Young Chautauquans Mix Scholarship, Acting . . . and Magic
By Frank X. Mullen
If you want to get to know someone well, walk a mile in their shoes, so the saying goes.
The scholars in the Nevada Humanities Great Basin Young Chautauqua program go further than a mere mile: for a time, they inhabit historical characters from the inside out. It’s scholarship as performance. They act— then react— to an audience. They don a period costume and, if they have researched, pondered, and rehearsed enough, they squeeze into their character’s skin.
As an adult Chautauqua performer who has helped coach the Young Chautauquans for more than a decade, I’ve seen the metamorphosis first-hand. They spend months researching and writing for their characters. Then they turn scholarship into performance. At first, the kids are reciting a script, worrying whether they can do it alone, on stage, with scores of eyes looking at them. As they practice, the characters emerge. A mannerism, a tone of voice, a remembered quote is coupled with appropriate emotion. With each performance, they feel more comfortable and confident.
“You learn a lot of skills,” said Clara Hall, 14, who is performing as pioneering journalist and Titanic survivor Edith Rosenbaum this year. In previous incarnations Hall inhabited the roles of gangster Bonnie Parker and actress Hedy Lamarr. “Research, writing, public speaking skills, acting, team-building are all part of it,” said Hall, who is poised and convincing on stage. “It really brings those skills forward… And it’s fun!”
Like Clara, some participants come back year-after-year, and like Walt Whitman, they discover that they are large, they contain multitudes. With experience, they find it easier to answer audience questions in character. The ability to think on your feet is a requirement for all Chautauquans. Sometimes there’s also a dash of magic. People become unstuck in time.
Case in point—at a recent Young Chautauqua performance at a Reno assisted-living center, Markus Alano, 8, who was wrestler Randy Savage last year, performed as Elvis Presley. One of the elderly audience members asked a question: “Do you remember me? I met you in Germany when you were riding in a limo to your Army barracks.” Elvis said it was wonderful to see her again. The woman said his reply made her day. “Well, thank you very much,” The King drawled.
For a short time, children adopt the personas of adults who have made history. It’s not as big of a stretch as it seems. They have never sang in front of thousands as did Elvis and Janice Joplin, or been elected president like Abe Lincoln, or been a slave and a poet like Phyllis Wheatley, or shattered glass ceilings as did journalist Nellie Bly. But in their young lives they have already felt anxiety and ambition, sadness and joy, anger and compassion.
Through scholarship and their own humanity they connect with their characters. In so doing, they— and their audiences—discover our larger-than-life icons were just as human as we are, after all.
Frank X. Mullen is a Reno-based journalist, historian, adjunct professor, and Chautauqua performer whose characters include Henry VIII, Babe Ruth, U.S. Grant, and Albert Einstein. He is the author of The Donner Party Chronicles, published by Nevada Humanities.
Images/Frank X. Mullen