Chautauqua Living History

To Colorado Humanities, a Chautauquan is a scholar who portrays a significant figure in our history by delivering an unscripted dramatic monologue in costume and in character. Following the presentation and while still in character, the Chautauquan answers audience questions about the life and time of his or her character. This allows the audience to have a conversation with, say, Mark Twain or Georgia O’Keefe. Then the Chautauquan steps out of character to take additional questions from the audience.

Begun in 1874 and popular into the early 1930s, the original form of Chautauqua brought culture in the form of concerts, orations, classes, and uplifting entertainment to isolated communities across the United States. Chautauqua historically provided the only education in cultural and societal topics for these communities. Carried forward into modern times, Chautauqua now features humanities scholars who take to the stage and breathe life into the words of historical and literary figures through interpretive characterizations. State humanities councils, such as Colorado Humanities, have supported and directed the growth of this exciting and informative format. In Colorado, schools, libraries, and other community organizations sponsor Chautauqua presentations.

Young Chautauqua

Chautauqua takes its name from a movement that began near Lake Chautauqua, New York, in the 1800s. It began with Sunday school teachers gathering for a week of study, but it became a touring program through which local communities could enjoy traveling speakers, politicians, plays, and music. Many communities still have the Chautauqua parks where these outdoor events were held, usually under a big tent. We’ve been told that at its height in 1924, Chautauqua programs visited over 12,000 towns and entertained over 32,000,000 people nationwide. But new technologies–radio and film–led to the demise of the old-fashioned Chautauqua.

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