ASHLAND — Ashland Chautauqua will feature the characters Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., and Coralie Franklin Cook for this year's "In Times of War" performances.
The performances, done by area scholars, begin at 7:30 p.m. on July 13 and go through July 17th at the Guy C. Myers Memorial Band Shell.
There will also be several other opportunities throughout the week to meet and learn from the performers.
The performers have honed their characters through research and creative depiction over months, or in some cases years.
Karen Vuranch, an Ashland University alumni and frequent Chautauqua performer who impersonates Bell in this year's event, stated that the strategy for developing a historical figure differs depending on the individual.
“It depends on what is available,” Vuranch said. “I like working with an autobiography, but with Gertrude Bell, there wasn’t an autobiography.
“So, it depends on the resources you have available. Some of us have videos.”
James Holmes Armstead Jr., a retired professor from the U.S. Naval War College who portrays Davis, added that characters who have been digitally recorded can be tougher to develop due to the familiarity of their voice or personal quirks.
“Everybody knows what Churchill sounded like,” Armstead said. “They know he had a lisp; they know what his oratorical gestures are; so, you are stuck with that. If you stick with people who have been dead for a long time, you are safe.”
John Anderson, a retired Associate professor from Emerson College who impersonates Hemingway, claimed that first-person accounts of the individuals they investigate are invaluable.
“Autobiographies or interviews are terrific because you get an oral quality in the language that you can then perform easily, as opposed to make a written text sound oral,” Anderson said.
An extensive amount of background knowledge regarding the portrayed individual is crucial to Chautauqua performers, as their characters are tested by the unpredictability of audience interaction.
For instance, Anderson originally developed Hemingway surrounding the rise of modernism, but has since had to further his research and adjust his soliloquies to adhere to the current theme of “In Times of War.”
Similarly, Ilene Evans, who has broadly performed across the United States and internationally, initially imitated Cook’s approach to suffrage, but has also had to adapt to the current theme.
“When I learn more stories (about Cook), then I can add those in,” Evans said. “From the national archives, I found their version of this woman from West Virginia’s trip as gold star mother.
“Now, I can legitimately put that in there with a source. Some of our Chautauqua audience is different from a normal theatre audience -- they want to know stuff unlike a lot of other audiences.”
Evans affirmed that her character portrayal is designed to draw the audience into wanting to know more and commit to their own research regarding the historical figure.
Kevin Radaker, a retired English Professor from Anderson University, said individuating a man of Churchill’s complexion is a daunting task due to the expansive amount of written composition and rhetoric.
“Churchill’s writings exceed six million words. His speeches exceed five million,” Radaker said. “If you add up his writings, they exceed the number of words written by (William) Shakespeare and (Charles) Dickens combined.
“One of my challenges is to find those passages that are very dramatic or incredibly eloquent. To take on a guy like Churchill, the weeping is in deciding what not to say.”
The Chautauqua Committee spent a significant amount of planning this year. The team was challenged due to the virtualization of 2020’s Ashland Chautauqua event.
Community members who attend all five performances will be entered into a drawing. There will be virtual book discussions this year as well as “Coffee with the Scholars,” where the public can hold deep conversations with the performers regarding their respective characters.
The Chautauqua committee is already looking ahead to 2023, which will become a topic of discussion after the conclusion of this year’s event. The committee begins planning events two years ahead of time.
“In the last 22 years, we have built relationships with people and that is part of what has made Chautauqua keep going,” Chautauqua committee co-chair Deleasa Randall-Griffiths said.
Ashland Chautauqua is free and open to the public. Community members can visit AshlandChautauqua.org for a schedule of events for the upcoming program.