Chautauqua: A Different Type of Summer Event in Northern Nevada


Doug Mishler portrays Henry Ford at the Chautaqua Festival on 06.27.2013. Photo by Jeri Chadwell

Doug Mishler portrays Henry Ford at the Chautaqua Festival on 06.27.2013. Photo by Jeri Chadwell

Summer in Northern Nevada is the time for events, beginning with the Reno Rodeo in June and continuing through September when the rumble of thousands of motorcycle engines fills the air during the Street Vibrations Fall Motorcycle Rally. But the big-ticket events like Hot August Nights account for only a small portion of summer goings-on in the Truckee Meadows. Smaller events like the Nevada Humanities Chautauqua festival offer a change of pace from the usual downtown vendors and crowds that accompany the bigger events.

According to the Nevada Humanities website, “Chautauqua is a living history program in which performers, in costume and in character, bring historical figures to life in theatrical monologues.” The theme of the 22nd festival was “No Dream Deferred” and featured the portrayal of such famous characters as Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Julia Morgan.

Dr. Doug Mishler gave the final performance of this year’s festival on Thursday evening with his portrayal of Henry Ford.

Mishler teaches at the University of Nevada, Reno. Over the last 15 years, he has given more than 500 Chautauqua presentations and has portrayed historical figures ranging from Ernie Pyle to Reverend Billy Sunday. I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Mishler to discuss his involvement in Chautauqua and what it really takes to give a convincing monologue from the perspective of another human being.

Jeri Chadwell (JC): What’s the difference between theatre and Chautauqua?

Doug Mishler (DM):  There’s been an increasing theatrical component to Chautauqua… All of these characters, it is their personality that’s so important. Like Theodore Roosevelt, if you just read his words, that’s one thing—but—if you do Theodore Roosevelt, people really enjoy being around him because he’s such a huge, larger-than-life character. And that’s one of the things you need to get out of him is this overwhelming persona…

JC: Who’s your favorite person you’ve ever portrayed? Do you have a favorite?

DM: Well, I always say my favorite is who I’m doing right that moment because I love doing those characters; however, I always tell people—now I have to explain it all to them—I usually say, If I had to do one, if I only had one more in me, and I just had to do one more and that was all I’d been given to do, or I can only do one the rest of my life, It would be Theodore.

P.T. Barnum is a close second because they’re just so much fun, and they really tell us a lot about the American character and the American spirit and the American values. There’s some seriousness, especially in Theodore, but there’s also a whole lot of humor and gregariousness, and they’re fun to be around. Henry Ford is not fun to be around.

JC: He’s a little bit of a curmudgeon the way you portray him. 

DM: He’s a little irritated by life right at that moment, and some of my other characters are like that a little bit. But it depends… Some people edit their characters, some to make them a little better than they are because very few people want to go on stage and be the bad guy. I’m one of the few who does it…

JC: So, is there like an average amount of time for you when you say I’m going to become this person? When you take on a new character, how long does it take you to get inside their head?

DM: It really depends. Some are easy to get inside their head. Some are very easy. I didn’t find Henry difficult because early on I learned that I’ve got to just divorce myself from rationally understanding him because some of his is irrational. It’s emotional. He doesn’t have an overall philosophy that goes through. Like P.T. Barnum has this strangely warped philosophy, and it’s wonderful…

Stonewall Jackson was a little easy, easier than I thought because he’s a man of intense passion and power. And he believes in only two things, God and war… and family. Okay make it three: God, war and family, and he’s devoted to all three.

JC: So with somebody like Stonewall Jackson, you would just go to his writings and what people have written about him? And when you choose a modern character, you would sometimes have the luxury of video, documentary film?

DM: That luxury is a curse as well. Like Eleanor Roosevelt, a lot of people know what she sounds like, know her voice, know the pace. I mean, can you do John F. Kennedy without doing that voice? Can you do Tricky Dicky Nixon? You gotta look like him. You’ve gotta be able to do Dick Nixon. And so some of that has to be acting. That’s why the actors do some of those characters better.

But getting back to your question—I sort of jumped it—some of them can take six or seven months to get it ready to go on stage. Some take a year. A character like Theodore I put on stage in a year, but he wasn’t really ready for about four years because he’s just so, so big.

Watch some of the highlights from the 2013 Chautauqua Festival below:

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