Nebraska Tradition Continues with Start of Chautauqua

Actress portraying Jane Addams at 2016 Nebraska Chautauqua. (Photo courtesy of Humanities Nebraska)
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June 14, 2017 - 6:45am

A Nebraska tradition continues this week with an event that was an important part of the state’s social fabric more than 100 years ago and then made a comeback in the 1980’s. Chautauqua begins Thursday in Seward, and the subject is a war the United States entered exactly a century ago.


If you’re unfamiliar with what Chautauqua is, Kristi Hayek Carley of Humanities Nebraska has a primer.

“Between the years of 1880 to the 1920’s, you had these traveling shows that would go from town to town throughout the Great Plains, and it was very popular in Nebraska,” Carley said. “It was a way in which to get information to the public before there was radio, before there was television, before there were any other kinds of mass media.”

Chautauqua was held all over state, usually under an old-fashioned big-top tent. After the 1920’s, its popularity faded, but made a comeback in 1984 here in Nebraska. Since then, communities across the state have hosted Chautauqua. Seward hosts a four-day event June 15-18. Nebraska City hosts a Chautauqua June 21-24. This year’s topic is a continuation of last year’s, “World War I, Legacies of a Forgotten War.”

Actress Karen Vuranch portraying author Edith Wharton at 2016 Nebraska Chautauqua. (Photo courtesy of Humanities Nebraska)

“Legacies of a Forgotten War is suggesting that perhaps World War I is overlooked often and that connection and impact it had on the 20th century and even today is often forgotten in discussions of history,” Carley said.    

Just like it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chautauqua is part education and part entertainment. This year, actors portraying historical figures like President Woodrow Wilson, social reformer Jane Addams and activist W.E.B. DuBois will highlight Chautauqua.

“Each of them has a connection to World War 1 and together, they’re going to be telling as broad of a story as we can manage in four nights about a very important event not only in our nation’s history, but world history as well,” Carley said.

Those actors are known as Chautauquans, and they’re both entertainers and scholars. Karen Vuranch lives in West Virginia and has portrayed several historical figures for Nebraska’s Chautauqua. This year, she’s author Edith Wharton, who spent time along the front lines in France during World War 1.

“Most people do not realize how much she had to do with the war and how very much involved she was with humanitarian efforts and documenting the conflict and going to the front and all that,” Vuranch said. “I knew of her, but I didn’t know about her World War I involvement and when I started to read it, I just was fascinated.”   

Another character in this year’s Nebraska Chautauqua is William Jennings Bryan, a Nebraska congressman and secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson. He resigned before the war started and was an advocate for peace and American neutrality during the conflict. He was also one of the best know and highest paid Chautauqua speakers in the early 20th century, with a booming voice and charismatic message.

Dr. Ted Kachel portraying William Jennings Bryan at Nebraska Chautauqua in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Humanities Nebraska)

Bryan is portrayed by Dr. Ted Kachel, who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

“The real challenge in the Chautauqua format as we do it is not so much in the monologue, but it’s in the questions and answers that come immediately after the monologue when you remain in character and you want to be able to genuinely engage the questions the people in the audience are bringing to you that night,” Kachel said.  

Kristi Hayek Carley with Humanities Nebraska says this year’s Chautauqua in both Seward and Nebraska City will be indoors in the local high school auditoriums. Workshops will take place during the day and performances will happen in the evening.

“It’s a great opportunity to interact with your neighbors, interact with other community members and together have a learning experience or have somewhat of a common text in which to discuss later on,” Carley said.

Exactly 100 years after the United States entered Work War I, Nebraskans can continue a tradition of learning that’s helping to enlighten a whole new generation.

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