Living History: High Plains Chautauqua
The High Plains Chautauqua is a unique blend of history, theater, and the humanities. It’s part of a long-running tradition that President Theodore Roosevelt once called ‘the most American thing in America.’
In Greeley, the Young Chautauqua program actively works with young people to find the next generation of performers to carry on the tradition. Greeley Central High School junior Tillie Newman got into the program six years ago; this year she'll portray Mary Harris "Mother" Jones on the adult stage.
KUNC's Erin O'Toole spoke with Newman about how she got involved in Chautauqua, and what makes it so exciting for her.
ERIN: So -- in this era of video games and social media… Chautauqua is probably NOT the first thing that comes to mind as a teen activity. How did you get into it?
TILLIE: I’ve been doing Chautauqua since the 5th grade. I was in the GT program (gifted and talented) and we were given an opportunity to do an independent study. We were given a list of options, and one of them was a performance. I had been in concerts and stuff in elementary school, and I like to perform, so I thought that would be really fun.
So I dressed up as Marie Antoinette, and I gave a first-person description of her life. My GT teacher then found out about Chautauqua – it was basically the same thing – and she signed me up for it.
ERIN: This year you’re portraying Mary Harris – probably better known to most people as Mother Jones. What draws you to a particular character?
TILLIE: In the past my characters have been like Alice Paul, who was a woman suffragist, and she was really militant, and she fought-- her actions ultimately gained women the right to vote. Another was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was another labor activist, another unionist, but she was really feisty.
So I guess one of the aspects of a character that would draw me to them is their personality – you know, they’ve got to be a spitfire or else I won’t be able to get into it. I think that’s the most important thing with a Chautauqua character, you have to be interested in them, ‘cause if you’re not, you’re not going to have fun… and then it’s gonna kind of suck. (laughs)
ERIN: Part of the whole Chautauqua thing is that people who go learn about these characters, but I’m curious if portraying Mary Harris has taught you anything.
TILLIE: Definitely. She’s unlike any of the other characters I’ve researched. When reading her biography I was really surprised to learn that a lot of the events in her life, she actually lied about. Even something like her birthday – she said she was seven years older than she really was.
ERIN: Really? Why did she do that?
TILLIE: One of the many reasons that she lied about her life was because she went through a lot of struggles. She was born in Ireland, and she grew up during the Potato Famine. When she came to America, she had a husband and a family – for a while. She lived in Tennessee during the Civil War, and ended up losing her entire family – her husband and all four children – to the yellow fever epidemic that completely destroyed their town.
She had to bury them and leave them behind, and go to Chicago to continue a dressmaking business that she had had up there a few years before. She ended up losing her entire business in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. It was then that she joined the Knights of Labor and became a part of the labor movement.
ERIN: One of my favorite parts – because it’s so unique to Chautauqua - is when the audience gets to ask questions of the performers, who then answer in character. It’s unscripted – you have no idea what people are going to ask you. I’m wondering how you prepare for that?
TILLIE: There really is no way to prepare – you don’t know what people are going to ask…
ERIN: Do you have friends and family just – hit you with questions beforehand?
TILLIE: Yeah, usually—I’ve got friends and family that’ll drill me on questions. It’s kind of nice because I come from a long line of history teachers, and so they ask really hard ones. So I’m all prepared and excited for those, and then I get the ones, like, “were you ever married?” And I can answer that really well. (laughs)
ERIN: Too easily! Thank you, Tillie…
The High Plains Chautauqua begins Tuesday evening and runs through Friday, Aug. 10 under the Chautauqua tent on the AIMS Community College campus in Greeley. This year’s theme celebrates ‘Courage and Conviction in America.’
You can see Tillie Newman’s portrayal of Mother Jones Friday evening.
Want to read more on Mary Harris? Here's a profile in Mother Jones magazine, which is named after her.