George Frein, one of the Founding Fathers of the reborn American Chautauqua, has often told me to remember, “It’s about the words, not the appearance.”
Rosa Parks was a tiny woman, yet I saw a Chautauqua audience captivated by her portrayal by a Chautauqua scholar who was taller and more strapping that Mrs. Parks could have ever hoped to be. It did not matter, because the enacter was capturing the words and more importantly the spirit of our civil rights struggle. And the audience experienced the exillerating truth of it.
However, while Abraham Lincoln may be a few inches shorter or Ambrose Bierce 50 pounds heavier, Einstein had better have wild hair, Crockett had better have a coonskin cap, and Churchill had better have the hat, polka-dot bow tie, cigar, cane, and white pocket hanky along with a Santa physique. The difference is that some personalities like Einstein, Crockett, and Churchill recognized the value of image which they themselves cultivated and reinforced. The image became a statement of their individual relationships to their unique times.
To portray these individuals accurately, to allow the audience to achieve the “suspension of disbelief” that creates the magic of a theatrical presentation, the Chautauqua scholar must at least give a nod to the stereotype. President Lincoln has a chin beard, Mark Twain a full head of white hair and a white suit.
The words are still the most important. They are the heart of the historical and humanitarian aspects of the program. The appearance, sometimes inconsequential, can be important to set the stage of assisting in establishing the veracity of some characters.
Chautauqua is history but Chautauqua is also theatre – when done well, a theatre of truth and enlightenment.