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Big Top in a Small Town

The Revival of Chautauqua

By Carol Lee | HUMANITIES, May/June 2000 | Volume 21, Number 3

The young African American man politely asked, "Do you believe that I'm inferior, Mr. Jefferson?"

Clay Jenkinson, in the guise of the Founding Father, was standing in front of an audience at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver. "I just wanted to rip my wig off and say that I'm not Jefferson. It was a horrible moment."

He hesitated, he says, and then began answering, using Jefferson's own writings on slavery.

But before he finished, Jenkinson broke out of character and told the students that the question was too important not to be fully addressed. So they talked, scholar and students. "It was a time when the humanities had done their work."

Jenkinson is a leader in the resurgence of the Chautauqua programs aimed at educating viewers while entertaining them. Chautauqua performers, often scholars, take on the personas of historic figures and interpret them for the public. "This isn't the standard Pollyanna story of American history," says Jenkinson, who believes in presenting his characters warts and all.

Theodore Roosevelt once described Chautauqua as "the most American thing in America." Hugely popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their revival, with a new twist, has been possible thanks to state humanities councils around the country. They now occur in more than twenty states.

The original movement started in 1874 when Sunday school teachers began meeting for Bible study at Lake Chautauqua in New York.

"The first Chautauquas were religious entertainment, and they had 'real people' on stage," says Carroll Peterson, a professor of English at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, and performer with the National Chautauqua Tour.

"Scholars focused on topics as scholars and essentially gave lectures. These were moralists, and the love of country was among the most popular subjects for their talks," says Peterson. "Williams Jennings Bryan was probably the most popular speaker, and he usually gave his 'Prince of Peace' sermon on Jesus."

These gatherings eventually grew into touring educational, social, and recreational assemblies held under giant tents throughout the summer. Offerings included lectures, concerts, and other entertainment. At their peak in 1924, weeklong Chautauquas were held in twelve thousand towns, entertaining thirty-two million people. They remained popular into the 1930s when they had to compete with radio and movies.

"The earlier Chautauqua also sank to hucksterism and pandered to sensationalism," says Everett Albers. "In short, it was less than great, superficial."

Albers was instrumental in reviving the Chautauqua movement in North Dakota. Eventually, the North Dakota council joined the humanities councils in South Dakota, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, to form the Great Plains Chautauqua Society.

Modern Chautauquas retain the spirit of the original ones in that they focus on entertaining education, they ideally take place under a tent, and they serve as a community's central activity for a given week. But "the biggest difference in Chautauqua today is the focus on the humanities," says Peterson.

"When we began Chautauqua, we did what amounted to one-man and one-woman shows, like Hal Holbrooke's Mark Twain Tonight or Belle of Amherst," says Jenkinson. "We soon realized that this approach was not taking full advantage of the humanities potential of the form."

Now, after performers give their monologue, they stay in character for question-and-answer sessions. At the end, the performer addresses the audience as a scholar.

Performers find the in-character responses a challenge, because it is totally "unscripted history," says University of Nevada English professor Anne Bail Howard, a member of the National Chautauqua Tour.

"Questions, or at least our answers, must stay true to the time," says Howard, who portrays Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin, and Dorothy Parker. "Often people want to ask Louisa May Alcott if she is a feminist or ask my traveling show partner who portrays Walt Whitman if he is a homosexual." When characters cannot answer such questions because the labels were not used in their time, the audience often works harder to craft questions that allow them to talk about subjects that were handled differently in the past. The result can be a highly stimulating exchange from which audience members gain insights not only by the information they receive but also by the exercise of essentially entering another era through wrestling with that period's use of language and approach to public debate.

"A lot of what we, as Americans, think of ourselves is based on a very simplified understanding of our past," Jenkinson says. "We need a more nuanced view of American history. That's what Chautauqua offers."

There's no doubt Chautauquas are regaining popularity. "People load up in RVs and follow Chautauqua groups around," Albers says, with some amusement. "These are groupies who plan their whole summers around one Chautauqua group or another."

Albers thinks the movement has appeal because first-person characterizations are a "vehicle for breaking barriers," he says. "There's a huge difference between talking through the first person and delivering a lecture. The first person allows the audience to almost time travel."

Recalling an extended, earnest dialog about agnosticism that occurred between a Chautauquan portraying Thomas Paine and a group of conservative Christians in the audience, Albers says, "It was an extraordinary thing. It could never have happened in a lecture, and it's what America could be--breaking barriers, actually talking."

