It was not uncommon for communities across the country to welcome a traveling show of lecturers and performers to opera houses and theaters around the turn of the 20th century. This touring variety show was called the Chautauqua circuit, and it visited small cities from California to Connecticut, in a wandering educational and entertainment event that brought ideas and culture to small-town America.
Though it largely ended nearly 100 years ago, the Chautauqua circuit stayed alive through a small network of around 15 communities, including one in Ocean Park in York County. It also has been reinvigorated by a touring show created by the New York-based National Theater of the United States of America. The show “Chautauqua!” will give its only Maine performance at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 6, at the Stonington Opera House, sponsored by Opera House Arts, the New England Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“The whole Chautauqua movement really matches our mission at the Opera House, because it brings both education and entertainment to people in a very accessible way,” said Linda Nelson, executive director of OHA. “[The original Chautauqua performers] understood that people learned better if they were entertained. So it was usually some traveling lecturers, with a vaudeville show mixed in. That’s very much like what we do here. And, Chautauqua actually visited Stonington in the early part of the 20th century, so it’s part of our history as well.”
“Chautauqua!” features a company of actors who combine singing, dancing and storytelling into one highly entertaining, informative performance. What’s unique about this show is that in each community it visits, it brings local performers and speakers directly into the show, seamlessly integrating local issues into the performance.
In Stonington, those local performers include actors from the Cabin Fever Theater, who will perform songs from its recent production of Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate,” and University of Maine at Machias music professor Gene Nichols, who will give a one-man band performance. It also includes a special presentation from Colin Woodard, an award-winning Maine journalist who is the author of such books as “The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier,” “Ocean’s End: Travels Through Endangered Seas” and “The Republic of Pirates.”
“They’re working with us to make it a Maine show, telling a broader history of Maine,” said Nelson. “The company has really interwoven the history of Maine and of Stonington into the show.”
The “Chautauqua!” performance underscores the original intent of the Chautauqua circuit: to bring entertainment and education to communities across the nation, with little to no split between high-minded intellectual topics and jokes, puppetry and song.
“It’s very much a modern twist on the format. Since Chautauquas were created in the early 20th century, we’ve got an even bigger split between popular entertainment and high art,” said Nelson. “When the opera house was built, it was a vaudeville house. Part of what this does is ask the question, ‘Is there really any difference between high art and low art?’ This show breaks down those barriers, in a really fun and high-quality way.”
Those attending Wednesday’s performance have the option of making a full night of it. Opera House Arts and local businesses are offering a $75 per person getaway package, which includes two tickets to “Chautauqua!”, one night’s lodging at the Inn on the Harbor (based on double occupancy), and dinner for two at The Seasons of Stonington including a starter, main course and dessert. Dessert may be enjoyed after the performance along with appearances by performers from the show. Regular tickets for the performance are $20, and can be reserved by calling 367-2788.
Opera House Arts recently announced its eclectic 2011 summer season. Highlights include the annual Shakespeare in Stonington production, which this year is “Much Ado About Nothing” and will be performed June 30-July 16. It will be performed in repertory with “Elizabeth Rex,” Timothy Findlay’s play about Elizabeth I, at the Deer Isle Historical Society’s new post-and-beam barn.
The Deer Isle Jazz Festival is set for Aug. 4-7, and features concerts from pianist Jason Moran, pianist Matthew Shipp and saxophonist Charles Lloyd. The “Live for $5” family theater arts performances, set for 7 p.m. each Wednesday from July 13-Aug. 31, includes puppetry, magic, storytelling, mime, music and dance from Mainers such as comedian Birdie Googins, mime Karen Montanaro, fiddler Don Roy and many others. Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter will give a performance in August.
For a full listing of all Opera House Arts productions, visit operahousearts.org.