"[The Chautauqua] brings history back to life," says Hank Fincken, who is leading this year's troupe of interpreters and will also be playing Thomas Edison. "The danger with these kinds of things is, if you just want to tell people all the mythology, that makes them think everything's wonderful. You can get a lot more interesting than that by bringing out all the complexities and relating the past to the present."
In full agreement is Roger Zahab, director of the New Music Group at the University of Akron, who was commissioned to write a short opera about Peninsula especially for the event. "The thing that most interested me was to find out what sort of people would settle such a place, and what drove them to do the things they did," he recalls. "Every character I came across was a very passionate individual -- and very conflicted."
Zahab's short opera, Uncovered by Night, is structured as traveling through time, in part to demonstrate that each time period is really the same as previous ones: the same types of people with similar motives. "It's as if time is being rolled forwards and backwards," he explains. "[The audience] is seeing both real-life incidents and also those same people's ghosts. Ghosts repeat the same actions, partly because they don't realize they're dead."
But Fincken, whose National Theater Company of One -- himself -- tours the country enacting a multitude of historical figures, feels that history doesn't so much repeat itself as fail to learn from its own shortcomings. "Every time in history was the most difficult," he points out. "We're fighting our demons and difficulties the same way they fought theirs. In some ways we learn, and in some ways we don't."
All of which isn't to say history is full of shadowy people with questionable motives. As Fincken shows with his portrayal of Edison -- and as the four other actors show by portraying Victoria Woodhull, Paul Laurence Dunbar, John D. Rockefeller, and Branch Rickey -- historical heroes are those who changed the world for the better. It's just that they also happened to be real people.
"You see them up close in their dirty clothes, which makes them real," Fincken says. "I love the everyday details. It adds a fun element. Sometimes not agreeable, but other times, "Wow! Just like me!'"
Zahab was also inspired by the everyday details. He studied histories written at the time, diaries, letters, and even the hymnals his historical figures would have used in church. "I came up with a series of vignettes, most of which are factually correct, even down to the words."
"That might not be politically correct," Fincken says of using a person's documented words or opinions today. "It might be, in some ways, embarrassing, but you can also see a reflection in our own world."
After all, the point of the Chautauqua -- and history -- is to learn from both the successes and the mistakes: to see ourselves reflected in the past.
"There are many ghosts -- real ghosts in the sense that a place is haunted, and the ghosts of memory," Zahab says. "But the audience has to be able to identify with the ghosts."
Which is the moment when history comes to life.
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