He talked more than he sang, often playing a single verse before stopping. “Y’know…” he’d say, reminded by his own lyrics, and then regale listeners with another tale of Steinbeck-ian Americana. I sat just a few feet away, grateful for the shade and breeze afforded by the un-walled tent, distant thunderheads mounting over the high-plains sunset. It was August 2004 in Greeley, Colo., and the late, great Woody Guthrie was captivating the audience that evening.
Truth be told, it was David Fenimore portraying the iconic American folk singer. He was “opening” for Eleanor Roosevelt (also not the real one) at Greeley’s High Plains Chautauqua (HPC). I’m neither a history buff nor a theater aficionado, but I was hooked by this event: Historians acting out solo “living history” performances and then providing Q&As—first in full character, then out of character for perspective. I’ve since made the drive from Boulder year after year to take in portrayals of Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rachel Carson, and others. And I’ll do so again during this year’s Chautauqua, taking place August 4 to 8.
Now in its 15th year, HPC may be the most enduring remnant of the traveling tent Chautauquas, an adult education movement that dominated American culture in the early 1900s—an institution Teddy Roosevelt (the real one) called the “most American thing in America.” Greeley’s iteration is the brainchild of Maggie Coval, Colorado Humanities executive director, and established humanities scholar and living history performer Clay Jenkinson, and grew from a 1998–99 program they hosted, entitled “Conversations 2000.”
“Clay and I got to know many people in the Greeley community [through “Conversations”], and eventually posed the idea to develop a Chautauqua there,” Coval says, calling the city “the ideal community for this type of activity.”
The emphasis that HPC places on audience engagement is important to Colorado Humanities and to Coval, providing an opportunity “for people to have a conversation of contemporary concern with someone from the past,” she says.
It’s an idea that has caught on. Each August, the event brings in an audience of over 7,000 attendees over the course of five major evening events and two dozen daytime events, making it “certainly the largest program, and probably the largest attendance of any Humanities Chautauqua in the country,” says Coval.
This year’s theme, “The American West—Hope and Heartbreak,” focuses on “the shaping of the American West.” Each evening begins with a picnic around the big tent. Bring your own food, or buy from the rotating dinner offerings—from The Slawpy Barn food truck’s sloppy joes to Kenny’s Steakhouse’s lasagna. Then congregate under the tent for live performances, such as the Colorado Frontier Army Band or square-dancing demonstrations by Merry Mixers, before enjoying the main event: Two or more historian-actors presenting each night.
Performances by the likenesses of Will Rogers, Teddy Roosevelt, and Augusta Tabor are the highlights of this year’s program. Additionally, this year introduces “Legendary Ladies,” with actresses performing as three robust women of the west—Bertha Spears, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Rosamond Underwood. Taylor Keen, in his first HPC performance, will also take the stage as Ponca Indian rights activist Chief Standing Bear.
Perennial favorite George Frein returns for his fifth year, performing as both Mark Twain and the 19th century missionary Father Pierre-Jean De Smet. Frein-as-Twain will also guide the already sold out “Roughing It” bus tour along the overland trail near Ft. Collins and Virginia Dale—a site highlighted in Twain’s memoir of the same name.
Don’t miss the Young Chautauqua program, where elementary through high school kids present historical cameos. Three—selected from over a hundred auditions—kick off the opening night evening program and dozens of others fill the day on Wednesday. Watch out for daytime just-for-kids programming, too, and enjoy spending a part of your week with historical legends.
Details: This year’s HPC takes place August 4–8 on the Aims Community College lawn, 5401 W. 20th St., Greeley. All events are free of charge. Full program, directions, and more can be found at highplainschautauqua.org.