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Under the Big Top

By Lynn Fabian Lasner | HUMANITIES, July/August 2002 | Volume 23, Number 4

From late June until the last day in July, historians take time out of their classrooms to gather under a circus tent and reenact some of history’s most interesting characters.

Audiences come for magic. They come for community. Some even come for summer vacation, following the Chautauqua as it wends its way through the Great Plains. “We actually have Chautauqua groupies that plan their vacations around this event,” says Everett Albers, executive director of the North Dakota Humanities Council, one of the five state councils that organizes the Great Plains series. “We seek scholars in the humanities, not actors,” says Albers. “We expect that they are so well-acquainted with their characters, they can speak in the voice of that character for thirty to forty minutes as a prelude for the humanities event that we all look for--and that is the dialog with the audience.”

Each evening opens with an introduction by a moderator that leads into a short, unscripted presentation by the night’s featured historical figure. Performing scholars come to the Chautauqua immersed in facts and stories about their characters and the times in which they lived. And they had better get it right--especially the scholars playing characters who have lived in the twentieth century. Charles Everett Pace, assistant professor of anthropology and American studies at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, has portrayed Langston Hughes and Malcolm X. “I was at the University of Michigan in Dearborn--Detroit has the largest Middle Eastern community in the country--and I was playing Malcolm X,” he tells. “The audience was a good 30 percent Middle Eastern students, and some of them came up to me after the show. ‘We came not knowing what to expect,’ they said, ‘and we shot questions at you from this direction and that direction . . . and you were right on time.’ Now, they were very aware of the position Malcolm X held in Islamic culture, and they wanted to make sure I knew my stuff!”

Scholars build their characters from their own extensive research. “Each scholar comes to his or her own conclusions as to the meaning of that character,” Pace explains. “There are times when there are different interpretations between characters . . . and that is the heart and soul of the Chautauqua. The audience sees it and is turned on by that.”

Controversy may creep into this year’s Chautauqua. William Clark presents his experience of the Lewis and Clark Expedition one night; York, his slave, tells his tale on a different evening. Audiences might question Clark’s stand on slavery and why his respect for American Indian culture that he gained on his trip did not translate into his views about slavery. Jeffrey Smith, aka Chautauqua’s William Clark, and associate professor of history at Lindenwood University in St. Louis says, “Here is York thinking that something good is going to happen for him, yet, when they get back, everything is status quo in Clark’s relationship with his slave. It doesn’t make sense with Clark’s other radical views, but Clark is a Southerner. And, he’s also a real person who has as many inconsistencies as the rest of us.” Pace, aka York, sees it this way: “York feels as though he’s given his service to his nation and now he should be compensated with his freedom, or at least be allowed to go to Louisiana to hire himself out and send the money back to Clark. But Clark had known York all his life, and now that he’s getting all this attention, he wants York with him because he considers him a valuable asset. York, on the other hand, just wants to be with his wife in Louisiana.”

Chautauqua performers live as scholars-in-residence for a week in the towns that host their performances. Over the course of a typical week, audience members have time to mull over what they’ve seen and heard. “They see us in the local gas stations and grocery stores,” says Smith. “We wash our clothes at the same laundromat . . . and those are the places where the conversations take place. ‘Been thinking about this,’ they might say, or ‘what do you make of that?’ The fact that we’re right there with them, living in their community for a week, makes all the difference. We jumpstart this big community conversation. This is the way learning is supposed to go.”

How do scholars ‘get into the skins’ of the characters they portray? “You read and read and read and read,” says Ruth Alexander, former head of the English department at South Dakota State University. Alexander once played Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “the intellectual center of the nineteenth-century women’s movement.” One Sunday morning in the tiny town of Marmouth, North Dakota, Alexander saw just what a strong response her portrayal of Stanton could arouse. It happened after she delivered one of the fiery sermons for which her character was well known.

“We had set up our tent in a rodeo field, close to the Montana border,” Alexander remembers. “I began to give my sermon about women’s rights in the church. A rancher’s wife sat in the audience, listening intently. Her husband stood in the back of the room, distracted, while this woman kept leaning forward in her chair. Elizabeth Cady Stanton attacked the church for making women raise so much of its money, yet giving them no say about where that money went . . . and for letting traditional theology ‘put women in their inferior place.’ Well, eventually, the woman in the audience turned to her husband and spoke out, loudly telling him that she refuses to continue cleaning the church! She was taking the presentation very seriously.”

Kris Runberg Smith, a doctoral student and lecturer in American history, has accompanied her husband on former Chautauquas. This year she will be onstage as Dolley Madison, who serves as the moderator for a roster of historical guests: William Clark, York, Sacagawea, Tecumseh, and John Jacob Astor. “Dolley Madison was basically the first lady of Washington until she died,” says Runberg Smith. “She was Jefferson’s official hostess, and then she spent eight years in the White House with her husband. She was very deliberate about it . . . especially since her husband, the president, was so shy.”

The current Great Plains Chautauqua began in North Dakota in the late 1970s. “Folks in North Dakota don’t like to go indoors for the six weeks of summer,” explains Albers, “and we’d just inherited a big tent from a university.” Traveling Chautauquas had once roamed the Great Plains earlier in the twentieth century. “My mother, who is eighty-nine, remembers when my grandfather found the money to take the whole family to see a traveling Chautauqua. I believe the tradition died because costs went up and promoters started going in for cheap entertainment, trying to cut corners.” In the 1960s, something happened that opened Albers’s eyes to a revival. “I’d seen political science professor Mulford Q. Sibley make quite a splash at the University of Minnesota when he gave his lectures in a huge barn. One day he’d be Plato, another day, someone else. Seventeen hundred people would show up to those lectures! That was my inspiration for the current Chautauqua. Nineteen eighty was the first time we took it outside of North Dakota--to Wyoming. Garrison Keillor and Butch Thompson warmed up the crowd, and then Teddy Roosevelt took the stage.”

Breathing life into Chautauqua’s historical characters requires the knowledge of a teacher and the pathos of an actor. How, then, does the experience of “joining the circus” for the summer, as Jeff Smith puts it, translate back into the classroom?

“I know I approached the subject of ‘Indian removal’ differently this year--and I think, much better--because I’ve been seeing it through William Clark’s eyes,” Smith says. He feels sure that the skills called upon during the Chautauqua teach a teacher to spin a better yarn. “You’re a better storyteller, so students connect better to what you’re teaching in the classroom. It’s never just what you’re telling, but are you telling it well?”

Smith knows that a teacher’s concrete experiences can make history more real for students: “You just naturally understand the Oregon Trail better when you’ve been out there on it.” Pace sums up his experience performing for an audience versus teaching in a classroom: “I’m making the argument that the American quest for democracy is a valid story for them. It doesn’t matter whether I’m telling my story in South Africa or in my classroom. It’s the same thing.”

The Chautauqua is a panacea for lifelong learners. “What happens in the classroom is important--and what happens in the fifty or sixty years after we’re out of the classroom is equally important,” says Smith. Runberg Smith adds: “It’s hard to understand that, out of a town of maybe eight hundred people, four hundred show up on a hot summer night and sit under a tent, but that’s what happens.”

Blame it on the big top. Blame it on many Americans’ love of biography and longing for community. Blame it on a group of dedicated historical scholars following a grueling summer schedule to spread the word that history is alive and well and living in America’s heartland. “When the Chautauqua works,” says Albers, “it’s magic. It happens in a place that doesn’t belong to anyone in particular. It belongs to everyone.”

About the Author

Lynn Fabian Lasner is a writer in Mill Valley, California.