POSTED ON MAY 29, 2013:
Chautauqua brings the 1920s to the stage
One of the very coolest history-teaching tools is Oklahoma Chautauqua, presented by the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa and the Oklahoma Humanities Council. Every summer, Chautauqua brings historical figures to life. The characters speak to the audience for a bit, then take questions. It's a terrific teaching tool, and when you find someone who's really good at it, history really does come alive.
This year, Oklahoma Chautauqua offers a look at the 1920s, with performances by scholars portraying figures of that era, including Babe Ruth and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Dr. Doug Watson, a retired Oklahoma Baptist University literature professor, will be portraying Will Rogers -- a portrayal he's done since the '90s.
"I got involved in 1991," he said. "That was the first year that Oklahoma had a Chautauqua."
The Chautauqua concept itself dates back to the 19th century, essentially starting as a way to teach teachers how to do their jobs more effectively.
"The whole tradition goes all the way back to 1874 when a couple of Methodist ministers who decided that Sunday school teaching wasn't working very well and people needed to be more educated in culture," Watson said.
Its popularity spread, and the workshop has been going nonstop ever since, focusing on specific time periods and immersing audiences in them.
"What I got initially in the mail was a mailing probably from MLA asking if I wanted to apply to do a character from the American Renaissance, because that was the theme for that series," Watson recalled. "I thought, 'Well, that might be better than writing scholarly essays.' And in fact, over the course of the rest of my career, that's kind of what happened--my energies got spent doing that sort of public presentation and not so much doing some of the scholarship."
He started off portraying Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen Crane, but once he started doing the research needed in order to undertake a Rogers portrayal, Hawthorne and Crane fell by the wayside.
"I got tired of Crane. And sometimes, I say after you've done a pessimist and a cynic, it's a lot more fun to do a humorist," Watson said.
The format of a Chautauqua lecture usually involves essentially a monologue from the actor / scholar which is then followed by a Q&A segment with the audience -- which is done in character. That isn't exactly the easiest thing to do for seasoned actors, much less an English professor.
"It's scary at first. I had a bit part in The King and I when I was in high school," Watson said. "That was pretty much my drama background."
Still, his Rogers is engaging and fun to watch, and Watson has been able to create a fully-realized character by drawing on Rogers' writings.
"If you have a character that has written a good deal, and you have choices of texts, then you can build something that's pretty accurate from the voice of that character to talk about the themes that are important," he said. "Rogers lived through the 20s, and that was the time he was becoming a very famous person. It's kind of an appropriate style to do a little bit of this, a little bit of this, a little bit of this. Talk about the automobile, talk about politics. He's got lots to say about all of that."
Then comes the Q&A.
"That's what scares the theater people," he said. "I've watched people get really panicked when the question time comes -- people who have had a whole career in theater and theater direction. For me, that's the most fun. It's kind of like a challenge. And eventually, you want the audience to be better and to ask harder questions."
In addition to Oklahoma Chautauqua, Watson takes his Will Rogers to schools and the occasional church. It stands to reason that sometimes, the questions from kids aren't exactly scholarly in nature.
"Once in a while, you get a question that your character can't answer legitimately," he said. "Almost inevitably, when I do Rogers at a school, a kid will ask me when I died. Or, 'What's your favorite television show?'"
However, with Rogers, sometimes an inappropriate question works out.
"'Did you drink beer?' Things like that," Watson said. "Of course, that's a good question for Rogers, because Prohibition just sets him off."
A Rogers portrayal wouldn't be complete without rope tricks, and Watson does a few, though he's humble about them.
"What I can do wasn't very hard to learn, and I don't do very much," he said. "And I can't do very much more now than I could do when I started doing it."
He actually had no plans to do rope tricks when he started thinking about being Will Rogers, but he was quickly shown the error of his ways.
"We announced one night what we would be doing the next year," he recalled. "'Are you going to do the rope tricks?' I said, 'Well, I grew up in Texas, but I'm not a cowboy, so I don't guess I'll do the rope tricks.' There was this lady on the front row shaking her head. She came up to me afterward and said, 'I want you to see my preacher.' It turns out her preacher was a 70-year-old Methodist who grew up in Duncan back when Will was widely-known. This preacher's father was such an admirer of Rogers' that he trained his 6-year-old son to do rope tricks and riding tricks. He had continued to do the rope tricks throughout his life."
He laughed about the gee-whiz factor of the tricks.
"This series is going to have Zelda and Babe Ruth," he said. "But when Will pulls out the rope, if there's a picture in the paper the next day, you now it's going to be Will with his rope. It's almost unfair in terms of stealing the spot."
Rogers and Fitzgerald and the lot will appear in the Tulsa incarnation of Oklahoma Chautauqua 2013, called Anything Goes: America in the 1920s, June 4-8 at the OSU-Tulsa campus at 700 N. Greenwood Ave. in Room 150 of the North Hall next to the campus fountain. Admission is free. While there are several workshops with the various actors/ scholars, the in-character presentations start each night at 7:30pm. Watson kicks things off on Tuesday night, followed on subsequent nights by portrayals of Henry Ford, Bessie Coleman, Babe Ruth, and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Oklahoma Chautauqua will later travel to Enid and Lawton. For more information on specific workshops, visit okchautauqua.org.
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