Collapsible Giraffe…the CUNY Prelude festival…PS 122...the East River Band Shell…Throw in a few out of town performances and this is the path taken, in the last year or so, by the National Theatre of the United States of America’s show Chautauqua! Created by NTUSA, co-written by Normandy Raven Sherwood and James P. Stanley, and directed by Yehuda Duenyas, people have been talking about it for a year because it’s that cool. Now, as part of the Under the Radar festival, Chautauqua! takes its place within the coveted walls of the city’s most prized downtown-turned-kinda-commercial-but-still-non-profit-but-still-has-street-cred venue: the Public Theater.
Chautauqua, a community based movement started in the late 19th century and tapering out in the late 1920s, brought a showcase of knowledge and entertainment to mostly rural communities throughout the U.S. A derivative of the populist movement, early Chautauquas often took the political road, yes, but they were grounded in their location, and the organizers used both local lore and depictions of infamous people for theatrical fodder.
“One of the first things I was excited about when looking at Chautauqua lectures at the archives, were the pictures and short excerpts showing how widely varied the people on the circuit were,” says Sherwood. “Everyone from someone that was familiar with snakes, to explorers doing slideshows, a retired statesmen, a guy that fought a bunch of bears—they would come and tell the story about the famous thing they did.” There were strict rules that these dramatic sketches could only be performed solo, which in part led to NTUSA’s interest in wanting to discover and create a series of unique and arcane first person narratives. “It was important to me to explore these two different kinds of storytelling,” explained Sherwood. “The people talking about their famous action and the people delineating the character were familiar to the viewers. It’s not something we see all the time.”
The move to the Public Theater will make for some interesting changes. Each time the show is performed in a new venue, an overhaul takes place. Location is a character guest lecturers sought. “Each venue has different expectations,” says Stanley. “The biggest challenge is taking the temperature of the venue and trying to incorporate the main idea of the show.” NTUSA is tapping the history of the Public, rightfully incorporating it into the show, embracing both the geographical history and the community it supports. They want the audience to quite literally be aware of where they are, of why they have come, of the history of their surroundings.
A glance at the line up of guest lecturers that complete each evening includes: Joe Papp’s back-in-the-day right-hand man Bernard Gersten, David Rabe speaking about his long history of working with the Public and the ghosts that greet him each time he walks through the door, and historian Aurora Wallace, diving into the famed Astor Place Riots. One guest will join NTUSA each night—adding his or her story and always shifting the show, shaping the course. “It’s always about communicating with a specific audience on a specific night,” Stanley says. “Guests can throw shows in a different direction, create new contexts to what we’re doing.”
Both Chautauqua! and the history of Chautauqua have a close and often competing relationship between their cultural productions and the greater economy. In their day, Chautauquas came from an earnest place of wanting to reach far and wide while marrying education and event but, eventually, when the business model took off, it became, well, a business. Many of the initial intentions behind its genesis were swept aside. There is also an intersection between art and commerce present in NTUSA’s Chautauqua!, an undercurrent in the show acknowledging this necessity, but the act of acknowledging somehow forgives the necessity.
Perhaps the difference today is the audience. Clearly entertainment options were much more limited in the time of the early Chautauquas. They were local to small local communities and were often the only gig going. Now, to be present, to see the show, is a specific choice in itself with so many other options available. As NTUSA director Duenyas points out, “there is an inherent role of participation that the audience has. By attending, you are implemented. It’s created for you.” He goes on to say, “We try to create a community out of everyone in the room. This group of people will never be in the same room again. We’re here to see you and you’re here to see us.” The end goal? Well, it will change night by night, but each and every member of NTUSA throws heart and soul into hopefully answering the implied question that faces us all when we go to the theater—which is, as Duenyas asks, “Why are we all sitting in the same room?”
Chautauqua! runs at the Public Theater during the Under the Radar Festival from January 7th to 17th. For tickets and more information please visit www.ntusa.org or www.publictheater.org.