.

Logistically, it took a long time to get to that point, but I think all that planning really paid off. I really tip my hat to Frances in that respect, because she was the one who was guiding and making sure that everything that I needed as a director and editor was there to put the show together.

Lloyd: Well, we all get to watch on October 19th and see how it turned out. That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. The electronic field trip “Yorktown” premieres October 19th on local Public Broadcasting stations, and on history.org/trips. For future podcasts, check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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