Stepping into Character
historical figures requires much study
Kentucky Chautauqua offers
unique brand of entertainment
(June 2014) – Many Kentuckians may not be aware that well-known writer Mark Twain had connections to Kentucky. While this great storyteller has influenced many generations, his ties to the Commonwealth garner him a spot among Kentucky history.
Twain’s mother, Jane Lampton, was born and raised in Columbia, Ky., in Adair County. That is where she met and married his father, John Marshall Clemens, and lived for two years before moving to Tennessee and then Missouri. Twain’s great-grandfather was Col. William Casey of Revolutionary War fame, after whom Casey County, Ky., is named.
Twain was born Samuel Clemens on Nov. 30, 1835, in Florida, Mo. He is perhaps best known for penning two major works of American literature, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
“Many things about him are fascinating to me, but most of all, his determination to follow his own inclination,” said Robert Brock, a re-enactor from Glasgow, Ky., who portrays Twain for the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Chautauqua Program.
Since its inception in 1992, Kentucky Chautauqua has brought to life nearly 70 characters from Kentucky’s past – both famous and unknown. The re-enactors live in all parts of the state and rehearse and perform when needed for all types of events and programs. For example, Brock performed as Twain during the April 29 Trimble County Extension Homemakers meeting in Bedford, Ky.
Brock, 59, whose real job is drama department chair at Lindsey Wilson College, has performed as Twain since 2007. “All the words I speak as Mark Twain are his - from his books and autobiography. Twain’s life was filled with fascinating friendships, much sadness and wonderful stories.”
The Council is an independently, nonprofit corporation affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is not a state agency but is supported by the National Endowment and private contributions.
Photo courtesy of Ky. Humanities Council
George McKee, a Georgetown College theater professor, engages a volunteer spectator at a recent performance while portraying statesman and politician Henry Clay.
Ben Chandler III, serves as the Council’s executive director. He said the Chautauqua program has become a “Kentucky institution. We now have 28 different characters.”
When it comes to choosing characters, Chandler said, “We have a panel of university history professors and theater professors who are responsible for choosing who will be a Chautauqua character or not. We send out a call for character try out’s every two years.”
The last time a call went out, the result was that five new Chautauqua characters were chosen. “Out of 80 people who applied, 20 were chosen to audition, and then the final five chosen.”
Chosen individuals are assigned a history coach, drama coach and costume consultant, said Chandler. “They work with these people a year before going out on the road to perform to an audience.”
Chandler said some of the characters who top the charts in terms of booking performances include Abe Lincoln, Daniel Boone and Henry Clay. They are popular choices because they were “well-known people.”
Photo courtesy of Ky. Humanities Council
Kelly O’Connell Brengelman of Midway, Ky., portrays Lucy Bakewell Audubon, wife of famed naturalist, artist and “The Birds of America” author John James Audubon.
George McGee, who portrays Kentucky statesman and politician Henry Clay (1777-1852), said that in terms of teaching Kentucky history, the Kentucky Chautauqua program “is a great resource. I try to tell the story of Clay by re-creating some of the important events in his life: duels, elections, friends, family, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams.”
For many of the performers, portraying a Kentucky Chautauqua character is almost like working a second full-time job. McGee teaches theater at Georgetown College. During Spring Break week alone he will perform Clay 12 times in locations from Menifee County to Caldwell County.
“Sometimes I get up and drive an hour or so to a school, perform Clay at 8:30 a.m., then jump back in the car and get back to school for my first class at Georgetown College. I also direct plays at the college, so I will be there until about 11 p.m. for rehearsals.” McGee holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theatre from Illinois Wesleyan University and a Masters of Fine Arts in Acting-Directing from Florida Atlantic University.
He performed as Henry Clay on April 3 at the Shelby County Library in Shelbyville, Ky. The performance was hosted by the Painted Stone Settlers. Many of the Kentucky Chautauqua programs are sponsored by libraries, historical societies and history-related groups.
Catherine Ferguson, Chautauqua Coordinator, said “Kentucky has an extremely rich history. It is more than words on a page. By sending our Chautauqua characters all over the state, people in the audience realize they are portraying real people, people with hopes and dreams and goals. It makes quite an impact.”
Ferguson has been with the Kentucky Humanities Council since 1989. She became the Speakers Bureau and Chautauqua Coordinator in 1997 when the previous coordinator retired and moved to Florida. She marked 25 years with the program in April.
Photo by Helen McKinney
Mel Hankla of Hitchins, Ky., portrays explorer George Rogers Clark at a recent performance.
“All of our Chautauqua presenters are wonderful, professional, dedicated and passionate about their character,” said Ferguson. She agreed with Chandler that some are more popular than others because they are better known. While more people might recognize the names Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, Daniel Boone or Simon Kenton, “there are a lot of people in Kentucky’s history who have made a difference – people like Anna Mac Clarke, Dr. Ephraim McDowell and Pee Wee Reese. Their stories are fascinating and inspiring. We would like their stories known, too.”
Chandler said, “Some of the best Kentucky Chautauqua performances are the least known people. Their performances center on important events or movements in Kentucky history.”
He cited The Rev. Newton Bush (1845-1925) as an example. “He tells the story of Camp Nelson,” Chandler said. During the Civil War, “Camp Nelson trained Negro soldiers and gave them their freedom. This was a very controversial event at the time.”
Bush risked his life to escape his owner and journey to Camp Nelson to enlist in Company E of the 5th Regiment U.S. Colored Cavalry. He was one of 24,000 men of color from Kentucky who joined the U.S. Colored troops. Such facts, especially about real people, are not always related through history books used in school.
Chandler also mentioned the story of Caleb Powers (1869-1932) as being a lesser known fact from Kentucky history. Duane Murner of Prospect, Ky., portrays this former Kentucky Secretary of State. Murner is a horse farm owner and a former Oldham County Judge-Executive who loves history. Powers found himself at the center of the assassination investigation of Gov. William Goebel in 1900. (See related story, Page 23).
Kentucky Chautauqua performances appeal to all ages and interests. David Hurt of Frankfort, Ky., pulls double-duty as country musician and comic, Grandpa Jones (1913-1998) and as Lilley Cornett (1888-1958), an Eastern Kentucky coal miner who saved his wages to purchase 500 acres around Line Fork in Letcher County, Ky. The land is known today as the Lilley Cornett Woods and is managed for education and research by Eastern Kentucky University.
The Chautauqua program also includes a Speakers Bureau with various speakers who give programs on a wide range of humanities topics that fall under such categories as culture, religion, storytelling, civil rights, folklore, music and environment.
“The Speakers Bureau was the original program for the Kentucky Humanities Council,” said Ferguson.
“The speakers are a very important part of the programs we offer.”
The Chautauqua program started in 1992 to celebrate Kentucky’s Bicentennial. The idea was begun by the Council’s previous executive Director, Dr. Virginia Carter. “We thought we would offer it for a year or two but it was so popular, we decided to continue,” Ferguson said. “That was a good idea on our part.”
Kathleen Pool serves as the Council’s associate director. She handles fundraising and a program known as Prime Time Family Reading Time. Prime Time seeks to celebrate literacy by bringing this program to libraries across the state. The Kentucky Humanities Council also produces Kentucky Humanities magazine.
Kentucky Chautauqua has become an effective classroom tool through the use of Chautauqua in the schools. Characters are suggested based on age-appropriate grades and curriculum ideas are offered by the Kentucky Humanities Council.
• To schedule a Kentucky Chautauqua program, call Catherine Ferguson at (859) 257-5932 or email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the Kentucky Humanities Council and its programs, visit: www.kyhumanities.org.
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