Amelia Wagner is on the prowl. Her attention aroused, the 23-year-old yearns to know every intimate detail about a person. Historically speaking of course. Wagner, a soft-spoken and happy newlywed, is engaged in such lustful pursuits with her husband’s full support. She is a Chautauqua performer after all. Popularized in the late 19th and early 20th century, Chautauqua events were communal gatherings that coupled entertainment and education. There were commonly lectures, concerts and plays.
“I heard someone compare [Chautauqua] once to going on a date,” said Wagner, a featured performer in this year’s High Plains Chautauqua. “And I think it is really applicable. You start out and you see this person and you think they might be interesting, so you start asking other people about them.”
Reading a biography or two could suffice during this stage of the courtship or maybe checking their Wikipedia profile out online.
With some historical speed-dating completed, there is one action and one action only for a Chautauquan. “You start talking to them personally,” reading personal correspondence and anything else they have authored said Wagner.
Today, the practice of Chautauqua largely is equal parts historic research and acting (although, there are also a variety of daytime community engagement activities). The end result is a costumed performance of a monologue, from the perspective of a historical figure. Questions from the audience usually follow.
Even in the 21st century, with the internet and pages of information just a few key strokes away, Wagner still believes Chautauqua to be relevant.
“It’s an art form that needs to be preserved because with the advent of television, and movies, and even radio we don’t have this sort of communal gathering where we learn about something,” said Wagner. “And I think it adds something to the knowledge that you are given if it seems real and you can connect with it.”
This year, Andrew Carnegie, Carl Jung, and Mary Shelley are among the historic figures that will be brought to life for “Exploring Boundaries.”
Wagner, a Greeley native and former Young Chautauquan, is pushing some boundaries of her own with her portrayal of noted anthropologist Margaret Mead.
“Towards the end of my Young Chautauquan career, I was starting to look for spunkier characters,” said Wagner. “I knew [Mead] would be more of a challenge but she was one I wanted to take.”
She will present her version of Mead who lived from 1901 to 1972, at age 62, Wednesday at Aims Community College.
If previous experience is any indication, the audience could test her abilities even further. Wagner, as Susan B. Anthony, was asked her favorite color.
“I had no idea,” admitted Wagner, who responded by telling a story she discovered during her research about a red shall.
Another time as Mother Theresa, Wagner was asked her stance on abortion.
“I was 13, I was totally unprepared, so I had to make something up,” said Wagner, adding that following the performance she conducted additional research to determine what Mother Teresa’s opinion would have been.
Now a teacher, Wagner said her pursuit of Chautauqua has fortified her self-confidence, and cultivated her interest in research and her current profession.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without Chautauqua,” said Wagner.
By Carrie Saldo
Arts District is a collaboration of KUNC, Rocky Mountain PBS, and KUVO.