by Bonnie and Bill Neely. Publicity photo by Gordon Gair
In June each year locals and tourists in Greenville and Spartanburg, SC, Asheville and Brevard, NC, and Athens, GA, are treated to living history portrayed by professional actors in a week-long series of Chautauqua presentations. Each day and evening a dedicated professional actor portrays one famous person from the past. The show begins with live music from the period of history in which the featured person lived. The actor has physical features which closely resemble the actual person, and each is dressed like and takes on any known physical aspects of that person, as well as the speech patterns or accent. It is evident that each actor has deeply studied the one he or she portrays and seems to have encyclopedic and intimate knowledge of that famous person. The portrayals are so convincing that during the hour of the actor’s monologue the audience tends to forget that it is not the actual historical persona they are watching. Many mornings during the week have informal settings for anyone to meet with the actor over coffee and ask any questions or learn more. One show by each actor has an American Sign Language interpreter.
Various shows are in afternoons and evenings through the week. Stages are in several locations: some at indoor venues, and some under a tent or beneath the open sky with viewers in folding chairs they brought. In June 2022 Larry Bounds, who has enjoyed a career as a professional magician since 1973, portrayed Harry Houdini, and thrilled the audience, even those seated close to the stage, with convincing magic tricks. In addition to Houdini, in other years Bounds, who has been a Chautauqua performer for twenty years has portrayed Einstein, Churchill, Disney, Crockett, Von Braun, Cronkite, and Andrew Jackson.
Leslie Goddard, author of two books on Chicago history, works full-time as a living history character and public speaker. Her portrayal of Georgia O’Keefe was so convincing that the personal characteristics of the artist sometimes became irritating, as they did in real life. Goddard’s portrayal was an excellent description of the life and times of this female artist during a period when only males were readily accepted as actual artists. During the show she revealed several of Ms. O’Keefe’s paintings.
Jeremy Meier piloted Ohio’s first Chautauqua Training Program in which new scholars learn how to develop their original characters based on historical figures. Of course, this instructor for the skills of other living history actors, was very convincing in his portrayal of Robert Kennedy in May of 1968, just a few weeks before he was killed in San Francisco on the campaign trail for President. His manner of speaking was with convincing Massachusetts accent, and people in the audience who remember that period of distraught history in the USA realized how well studied and presented his mannerisms of Kennedy were.
Becky Stone, who regularly performs as a storyteller at Biltmore Estate and festivals in North Carolina, specializes in African American, Appalachian tales. She has portrayed Harriet Tubman and Maya Angelou in previous Chautauqua festivals, and in June 2022 she became Pauli Murray, the black woman who made personal letter-writing campaigns fighting Jim Crow laws of “separate but equal” and demanding rights of black students to full integration in all white public schools. Her letters swayed the Supreme Court to pass Brown vs. the Board of Education, to enforce integration of all public schools. Her other extremely successful letter writing campaign influenced Ruth Bader Ginsberg to convince the Supreme Court to pass laws to make women and all people equal under the law. Stone’s lively acting was delightful to watch as we became reminded and educated about the terrible unrest in the South over integration.
Doug Mishler, who founded Restless Artists’ Theatre in Reno, Nevada, has portrayed Stonewall Jackson, Henry Ford, Theodore Roosevelt, Ernie Pyle, General Jack Pershing, Jacques Cousteau, and Pablo Picasso. In Greenville’s Chautauqua 2022 he became General Dwight D. Eisenhower, giving the audience terrific lessons of World War history, as well as his role as Republican President in the turbulent 1950s.
Question and Answer sessions followed each one-hour presentation. During the first half-hour the audience had to limit their questions to pertain to the years of history as if the actor were the living character. The second half-hour of questions addressed the actor in present time instead of during the historic character’s life, so questions included the perspective of years and subsequent history after the character’s death.
This amazing week each year is free to the public, but audiences are reminded that it requires a lot of money to put on a free show, so donations were politely requested, and appreciation is expressed to sponsoring businesses. Living History Chautauquas are performed in only a few places in the United States. Greenville is fortunate to host this annual outstanding June event! Limited one-night programs are presented during other seasons also. Make plans to come from far and near to enjoy these excellent shows in the future!