At High Plains Chautauqua, History Is A Youngin's Game, Too
For many kids, summer means stepping away from the history books. But for Greeley's Young Chautauquans, it means stepping into them, and breathing new life into characters from the past.
For 9-year-old Martin Lahman, that means portraying Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell. The youngest Young Chautauquan performing at the 16th annual High Plains Chautauqua, the fourth-grader got his start at the age of 6.
"I saw a young Mark Twain do it and he was just fascinating and so I thought that maybe I could do the same thing," Lahman said.
For his performance, Lahman sports bushy sideburns glued to his face, and a jacket slightly too large in order to accommodate his right arm. That's because it's tucked inside to give the illusion of a missing appendage. John Wesley Powell lost his arm in the Civil War.
Already a veteran of the dramatic stage before joining Young Chautauqua, Lahman said performing in front of an audience is usually not a problem. But at the last Chautauqua, he qualified to perform at the main event in the big tent – with its equally big crowds.
"Uh, last year it was about 900 and it was really scary," he said. "I've never been scared in play acting but Chautauqua was the first thing that really surprised me. I thought that there would be – 50 people. But I was really surprised."
Still, he remained poised. That's something that usually takes time for Chautauqua participants, said Thelma Bear Edgerton, organizer of the Young Chautauqua program for the Greeley-Evans School District.
"Usually the first year, sometimes the kids aren't able, you know, to do what they need to do at all," Edgerton said. "So they really develop this poise over a few years of participating."
Throughout the school year, students ranging from first grade through high school select and research a historical figure, script a monologue and then perform for various groups before auditioning for a spot in the summer's High Plains Chautauqua. Of the 700 student participants, only 47 get to the big tent, where they share the stage with professional scholars bringing history to life.
13-year-old Kathryn Broderius is channeling Colorado suffragette Caroline Churchill.
"I look for characters that made a major impact on society… but maybe weren't as well known," Broderius said, adding that she was quickly drawn to Churchill. "She sounded like a really, I guess, free-will, like fun, high spirited person. Then I looked into her a little more and discovered all that she did in Colorado."
She also wasn't afraid of anything, said Broderius, referencing a story she researched about Churchill firing a pistol into the door as a warning to two men standing outside threatening to break it down.
"It really showed that she wasn't afraid of doing anything," she said.
Neither is Broderius. Except maybe being unprepared for the Q&A session with the audience after the monologue. Not only do the students have to know their scripts by heart, they also have to know their character's lives inside and out.
Because who knows what they'll be asked?
"You just have to think about everything you've learned, 'cause you can't fit everything in a five minute speech," Broderius said.
Just ask her 11-year-old brother, William, who researched Theodore Roosevelt. One of his favorite stories didn't even make it into his monologue. But he's happy to share it with anyone who asks.
"Ohhh! He loved football and I love football," said William Broderius. "And he actually saved the game, 'cause there were so many high casualties in the game back then. So he got a whole group of coaches together and… he basically said either you make rules or you don't get to do it."
It's that kind of excitement that Thelma Bear Edgerton hopes the Young Chautauquans keep with them well after the curtain drops.
"Well, my dream is that they will learn how to be good people, caring people and contribute back to their community," Edgerton said.