Since Molly on the shore likes nothing better than being by the sea, and since today is Rhode Island Independence Day, after all, the ruminations concern colonial Newport. We’ll get to the acting momentarily, I promise. By May of 1776 little RI had had enough of King George’s tomfoolery and became the first to renounce allegiance to Merry Olde England. Ironically, RI was the last to ratify the Constitution in May of 1790. RI participated heavily in the triangle trade…sorry folks, we’re in the north so many believe we didn’t have much slavery, but unfortunately we can’t hide the sad and disturbing fact that our little state played a significant role in that trade, and that southern RI and Newport, in particular, had a large enslaved population during the 18th-century. RI obtained molasses from the West Indies and turned it into rum in the many distilleries in the state. Newport had approximately 22 of the roughly 30 distilleries in the state. In fact, an original stillhouse, now a private residence, exists in Pawtuxet village to this day on what was once “Stillhouse Lane” (now Ocean Ave). The rum manufactured in RI was traded for slaves in Africa, who were then sold to the plantations in the West Indies in exchange for more molasses. Britain’s attempts to control commerce in the colonies angered Rhode Islanders, and in 1772 Lt. William Dudingston’s harassment of shipping in order to enforce maritime law and prevent smuggling led to the famous Gaspee incident.
Not the Gaspee (actually, the sloop Providence)
Also not the Gaspee but…it’s the closest photo I had.
Cut to the 21st century. Brown University, in conjunction with both the Rhode Island and Newport Historical Societies, is using a revolutionary technology to tell the story of “an event that took place in revolutionary America”. Brown’s virtual reality artist in residence, with the assistance of some history students, is using a 360-degree stereoscopic camera, loaned by Google, to tell the story of the Gaspee incident. This team will be using properties such as the Stephen Hopkins House, and the John Brown House in Providence, as well as Colony House and other properties in Newport. There was a large scene with many extras filmed already, with Lexington’s Buckman tavern serving as the stand-in for Sabin’s tavern in Providence, which is no longer standing. Here’s where the acting comes in. I was contacted by friends at both the RI and Newport Historical Societies, asking whether I’d be willing to participate. My “yes” was almost as rapid as a speeding musket ball, which is odd considering that I have no known acting talent. Ok, yeah I was in the “King and I” musical in high school many, many years ago, but that doesn’t really count, right? I decided that a) it’d be fun, b) it would be using virtual reality to teach kids history, which would be WAY more engaging than standard classroom lecturing, c) it would be an excuse to wear my colonials on a random day and, d) it’d be FUN!
Thus, Molly found herself making her on-camera debut portraying Samuel Adams’ second wife Elizabeth Wells, also known as Betsy. Even though I knew it would be only a brief scene where Sam discusses a letter he’s received from RI (don’t you like how I’ve just decided to call him Sam as if I know him?), I wanted to know as much as I could about Betsy before playing her. I’d hoped to find a portrait somewhere because if at all possible I would try to replicate her clothing and accessories as nearly as time and budget would permit. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to find anything other than that Betsy was a “pleasant and hard-working woman who…supported him in every way” and had helped to raise the children from Sam’s first marriage, also to a woman named Elizabeth, who died after giving birth to a stillborn son in 1757. Betsy was also considerably younger in 1772 than I am now, and my “co-star” was also younger than I, but I hoped I had enough youthful enthusiasm and few enough wrinkles to pull it off. I knew that old Sam wasn’t all that successful as the town tax collector, and even though he was influential politically and well respected, he certainly wasn’t rich. So the notion of wearing a gorgeously trimmed silk gown with fancy accessories (like the portrait of Mrs. Hancock) went out the window rather quickly. I decided that I’d wear a slightly worn blue wool gown with a quilted petticoat, but that my accessories would be slightly more upscale than a middle-class woman working in her home might wear, in order to reflect Sam’s influence amongst the townspeople. Therefore I chose a white ruffled fine linen handkerchief around my neck, a white embroidered apron, a fine linen cap with a silk ribbon, fine linen mitts, and original paste stone shoe-buckles on higher heeled shoes.
