Young people portray historical figures for museum program

by Sharlene Irete

T he Carson Valley Young Chautauquans is the most successful program the Douglas County Historical Society has ever had, according to Carson Valley Museum & Cultural Center director Grace Bower.

Young Chautauquans is open to fourth- to 12th-grade students who have an interest in history and performing. In the six-month program that culminates in a theater-in-the-park performance in June, the students research a historical figure and present a monologue recounting stories from the character's life.

Bower said the historical society and the museum host Young Chautauquans because it's great for the children.

"It's a success because it's lasted so long. If you can't get the kids interested, you can't get it going," said Bower. "I enjoy doing the program with the kids. I like to see how they start out and end up."

Students have performed such characters as Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Cody, Sarah Winnemucca, Clara Barton, Tenzing Norgay, Harriet Tubman, Annie Sullivan, Dat-So-La-Lee and Albert Einstein.

The original Chautauqua movement started in 1874 when Methodist minister John H. Vincent established a summer program for Sunday school teachers at Lake Chautauqua, N.Y. Lectures and singing were performed in an open pavilion, and the participants camped in tents.

At its peak in the mid-1920s, the Chautauqua circuit appeared in more than 10,000 communities in 45 states to audiences of 45 million. The role of Chautauqua came to mean an informational program for the people of rural and small-town America. Classic plays and Broadway hits were performed. People saw Metropolitan opera stars and notable personalities of the times at Chautauqua assemblies. William Jennings Bryan, Presidents Garfield, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Taft spoke as well as Carrie Nation, Booker T. Washington and Thomas Edison.

Many Americans saw their first movies in Chautauqua tents and were exposed to political, social and cultural issues they might not have experienced in anything but big U.S. cities.

Nevada's Young Chautauqua program was inspired by the adult program that functions through the Nevada Humanities organization.

"The closest Young Chautauquans group is in Reno," said Bowers. "Nevada Humanities asked us to have a group here in Gardnerville, and we started it seven years ago.

"To set up the program, we attended a seminar to learn about it, then we put it together. We are funded through a grant from Nevada Humanities."

Bower said most of the children who perform in the group are home-schooled.

"We had a lot of kids the first year," she said. "We don't get a great response from public elementary schools, probably because people are pretty apathetic about history in general, although the tent event is popular. A hundred people or more attend and it's not all moms and dads who come to the performances in the park."

The Young Chautauquans' six months of practicing at regular meetings culminates in "Chautauqua in the Park," a two-night performance in June at Mormon Station Park in Genoa. The young players must perform their character at least three times in public before they will be allowed to be part of the Genoa tent event.

Cody and Zofia Tisue are third-year veterans of the Young Chautauqua program. They and their parents, Ann and Gil Tisue, felt it would be a good addition to their home school program. Both Cody and Zofia are fans of history and their interests were heightened when the family took a trip to the eastern United States last fall. Among the places they visited were the Civil War memorial in Gettysburg, Pa., and Washington, D.C.

Cody, 14, has performed as Buffalo Bill and navigator Nathaniel Bowditch in the past two years and has chosen Robert E. Lee has his character this year.

"I'm interested in his strategy," said Cody. "Robert E. Lee was the world's greatest strategist. I'm against slavery. When I was six, I saw a book about boats and people who sat between each other's legs. Some were sick, and then they all got sick. I like history, and I read it a lot. The Civil War is one of my favorite subjects."

Zofia, 12, has chosen Rosa Parks as her character to research and perform this year.

"I was Annie Oakley the first year and wanted to be Dr. Eliza Cook last year but we couldn't find enough stories about her so I did Annie Oakley again," said Zofia.

Zofia wanted to perform as Dr. Cook because she's interested in becoming a doctor.

"I've wanted to be an obstetrician since I was four," she said. "I think it would be cool to be able to be the one to see the baby first."

Zofia said she became aware of Rosa Parks because of the movie, "The Long Walk Home." The movie tells the story of when Parks' act of civil disobedience by refusing to give up her seat on a bus in 1955 Montgomery, Ala., sparked a bus boycott lead by Martin Luther King Jr.

"I decided on the character of Rosa Parks for Young Chautauquans because I had an interest in her and no one had done her before," she said. "She just died last year. She was a really important person and it got me interested."

Cody and Zofia research their characters at the library and on the Internet. They develop a story, then a time line, and a more gradual character development results. They learn by watching other Young Chautauquans in their regular meetings and by asking questions. Typical questions are about the names of the characters' brothers and sisters.

When confronted with hecklers, the students are instructed to move on. They have to give accurate answers to questions asked while in character, but Cody said they sometimes need to improvise.

"If a character's old, it's a good excuse to forget answers," he said.

After choosing and acquiring the characters' costumes, the students have to develop their parts. Cody said he uses three stories, one page each, to start his character's development.

"First it's three stories, then they all blend," he said. "I have a mirror in my room and look at myself while I'm reading it. I think it's cheating to use a recorder. I practice in front of my cat."

The Young Chautauquans must perform in public to practice for the big night in June. Cody and Zofia have performed at their home school graduations, Merrill Gardens retirement community, Heritage Park and at the Carson City Rendezvous in May.

"In May, they start the big stuff," said Cody. "'Going out into the wild,' I call it. The first performances are strange " there's distractions. At Carson Rendezvous, we perform in the Brewery Arts tent. The mountain men shoot cannons during the performance. 'Hi, my name's Nathaniel Bowditch " kaboom!'"

"The first time you perform, you get a little nervous because there's a lot of people," said Zofia. "They try to mess you up, throw things, ask the same question."

But Zofia doesn't see that as a deterrent to becoming an historical character on stage.

"Young Chautauquans is a fun way of learning history," said Zofia.

Chautauqua in the Park performances are June 21 and 22 at Mormon Station State Park.


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