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April 21, 2005

An early American theater lost … and found

News and Information

It all started with an old hole in the ground discovered on the 301-acre site of the Colonial Williamsburg living museum in Virginia.

And then another, and another.

Their spacing at even, 8-foot intervals was the first clue — these were the remains of a building of some sort, but what? There had been a public theater on the site, long ago lost to time — but was this it?

About then, Odai Johnson — UW associate professor of drama, author and a historian well versed in the colonial American theater — came into the picture. It happened he was nearby, doing research at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.

“The curator knew someone down in Williamsburg and heard there was a dig under way looking for this theater,” said Johnson, a bearded, soft-spoken theater historian who has published two books on the theater of colonial America, with plans for more. “(He) let them know they had a theater scholar in residence.”

The story since then is one of startling information gleaned from sparse clues and hopes of restoring a splendid, centuries-old theater to performing life. “I got the enviable job of being a sort of researcher on the project,” Johnson said.

Over the centuries, it had been known that there was a theater somewhere at Colonial Williamsburg in the mid-1700s, run by an impresario named David Douglass, who managed his own theatrical company and owned as many as 16 theaters during his long career, from Rhode Island to Barbados. Such a performing house may have been located across from the historic Blue Bell Tavern on the Williamsburg site, where 148 other buildings had already been restored to historic accuracy. But even that wasn’t close enough to begin excavation. As Johnson said, “‘Near’ is no place to put a shovel in the ground.”

The ground provided few clues as to what it contained; no obviously telltale relics of an old theater, such as footlights or stage mechanisms, were located. One of the only discovered hints, Johnson said, was residue revealing what had years before been a nine-inch iron spike. These were used back then to separate the audience from the stage area, keeping the actors and scenery safe from encounters with unsatisfied or offended audience members.

Johnson said the archaeologists working the site wondered, “‘If we found this theater, what would its likely dimensions be?’” He inspected the site and researched theaters built during Douglass’ long career. “I was able to offer a composite picture of what this building may have looked like,” he said.

The holes seemed to show that the building had been about 70 by 44 feet, “but what sold it for us was a brick dividing line at 30 feet,” Johnson said. That indicated a 70 by 30-foot playhouse space — the right size for the time — with another 15 feet or so along one long side for various dressing rooms and a green room.

Even then, they knew only about the building’s general shape. “It’s not a remarkable building on the outside,” Johnson said. “It only gets interesting on the inside.” He said much of how the interior looked could be implied, if not known for certain, by studying other theaters of the era. Research showed the theater had been built in a quick eight weeks, and on a sort of generic, no-frills building plan.

“Theater-going was not frivolous” at that time, Johnson said. Audiences went to the theater as much to be seen there as to take in the dramas offered. “The playhouse helped to bring a genteel culture to the colonies.” At that time, the colonial audiences’ tastes were beginning to change, he said, but did not yet reflect the growing frustration with the British crown that led to revolution. Players passing through, mostly out of London, were welcomed warmly and without any political agenda.

Johnson said even the founding fathers present during the theater’s public times — troupes passed through and played mostly when business was being conducted by lawmakers — regularly attended the theater for recreation and social mingling. He discovered, for instance, that Thomas Jefferson, then a young attorney on his way up, attended the theater six nights out of seven in one particular week. Johnson said he learned this not from Jefferson’s writings, but from the lawyer’s expense books from the time, which show his payments for theater tickets.

Shakespeare was a well-loved and often-produced playwright even in the old theater, Johnson said, but other, more contemporary pieces were popular, too. Even Patrick Henry’s famous line “Give me liberty or give me death” was lifted from a popular play of the time, Addison’s Cato, Johnson said.

Cary Carson, vice president of Colonial Williamsburg’s research division, said Johnson “came to our attention through his published work.” Carson was pleased to find that “someone far, far away knew things about Williamsburg that we didn’t know.”

Carson said the project will proceed in phases and that he will need to seek permission from the Colonial Williamsburg board of directors before even beginning the fund-raising necessary for the theater restoration project, much less starting construction. When the research phase of the project is complete, Carson said, the hope is to have “a set of detailed drawings of what we think David Douglass’ theater looked like, inside and out, in great detail.”

Getting to restore the old theater is a much larger, and more expensive proposition. “I am actually very hopeful,” Carson said. “But at the same time I need to caution everyone I share these hopes with that there is a definite firewall between the research and later phases that will start with fund-raising.”

All the digging, speculation and research lead to one overarching question, Johnson said: “What do you do with a great 18th century theater once you open it?” This is where famous stage and screen actor Christopher Plummer came in.

Plummer, known for many a Shakespearean turn as well as more popular fare such as The Sound of Music and even Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, was in the area filming The New World, a movie about colonial America (the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown Colony will be in 2007), heard about the project and took a personal interest.

Plummer is excited about the “acoustic space” that the new theater might be for acting, Johnson said, and expressed a willingness to help with the project, even offering to perform one-man shows to help with fund-raising.

“His real value to us,” Carson said, “is his long, long string of good friends and acquaintances throughout the theater world to whom he could provide introductions. We need that.”

Johnson noted that if the theater is restored, it will have the dual challenge of being as historically accurate as possible while also being comfortable for modern audiences. Public theater seating in the 18th century was not spacious — the seats usually comprised a small space along a 9-inch-wide bench with about a foot of leg room in front. “It’s a different dynamic of theater-going. You don’t own your own seat, you’re just there. It’s a much more social experience, by force,” Johnson said. “This was worse than coach seating!”

Also, questions of satisfying audience needs with air conditioning — unknown in the 1700s, of course — and handicapped access will have to be solved, as well as the intricate requirements of the Uniform Building Code.

Johnson will write a book about the Colonial Williamsburg theater project, and also is writing a biography of the working life of David Douglass. Sarah Nash Gates, who heads the School of Drama, praised Johnson for his enthusiasm about this historical project, and teaching in general: “His passion for his subject is evident when you talk with him and when he teaches. He makes you care about these things which happened centuries ago — and helps you understand their relevance today,” she said.

Even while stressing that restoring the theater is a multimillion dollar project still very much in the “hoping” phase, Carlson said it’s his wish to see a working theater at Colonial Williamsburg to entertain tourists during the day and other theater-goers in the evening.

So, from a hole in the ground in Virginia has come a fascinating research project about the 18th century that may evolve into a creative place for the 21st century.

If it succeeds, Johnson said, “There will be public times when the players will come to town again.”