Road Show Revives Century-Old Tradition
A mix of entertainment and educational workshops tours a 3,000-mile circuit of small towns in the Northwest. NEW OLD TIME CHAUTAUQUA
OMAK, WASH. — WITH blaring trumpets and the crash of cymbals, the Fighting Instruments of Karma Marching Chamber Band/Orchestra turns onto the sunbaked main street of this eastern Washington cattle town. ``Teddy Bear's Picnic!'' the bandmaster yells above the din. A moment later, the children's classic echoes off the downtown storefronts, pumped out in march time. Musicians, jugglers, and clowns fall in step behind a large banner that reads, ``New Old Time Chautauqua.''
For the past eight years, the Flying Karamazov Brothers and 50 other performers, cooks, teachers, and stagehands have donated five weeks of their time to the Chautauqua tour, a 3,000-mile circuit of the Pacific Northwest that brings workshops and an evening vaudeville show to small towns like this one.
A few blocks later, the parade arrives at Civic League Park where Chautauqua's portable stage dominates the scene. What began this morning as a 25-foot trailer has nearly completed its transformation into a full-size performance space.
Elsewhere in the park, a tepee and a 20-foot yurt - descendant of the circular tents favored by Mongolian nomads - have been erected and solar panels for the energy workshop are being aimed at the sun.
Chautauqua's mix of educational workshops and entertainment revives a tradition that began 100 years ago at Lake Chautauqua, N.Y. There, in the mid-1800s, a Methodist church camp first paired daytime classes with evening performances.
The format caught on, was copied, expanded, and ultimately mobilized into traveling tent shows that crisscrossed rural America at the turn of the century. But as quickly as the circuit blossomed, it faded in the wake of radio, motion pictures, and mass circulation newspapers.
If the original Chautauquas succumbed to the mass media, then the New Old Time Chautauqua aims to nudge its patrons away from their TV sets and toward more home-grown entertainment and community-level problem-solving.
``Good afternoon, everyone,'' says Peppi the clown into a microphone. ``Welcome to our afternoon workshops.''
For the next two hours, would-be dancers tap their way through lessons on stage, singers swap songs in the tepee, and jugglers of all ages toss tennis balls on the lawn.
As the afternoon sun angles through the trees, a crowd gathers by the alternative-energy display to watch a solar parabola fry potatoes and learn about options in recycling.
Other groups discuss organic gardening or listen to a revue about enlightenment billed as ``Shallow songs about deep subjects.''
In its look and feel, the New Old Time Chautauqua recalls the 1960s more than the 1860s. And in a year in which post-mortems for the counterculture are as common as recollections of Woodstock, some might consider the Chautauqua an anachronism.
Not Paul Magid, the long-haired fellow helping rig the trapeze. Also known as Dmitri Karamazov, Mr. Magid and his juggling cohorts, the Flying Karamazov Brothers, helped found and fund the New Old Time Chautauqua nine years ago.
``I don't think we're a throwback to anything,'' Magid says. ``More like a continuation, another way to keep the ideals alive.''
If those ideals include donating time and energy to causes you believe in, then the Karamazov's relationship to the Chautauqua seems a good example.
In 15 years, the Flying Karamazov Brothers have moved from the streets of Santa Cruz, Calif., to sold-out houses on Broadway with shows that combine phenomenal juggling and a finely tuned sense of the absurd. They've made a movie with Michael Douglas (``The Jewel of the Nile'') and starred in a vaudeville version of Shakespeare's ``A Comedy of Errors'' at New York's Lincoln Center.
With their rising star and hectic schedule, the Karamazovs could clearly find easier - or at least more profitable - ways to spend their summers.
``True enough,'' Magid agrees. ``But at some point you have to give something back. Chautauqua is an offering, a sort of rolling example of what people can do if they work together.''
Magid's sentiments are echoed by Mark Warren. Away from Chautauqua (and out of his duck nose and clown shoes), Dr. Warren teaches clinical psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass. On tour, he runs workshops on laughter and health, plays the bass drum, and serves as resident philosopher.
``I'd say our method is Socratic,'' Warren says. ``People don't know what to make of us at first. We look different, dress funny, and travel around together in old buses. Even before the workshops or show, we've challenged assumptions about looks and livelihood. The point is to get people thinking.''
Warren maintains the same process shapes Chautauqua's cast and crew. ``This isn't an easy tour,'' he says. ``There are long days, sleepless nights, broken vehicles, and plenty of questions about why we do it. Over the years, with lots of tears and laughter, Chautauqua has evolved in response to those questions. Somehow, he adds with a grin, it all holds together.''
``Five minutes 'til showtime!'' someone shouts.
``Has anybody seen my washboard?''
``Band, form up. Let's go!''
Moments later, the Fighting Instruments of Karma circumnavigates the audience to the beat of a samba march, then mounts the stage to conclude the overture.
``Ladies and gentlemen,'' the bandmaster intones. ``Welcome to the 1989 New Old Time Chautauqua!''
The crowd responds with enthusiastic applause as the action flows from folk songs to juggling to rope tricks to Artis the Spoonman.
First with curiosity and then with astonishment, the audience watches Artis move from tentative taps to blurring cascades of spoon-clattering percussion.
Later, he demonstrates cats-cradle string figures from a dozen different countries, explaining that the art form ``did not arrive here via videotape or television; it's been passed on by individual human beings, teaching each other for the sake of humor or reeducation, not for capital gain or political control through entertainment.''
More acts: Toes Tiranoff tap dances through ``Honeysuckle Rose,'' Magical Mystical Michael suspends a volunteer over thin air, and Rebecca Deviante defies death from the flying trapeze. Finally, the Flying Karamazov Brothers juggle torches, cleavers, rubber fish, fresh eggs, and the English language with equal aplomb.
``This cleaver's been sterilized,'' Magid notes at one point, then worries aloud, ``I hope Ward and June don't find out.''
The show's grand finale begins with a rap song: ``Now you've been told so many times, by all the forms of the media, that there's nothing that one little person can do to change the world, but that's not true....''
The stage begins to fill with cast and crew, dancing to the beat. ``You can talk to your neighbors, one and all, you can play it, you can sing it, you can write it on the wall....''
The audience claps along as the horn section kicks in with a Latin rhythm. ``You, you, you, can make a difference, everything you do, do, do....''
The crowd rises to its feet, kids atop their parent's shoulders, and as the music crescendos, Paul Magid takes the microphone.
``Good night, everybody,'' he shouts above the music and applause. ``Thanks for coming. Now go out there and SAVE THE PLANET!''
The crowd lingers, held by the afterglow and an impromptu jam session. But finally they gather their blankets and picnic baskets and stroll out into the summer night.
For the next two hours, the same people who stood on stage will dismantle it, pack up the props, lights, and instruments and finally get a few hours of sleep. Tomorrow, they roll at sunrise.