Young Chautauqua Performers Learn To Bring Life To History

Aug 6, 2018

High Plains Chautauqua is a unique living history celebration that draws on education, theater, and the humanities. President Theodore Roosevelt once called Chautauqua "the most American thing in America."

Each year the program works with young people from around Colorado to discover the next generation of performers. This summer, dozens of Young Chautauqua Scholars from Weld County schools will spend hours poring over the Internet and history books to bring characters from the past to life.

These students get coaching from a Chautauqua powerhouse. Susan Marie Frontzcak is a living history scholar who has given more than 700 presentations in 38 states and abroad. Her first Chautauqua presentation, as Marie Curie, was in 2001. Since then, she’s presented characters ranging from Mary Shelley to Eleanor Roosevelt to Clara Barton – and this year, she’ll bring the sharp wit and humor of Erma Bombeck to the stage.

Aside from performing, Frontzcak also works with young Chautauquans to help them develop their presentations.

"I start by asking the kids three questions: 'Why should I be remembered in history?' – meaning, my character," Frontzcak says. "'What hardships or obstacles did I face; what was hard along the way?' Because that’s where character is formed. And third – 'What was my historical context? Where and when did I live? How did that place and time affect my life?' And with those [questions], that helps you decide what to put in a monologue."

After the young performers have researched and written their monologues, it’s time to get up and practice in front of an audience – starting with their peers and parents – all under the watchful guidance of Frontzcak.

Susan Marie Frontzcak shows Charlie Nelson (Audrey Hepburn) how to mimic holding a microphone
Credit Jane Adams / High Plains Chautauqua

Charlie Nelson is about to be a sixth-grader at Chappelow Fine Arts Magnet K-8 in Greeley. On a recent afternoon she stood in front of a small audience at the Centennial Park Library in Greeley, preparing to run through her monologue in the character of Audrey Hepburn.

Frontzcak pays attention to every word and gesture, taking notes and rarely interrupting – unless it’s to fact-check a detail for historical accuracy. At the end of the performance, she offers guidance that’s tailored to each child. 

"It doesn’t matter what level you come in to it," Frontzcak says. "If you come in and you’re one of those kids who’s just terrified to get up and speak, and if, by the end of it, you’ve stood up and said five sentences – clearly, so an audience can hear it – that’s a major accomplishment for that kid."

She’s still a performer herself, so she must balance working with the young performers with her own preparation. But Frontzcak says so much of her work coaching has shaped how she approaches a role.

"You can’t teach without learning," she says. "At a higher level, as a Chautauquan, I try to take the 'why should I be remembered in history?' to a higher octave and say, 'how does that connect to today?'"

The 19th annual High Plains Chautauqua runs Monday, Aug. 6 – Thursday, Aug. 9 at Aims Community College in Greeley. Susan Marie Frontczak performs as author and humorist Erma Bombeck Thursday evening. This year’s theme, ‘Blowin’ In The Wind,’ celebrates the 1960s.

Find the complete schedule here.