The gentleman portraying Sam was someone I already knew from the living history and museum world and since we weren’t required to have a hot love scene or anything, I figured we’d manage just fine together. He chose a nicely worn wool coat, with slightly snazzier breeches and waistcoat, and a fabulous embroidered cap for the indoor scene. Filming was on a beautiful spring day at one of Newport Historical Society’s (NHS) properties, the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard house. I got out of my car in my “colonials” and was promptly greeted by some dude yelling “HEY THE BRITISH ARE COMING!!!”, even though I was wearing a blue gown and there was no red coat in sight. You wouldn’t know it from the photo, but the house is on busy Broadway right in the center of town near Washington Square, so the filming was interrupted several times by sirens, motorcycles, and loudly idling trucks. We did some practice scenes in front of the house to loosen up a bit while we were awaiting an NHS staff member to come unlock the house. Once we got inside, the house was fantastic, and of course, I was drooling. One of the kids…I mean students…said to me “so you like old houses, huh?”. Understatement of the year. I won’t digress too much, but the house is worth seeing for the original details, the beautiful paint colors based on the original colors uncovered on the woodwork and walls, the delft tiles on one of the fireplaces, and the back kitchen with the unusual wall treatment. Read all about the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard house here, and please visit if you get the chance.
The Wanton-Lyman-Hazard house, Broadway, Newport, RI
The Colony House, Washington Square, Newport, RI
We’d gotten our lines the afternoon before and had repeated them aloud at home, and even goofily practiced them in the mirror, but it was still a bit nerve-wracking. Sam had more to say than I did, but we both kept stumbling over our lines and how to say them. I don’t know how many times we did the scene…we rehearsed with one of the students repeatedly before we did it on camera. Once we were on camera, even with hidden cheat notes, we kept saying the wrong thing, forgetting to say something entirely, making each other laugh, joking around when we blew it– you name it. One of the students stepped in a few times to coach us on how better to deliver the lines and to make other minor corrections these novice actors might need. Indeed, for the first few takes I was simply saying my lines, trying to put the emPHAsis on the correct syllAble, and generally failing every time. Forget hand gestures and facial expressions because I’m actually lucky I can walk and chew gum at the same time without tripping and falling flat on my face. Anyone ever fallen flat on her face whilst wearing stays? Because I have. Once you’re down, you’re like a turtle on its back and it’s bloody difficult to get back up without flashing your undergarments or requiring a hoist. Fortunately, it didn’t happen this day, even though my shoe buckle got caught on the hem of my petticoat and ripped it out so that I nearly tripped while standing on the top step of the house. In any event, by the hundredth read through (in truth I don’t know how many times we actually did it), we both managed to say the lines correctly, with the appropriate inflection, facial expressions, and gestures and we got a “that’s IT!” and a high-five from one of the students. It took us about 2.5 hours all told, while the scene itself was approximately 2 minutes long. The time estimate was pretty well on the money though. We were scheduled from 1- 4 p.m. and we finished up at around 3:30.
Sam and Betsy on the steps of their home. Sam has just received a letter about which he is quite distraught. I dunno, we don’t look too distraught, do we? I think we’re actually laughing at this line… “Surely the colony of RI cannot allow this to occur?” “Perhaps not. And don’t call me Shirley, wifey”. Don’t worry, THAT won’t be in the final cut. Photo courtesy Adam Blumenthal, Brown University.
With Adam and the students, setting the scene. This is a good example of what a shot with the 360-degree camera looks like. Photo courtesy Adam Blumenthal, Brown University.
It was fun (seriously fun), and while I’d love to do it again, acting well ain’t as easy as you might think. Many of you are in the drama field and already know this, so for you guys, I’m stating the obvious. But until I tried it, I really didn’t know what it felt like to act in front of a camera. I will never again assume that an actor has an easy job and makes easy money. I can’t imagine having to learn an entire series script and deliver it convincingly. Acting is extremely hard work, and really talented actors deserve all the awards they receive, especially those who do their own stunts. And older ladies don’t often get great roles, so Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, you’re my heroes. You’ll no doubt be able to see my small scene of bad acting once the whole thing has been put together, though I highly doubt it will lead to any sort of fame and fortune, thank goodness. Seriously though, if just one kid learns something from it, the whole project will have been worth the time and expense for everyone who participated in, conducted research for, and funded this project. Besides, did I mention that it was FUN?! Add that to a gorgeous spring day with the flowers and trees blooming all around, the smell and feel of the breeze off the ocean, and the inexplicable sounding of the fog horn in the distance (there was no fog to be discerned that day), and you’re set up for quite the magical experience. I’d do it again in a minute, and I can’t wait to see the final project with the performances of all the participants.