Examples of such interaction abound among Chautauquans, and the experiences touch and change performers and audience members alike. "I have seen people really surprise their neighbors," says Albers. "One person will get up and ask a question and the person next to them will say, 'I didn't know you were interested in such and such.' The setting allows people to meet each other anew in a non-threatening place that encourages dialog."

For scholars, the experience generally proves so satisfying they seldom ever get Chautauqua out of their systems. "The scholars get so hooked that a Chautauqua character generally doesn't die until the performer dies," says Albers.

"Chautauqua is the most gratifying thing I have ever done," concurs Jean Jordan, who has performed through the New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities for fifteen years. "I am an actress and a writer, and was teaching nonfiction writing before I became a Chautauqua fanatic. It combines everything for me, including my being a preacher's daughter who used to go to tent meetings every summer."

Jordan enjoys bringing live theater and history to remote parts of her state. She takes pleasure in recalling her portrayal of Sadie Orchard, New Mexico's only female stagecoach driver.

"My research for Chautauqua takes me to a lot of cemeteries as I travel around the state to check on my characters," she says. "The first time I went to Sadie Orchard's grave, I remember seeing only a few small wildflowers. Now, when I have occasion to go back there, I see up to fifteen pots of flowers on her grave."

State council involvement in Chautauquas ranges from providing individual performers to a speakers bureau. The Colorado Endowment for the Humanities offers Calamity Jane, Willa Cather, and James Joyce through its bureau. Kentucky includes statesman Henry Clay and Governor Simon B. Buckner; the New Mexico council sponsors speakers who portray Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and Kit Carson.

The New Hampshire Humanities Council has sponsored a Chautauqua for several years in different parts of the state. Themes have included "Democracy in America" and "Beginning the American Century." Others like Maryland and South Carolina, have done one-week Chautauquas.

A few states--North Dakota, Ohio, and Missouri and Illinois jointly--have committed their resources to produce annual Chautauquas. North Dakota's Great Plains Chautauqua will take its program "Behold Our New Century: Early Twentieth Century Visions of America" to ten communities over the next two years. The Ohio Humanities Council will provide characters to five communities. The theme of the performances will be "Creating the Twentieth Century: Ohio Voices."

Together, the Missouri and Illinois councils launched the Heartland Chautauqua in 1994. "Our goal is eventually to have seven towns to guarantee Chautauqua coverage," says Michael Bouman, executive director of the Missouri Humanities Council. That means finding seven communities committed to bringing Chautauqua back every summer, as well as increasing the number of towns willing to host the program for a single summer.

"In Chautauqua we see something that unites our interests with the economic developments of the states," says Bouman, who believes the programs will draw tourists. This summer, the Heartland programs will play in five towns in Missouri and three in Illinois. The theme will be the Civil War. Next year's will be the Jazz Age, and the year after will be Lewis and Clark.

The Colorado Endowment for the Humanities began promoting Chautauquas fifteen years ago through training programs, program grants, and the Rocky Mountain Book Festival. This summer the state council and the Weld Library District will host the state's first tent Chautauqua in Greeley. The Nevada Humanities Committee, veterans in putting on tent Chautauquas, helped Colorado plan the themes, and Clay Jenkinson is to moderate.

Pulling off the events requires communities to work together "as they never have before, often working alongside people in the community they have never known before," says Barbara Gill, deputy director of the Missouri Humanities Council. The orientation and planning begins months before the event. There may be book discussions in local libraries to help awaken interest in the programs. Organizers also must find people to raise the tent, handle the sound, and do countless other tasks. "It's truly an exciting community project," says Gill.

During a Chautauqua week, there are daily activities for adults and children as well as the main event of historical characterization. In some towns, programs have drawn as many as six hundred people a night to tents that hold three hundred. People end up sitting outside on their own chairs or blankets. But even with such a crowd, "people get pulled into the experience of another life through the program." says Bouman. "They really believe they are hearing Ulysses S. Grant or whoever is doing the presentation, and the characters become mini-cultural heroes. I've seen kids ask performers for autographs of the characters they are portraying."

The result of the experience is "palpable community development both before and after the event," says Bouman. "There is a lasting impact, which can make it possible to follow with other programs to build community coherence. In the end that can lead to greater support for such institutions as the local museum and other arts groups."

On a more personal level, Chautauqua also "encourages further reading and helps people realize they have something to talk about beyond last night's ball game," says Peterson. "It is exciting to see a local car salesperson, school principal, druggist, and local housewife show up and find a topic of shared interest for sustained conversation--perhaps for the first time."

About the Author

Carol Lee is a writer in Washington, D.C.