History That Won't Stay in a Book!

That is the tagline for Chautauqua Greenville, pronounced "shuh-TALK-wa." Its live presentations are part education, part entertainment, but always thought-provoking. Chautauqua has its roots in a United Methodist campground for Sunday school teachers on Lake Chautauqua in Upstate New York.  Under a large tent, the camp began providing entertainment to its captive audience.  The Chautauqua Institute has inspired 10 or so such offerings around the United States, and Greenville is privileged to be home to one.

From the early 1900s to the 1930s, the days before radio and television, these cultural and entertainment roadshows traveled by car and train across America and Canada as the most exciting event in the community during the summer.  At one time performing in 10,000 communities to 45 million people, they were dismantled by the Great Depression. One community on the circuit was Greenville, South Carolina, and the tent was pitched in McPherson Park.

In the 1970s, The National Endowment for the Arts revitalized the Chautauqua Tent Assemblies as a means of  "providing lively, interactive and authentic humanities education," more often than not outdoors so as to be free and accessible to the public.
 
Greenville Chautauqua has been in production continuously since 1999, founded by George Frein, Ph.D., who has since served as its artistic director, as well as a scholar/performer.  He has stood in for Dr. Seuss, Einstein, and at this year's festival, he will be Carl Jung.  He was joined by Sally Potosky, President and Executive Director since 2000, and her sister, Caroline McIntyre, Administrator since 2000. 

Chautauqua runs in Sally's and Caroline's blood.  Both parents worked in the traveling Tent Chautauqua at the beginning of the 20th century: Their mother, Dolly, sang in a Light Opera Company on the Chautauqua circuit.  Their Dad, Mac, started as a tent boy in college, became a superintendent, then worked for Harry P. Harrison, the Redpath Chautauqua booking agent.

McIntyre has also been a Chautauqua performer since 2006, having portrayed Mary Ingles, Frances Perkins, and in the upcoming festival in June, Golda Meir.  Other historical personalities making appearances at this year's festival are Winston Churchill and a return performance by Lafayette by scholar Larry Bounds; Carl Jung by scholar George Frein; and Denmark Vesey by visiting scholar Oba William King, a storyteller and musician from Chicago, who will captivate young and old alike. 

The shows all have three acts: 
ACT I:  A costumed performer speaks in the character's words, stimulating questions.
ACT II:  The audience questions the historic figure who answers as the historic figure.
ACT III:  The Chautauqua scholar steps out of character to answer questions that even the historical figure could not or would not have answered truthfully. 

For example, as Eleanor Roosevelt, the historic figure was asked by a lady in the audience about her husband's indiscretions.  As Roosevelt, the actor was incensed, thought that South Carolinians had better manners.  As the out-of-character scholar, however, the actor begged the lady to "Ask me that question again, I'll tell you all the dirt."  And it is said that she learned quite a lot of dirt. 

To be that steeped in a historic figure requires a major commitment on the part of a Chautauqua scholar.  Larry Bounds is an Advanced English teacher at Wade Hampton High School who has been involved with Chautauqua for 10 years, the last several as technical manager, assistant artistic director, and most significantly as a scholar/performer.  He will be channeling Winston Churchill in the upcoming festival. Bounds has been studying for a year, reading and trying to learn all the details, allowing people to ask him questions so that he will know what folks are interested in knowing, so he knows where to do deeper research.  He starts with general biographies, then graduates to the more scholarly books, and keeps expanding based on new resources of interest.  Bounds and other teachers in the county give their students extra credit if they attend the Chautauqua presentations, and the students seem to really get a lot out of them.  Says Bounds, "We want them to go out with a new perspective of the world they live in today from the world that our characters lived in yesterday."

This year marks the inaugural year of  the Chautauqua Performer School.  The classes will be small in number so that there is intense attention for each student from each of the four Greenville-based actors, and will span five days during the festival.  Travis Alexander, a U.S. history teacher at Eastside High School, has registered for the classes already.  Why?  "I want to write monologues and make my classes more interesting."

Abel Bartley, Director of Pan-African Studies and Associate Professor of African-American History at Clemson University, lectured for the Chautauqua program last year. "This is teaching in a way that disarms people and allows them to hear a different side of the story.  Some of these topics are controversial and somewhat difficult to deal with, but this is a chance to deal with these issues in a setting where people are not going to get upset.  People are open to listening to new ideas."

The festival runs from June 15 through June 23.  The classes run from June 15 through June 20.  For more information on the performance schedules, or to register for the classes, please visit their website.

Photos courtesy of Greenville Chautauqua.

Jean Calvert is a freelance writer as well as a jazz and blues singer living in beautiful Greenville, South Carolina.  She has written lifestyle articles for the Greenville Journal, covered regional artists for the Greenville News, written for print magazines, created web content, and published articles in online magazines.  Combining her music and writing skills, she has also crafted award-winning jingles and songs.  If she's not writing, Jean is singing! Contact her at http://www. verismocopywriting.net