Marion Fellowship #2: The Eden of Chautauqua

The Chautauqua Institute speaks to my nostalgia for family and summer. This magical bit of land on a hill overlooking Lake Chautauqua in the western most part of upstate New York captures a sense of relaxed intimate community that seems otherwise entirely lost in most of America. The essence of Chautauqua is steeped with traditions that facilitate learning, faith, art, and community. Thousands of visitors return every summer and many groups represent three or more generations. Some of the homes have remained in the same families longer than 100 years and I’ve met people in their 90s who began coming here soon after birth. Generational memory is strong. Parents want to create the same magical summers for their children and many houses are filled with three generations or more.

Chautauqua is designed to foster human interaction. Cars are largely forbidden so everyone walks. The narrow streets and small walkways are lined with close houses that feature front porches and balconies. Porch sitting is an important activity which perfectly suits the moderate climate. This compressed community is filled with people who adopt a pervasive leisurely pace. It is easy to strike up a conversation with anyone you meet as one’s presence confirms a commitment to the shared values of beauty and learning.

This gated community hosts some 900,000 visitors every summer with an impressive list of guest artists, performers, authors, scholars, teachers, and politicians. The daily schedule fills with talks, readings, performances, plays, operas, classes, and meditations. There are as many as 30 events everyday open to anyone on the grounds. An expensive gate pass includes access to most events – save theatrical performances and galas. Some 300 special studies courses are offered for modest fees. Music, dance, theatre, and art schools are available for professionally oriented high school and college students. Top tier faculty match the profiles of other prestigious summer festivals. Many religious sects and denominations maintain their own centers, which foster education, discussion, and reflection. The grounds include multiple performance spaces, theaters, lecture facilities, art galleries, recreation centers, learning centers, and a handful of restaurants and shops (and a small movie house). Boys and girls day camps host hundreds of children weekly. Chautauqua is a self-enclosed and self-sustained island utopia that lasts nine-weeks.

The 5000 seat auditorium begins most days with a major lecture. Yo Yo Ma and Sara J Bloomfield (director of the DC Holocaust Museum) were among the speakers during my time. Authors, philosophers, politicians, religious teachers, and activists offer afternoon talks in the outdoor Hall of Philosophy. The authors who wrote The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father and Just Mercy were talks I attended. The daily evening performances presented in the auditorium included two presentations by the Silk Road Ensemble (one with Yo Yo Ma), a performance by Nashville Ballet, and three orchestral performances (one by the student orchestra and the other two by the professional Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra). I also attended the opening of the play Into the Breeches and a production of the opera As One. My brief six days were filled with three to four daily cultural events. The gate pass makes it all available on a first come first serve basis.

Without any known contacts at Chautauqua, I assumed I would spend six days quietly attending and observing… a lone anonymous visitor. I intentionally arrived just in time for the afternoon performance of the brilliant opera As One (about the experience of a transgendered person). Right away I ran into Mark Campbell, good friend and co-librettist for As One. He invited me to the cast party where I met multiple people connected with the opera program and Chautauqua. I quickly had invitations to more events and dinners. The next day I went for lunch at the schools’ cafeteria and sat with a group of the art faculty. Soon I was traveling with them for tours, concerts, and meals. We talked about things like synethesia, teaching for artists, artistic influences, and of course politics. It is easy to meet people and everyone I talked with had a passion for one or more aspects of the culturally rich life of Chautauqua.

The grounds offer a special beauty. Everything feels compressed with smaller walkways and roads that are lined with well designed and maintained gardens and sitting areas. The houses are often pretty summer cottages with adorned features and colorful paint schemes in a Victorian style. Public art is common. Many of the larger buildings offer a grand and traditional beauty. Lake views are ever present. If you are staying on the grounds (as most do), then you leave a concert or talk and walk a few blocks to have lunch on your front porch. You do not fight the crowds to the parking lot and wait for thirty minutes before the drive home. Instead you get to savor the event without rush or stress. One afternoon I attended the funny and wonderful new play Into the Breeches at the intimate playhouse and then walked to the Nashville Ballet performance in the auditorium. The elegant choreography of Appalachian Spring, complete with live orchestra, still lingers in my mind. Following the performance, I bought ice cream, and walked the grounds for an hour enjoying a perfect summer evening.

It is common for people to fail in their descriptions of Chautauqua. A short run through of the various events or how lovely it is to walk the grounds does not capture the totality of this special place. Every description will miss something lovely. Ultimately Chautauqua feels like a place committed to renewing the mind in a wholistic approach. Books and learning are celebrated. The performing arts are abundant and central. Aesthetic beauty, small and large, surround everything. Community, conversation, food and drink, summer sports, and rest fill in the gaps. This all happens against the backdrop of summer thunderstorms, sunsets, and comfortable evenings. Wherever you go you can discuss the morning lecture, the ballet performance the night before, or what you’ve heard about the play that just opened. I’m eager to find a way back to Chautauqua!

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