A midsummer night’s speech

Great Basin Chautauqua raises the dead to speak about today’s issues

History repeats itself under the “big tent” at Great Basin Chautauqua.

History repeats itself under the “big tent” at Great Basin Chautauqua.

Some 1,000 area residents attended the 15th annual Great Basin Chautauqua last year. That’s about average for the event. For one week in July, sweltering evenings, lively music and public dialogue combine to form a slice of our community in its most pensive—and sweaty—condition.

The scene at the park during Chautauqua is a vivid picture of devotion. A closely congregated crowd, peppered with popcorn bags and small coolers, meets underneath a large white canopy rented for the occasion. Audience members spill out from the tent and onto the surrounding grass, vigorously waving improvised fans. Heat is often the elephant in the room during Great Basin Chautauqua, but changing the time of year for the event would border on sacrilege. Chautauqua places a lot of importance on preserving cultural history, and its own roots go back more than 100 years to summer get-togethers on the lawn. Not that the audience seems too bothered by the elements. During last year’s Chautauqua, the crowd laughed and fanned themselves as “Theodore Roosevelt” took them to task for looking wilted.

“Did you know that on my honeymoon, I climbed the Matterhorn?” he asked, half-testily, half-jokingly. “And in the badlands of Dakota, I suffered days much, much hotter than these!”

For those not already familiar with Chautauqua, it features performers who dress, act and speak as long-dead, famous Americans. Obviously, an event like this needs an emcee—something Chautauqua has in spades since each character addresses the crowd directly. Its performers research the lives and works of famous figures from history, don period costumes and act as metaphorical mediums.

“It takes college professors out of the ivory tower and puts them into a public situation,” says Clay Jenkinson, one of Great Basin Chautauqua’s most recognizable ambassadors and the man who will perform as writer John Steinbeck this month. “The liberation of creativity and imagination for a professor accustomed to talking about Shakespeare is a wonderful thing. The performer is asked to make a leap of imagination, rather than just evaluating the character.”

Begun in 1874 at Lake Chautauqua, N.Y., as a religious institute that trained Sunday school teachers, the foundation quickly broadened its scope. It expanded to include instruction in theater, music and academics. Eventually, it became a kind of educational resort spot, inviting popular musical groups and speakers that could rouse crowds—much like its modern incarnation in Reno. The fruits of that labor inspired a movement that spread first throughout the Great Plains and to the West.

Clay Jenkinson portrays John Steinbeck at Chautauqua on July 17.

Theodore Roosevelt (the real one) spoke at Lake Chautauqua in 1904, drinking in the experience and calling it, “the most American place in America.” Despite a waning in the movement after the turn of the century, Chautauqua is back—as popular as ever, although it is still a fairly localized phenomenon existing in small pockets throughout the United States. According to organizers, Great Basin Chautauqua is the best-attended event of its kind in the country.

Suiting up
There is a long tradition of ordinary Americans getting into costume to pay homage to history: War re-enactors and celebrity impersonators are the most well-known examples. While Chautauqua performers are not likely to include Elvis in their lineup anytime soon, they do a job similar to that of an impersonator. Applying intensive research to the historical figures they play on stage, they deliver informed monologues in the first-person about the subject’s life and work. Their expansive research also prepares them to face unpredictable questions from the crowd.

“The crowd is usually on board,” says Jenkinson. “It’s amazing how thoroughly and quickly they suspend disbelief.”

Of course, there are a few horror stories, and Jenkinson described such an incident: A Chautauquan was performing in front of a Las Vegas audience as Eleanor Roosevelt when she was approached with a question for which she had no answer. The audience member asked why FDR had turned away 950 Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in 1939. The group was fleeing Nazi Germany but was sent back to Hamburg, where many later died in the Holocaust. In a manner unbecoming a first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was forced to stammer out an evasive answer.

It’s a history buff’s dream and/or nightmare: Speaking with an influential person from the past about current topics. Though Chautauqua performers are often jocular, there is a seriousness to what they are trying to accomplish that keeps them rigidly in character throughout their performances, no matter how tough the going gets.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley delivers the keynote address on July 15.

The same goes for the group of Young Chautauquans performing this month. Local students will open the festivities as the first performers under the big tent. Jenkinson says the kids rise to the occasion of filling the shoes of such important figures.

“It turns young people into interested historians because they realize that history can be very fun,” he says. Jenkinson describes how preparing for Chautauqua sends students running into libraries and researching online for information.

“For a young person to take on Madame Curie or Einstein—it’s just sweet to think about the process,” he says.

Deconstructing creativity
This summer, Great Basin Chautauqua is themed around exploring the nature of creativity. Characters will include John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neil, Scott Joplin, J.S. Bach, Sir Thomas Malory and Giovanni Boccaccio.

A familiar name in modern American literature will also be present at this summer’s Great Basin Chautauqua. Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres and Moo, is the keynote speaker for the event. Smiley will deliver a talk on July 16, after which she will participate in a round table with the Chautauqua performers. She’ll also have the opportunity to converse with Boccaccio, the 18th-century author of The Decameron, the book that is the loose basis for Smiley’s latest novel, Ten Days in the Hills.

The group will discuss the nature of creativity and genius, topics that Jenkinson (as himself) questioned Smiley and other artists about recently. He acknowledges that there is some difficulty involved with pinning down the origins of such nebulous ideas.

“People sort of threw up their hands,” he says. “It’s not quite clear where it comes from. One thing that is clear is that every 4-year-old is creative, but every 40-year-old isn’t. Creativity is the parent of human character but difficult to maintain throughout a lifetime of pressures.”

Hopefully, the open-air experience of this year’s Chautauqua will help revive some flagging creative—and childlike—spirits.