Bringing Down the House: A Capella Group ‘Ball in the House’ to Bring Energy and Harmony to Amp

Ball in the House

Theworld has “The Brady Bunch” to thank for the existence of Ball in the House.

The Boston-based a cappella group, which will be performing at 8:15 p.m. Moday, June 24 in the Amphitheater, and at 5 and 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 25 in Smith Wilkes Hall, received some unconventional assistance when coming up with the group’s name.

“Years ago, during our first show, we realized we didn’t have a name for the group,” said Dave Guisti, one of the group’s founding members. “We took a break to try to come up with a name, and everyone just hated each other’s ideas.”

Guisti said that during the volatile brainstorming process, “Brady Bunch” reruns flashed from a muted TV in the background, and when they unmuted it, they heard the character Peter Brady arguing with his mom about being able to play ball in the house. Over and over again the phrase came up, and it stuck in the heads of the group members.

Ever since that day, Ball in the House has stuck with its moniker, taking the act across the United States and delighting audiences with tightly-woven harmonies and upbeat energy. Over the years, they have opened for acts like The Beach Boys, Lionel Richie, The Jonas Brothers and Blondie.

Now the group is bringing its percussive performance to Chautauqua Institution, performing both as part of the Popular Entertainment Series and Family Entertainment Series.

Over the course of these back-to-back shows, Ball in the House will be playing for two very different audiences during the group’s Chautauqua visit. But group member Wallace Thomas said he’s confident the group can entertain young and old alike by adjusting their performance style.

“With kids, we get to be a little bit sillier, to move around and be really energetic,” he said. “And with adults, we try to be smoother, more refined, you know? But we’ll give everyone a chance to come in, put aside whatever they’ve been dealing with and just have a good time.”

Ball in the House specializes in rhythm and blues, soul and pop music, layering multi-part harmonies over rhythmic beatboxing to mimic the dynamic nature of a full band. They cover well-known songs like “Happy” by Pharrell Williams and “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson, but also write their own songs, and have produced five albums as a group.

Jon Ryan, another of the group’s founding members, said the nature of a cappella means that everyone, not only those who enjoy R&B or pop music, can find something to enjoy in the group’s performance.

“Above all, the show is fun,” Ryan said. “Even if people don’t think they like a cappella or our music, there’s an attractiveness to the harmonic nature of (the performance) that tempers nearly any song into something that older people can enjoy just as much as younger people.”

Ball in the House comes at each show with the goal to deliver a satisfying and exciting performance. Each show is a new chance to engage and connect with audiences, and Thomas said he applies this mentality to his daily life as well.

“I say a prayer every day, and it’s that this is a day I’ve never seen before and that I will never see again, and that’s exciting,” Thomas said. “Even though it’s the unknown, it’s exciting — not scary — because I can make the best of it.”

So although the members of Ball in the House took their name from a sitcom from the 1970s, their eyes are fixed firmly ahead; on the next show, the next audience and the next experience.

Check them out on YouTube –

‘Birthday Candles,’ Workshopped in ‘17, to Appear on Broadway

  • Annie Purcell and Kelsey Jenison act out a scene in which their characters share a moment as mother and daughter during a photo call following a performance of the New Play Workshop production “Birthday Candles” Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2017 in Bratton Theater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

A play workshopped at Chautauqua Institution in 2017 will soon be taking center stage on Broadway.

Birthday Candles by Noah Haidle is a show that distills 100 years into 30 minutes as it follows one woman from her 17th birthday all the way until her 117th. In a 2017 story in The Chautauquan Daily, Haidle said the show deals with how to lead a meaningful life, and examines how family, tradition and time mingle with one another to create human experiences.

“It’s life, but more curated,” Haidle said in 2017.

The show was originally commissioned by Detroit Public Theater, where Chautauqua Theater Company Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy co-founder and co-producing artistic director.

After its inception, Birthday Candles came to the Institution as part of the New Play Workshop where it was staged and altered based on each night’s performance.

Through the NPW, recently written plays come to Chautauqua to find their feet. Instead of simply being read aloud in a writing room, the plays are staged with some technical elements and costumes in order for their writers and directors to get a better idea of what they look like during a real performance.

Now, just two years after its workshop at Chautauqua, the show will begin running on Broadway in the 2019-20 season.

“It’s like a dream come true,” Corporandy said.

Birthday Candles will be directed by former CTC Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch, who left Chautauqua in 2016 to step into the role of producing artistic director at the PlayMakers Repertory Company at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Benesch has been involved with this play from the start. She took the helm as director when the play first came to Chautauqua, then followed it to Detroit for its world premiere at DPT in 2018.

Now that the show is set to appear on the Broadway stage at the Roundabout Theater Company, Benesch will remain in her role as the production’s director.

Not only will the show be taking the stage in New York’s most prestigious theater district, it will also star Debra Messing, best known for her leading role in NBC’s “Will and Grace.” Birthday Candles will be the second on-Broadway production Messing has appeared in after performing in John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar in 2014.

CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba was just as excited about the show’s success as Corporandy.

He said he appreciates the opportunities the NPW provides both writers and CTC staff.

“Because of the amazing resources and talents we have (at Chautauqua), we’re in a unique position to actually shepherd and work and stretch and challenge these plays before they go on to full productions,” Borba said. “That’s something special because it usually doesn’t happen.”

And while Birthday Candles’ rapid rise to the Broadway stage may seem implausible to some, Vice President of Performing and Visual Arts Deborah Sunya Moore doesn’t think so. She has believed in both this show and the NPW program all the way.

“I’d almost say it’s unbelievable, but it’s not, because we believed in this work,” Moore said. “I would say it is an incredible affirmation about the power of the work that the Chautauqua Theater Company is doing.”

In light of this success, both Borba and Corporandy expressed a desire to keep the NPW program going strong.

“It’s really one of our top priorities right now,” Borba said. “There are many ways we’re going about supporting it, whether it’s giving more time and resources to these shows, or the conversations that we’re in with outside theaters to build those bridges for these shows to carry on.”

CTC will once again be staging plays as part of the NPW this season.

How the Light Gets In by E.M. Lewis will run July 18-20; On the Exhale by Martin Zimmerman will run Aug. 14-18; and Agent 355 by Preston Max Allen and Jessica Kahkoska will run Aug. 15-18.

Sharon Brous to be First Rabbi to Preach at Chautauqua’s Sunday Worship

Rabbi Sharon Brous

As a young woman, Rabbi Sharon Brous spent a weekend walking around the Old City of Jerusalem searching for the answers to life’s questions. When she found out that the answers were “facile and unconvincing,” she decided to devote her life to wrestling with the questions.

Brous, the first-ever rabbi to serve as chaplain-in-residence at Chautauqua, will preach at the 10:45 a.m. Ecumenical Service of Worship Sunday in the Amphitheater and will speak about her faith journey at the 5 p.m. Vespers Sunday in the Hall of Philosophy. She will preach Monday through Friday at the 9:15 a.m. Ecumencial Worship service in the Amphitheater.

In her 2016 TED Talk, “Reclaiming Religion,” which has been viewed 1.3 million times and translated into 20 languages, Brous noted that religions of all faiths were waning.

“Across the board, churches and synagogues and mosques are all complaining about how hard it is to maintain relevance for a generation of young people who seem completely uninterested, not only in the institutions that stand at the heart of our traditions but even in religion itself,” she said.

“And what (the institutions) need to understand is that there is today a generation of people who are as disgusted by the violence of religious extremism as they are turned off by the lifelessness of religious routine-ism.”

Brous sat down with a friend and sent out emails to about 20 people to join them on a Friday night to see what they could make of their Jewish inheritance before they “bailed on religion.” Over 135 came and the result of that wrestling is a community, IKAR, founded in 2004. IKAR means “the essence of or the heart of the matter.”

“The challenge today is to be animated by both gratitude and unrest, by humility and audacity, and to feel the exodus from Egypt — our people’s journey from slavery to freedom, from degradation to dignity — in our guts,” Brous wrote on IKAR’s website. “Our Jewish story calls us to become agents of social change whose fiercest weapons are love, faith and holy hutzpah.”

“Religious Moments that Changed the World” is the theme for the Week One Interfaith Lecture Series, and this is a moment that is changing Chautauqua’s religious life.

“I asked a variety of people why we had never invited a rabbi to serve as our chaplain and preacher of the week,” said The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson in the 2019 winter Chautauquan.

“Other than ‘we’ve never done it that way,’ there was no good answer.”

Robinson noted that Methodist Bishop John H. Vincent said that “the theory of Chautauqua is life is one, and that religion belongs everywhere.” 

That Vincent said “religion” is a key element and not “Christianity” alone is important to Robinson.

Perhaps Vincent’s statement was a “precursor to what would become Chautauqua’s interfaith work,” Robinson said. He said that as long as he and Director of Religion Maureen Rovegno are  responsible for the spiritual and religious life and programming at Chautauqua, the morning worship services will remain Christian “albeit very welcoming of people from other faith traditions.”

“Let’s remember that the only ‘Bible’ Jesus ever knew was the Hebrew Scriptures,” he said. “It seems to me, that if it was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for us, too. Who better to teach us about God’s self and God’s will in those books than a rabbi.

“I wanted to ensure that our first rabbi chaplain was a sure ‘hit’ — Rabbi Sharon Brous is as close as I am going to get to ‘a sure thing.’ ”

With the goal of reinvigorating Jewish practice and inspiring people of faith to reclaim a moral and prophetic voice, IKAR quickly became one of the fastest growing and most influential Jewish congregations in the country. Today it is credited with sparking a rethinking of religious life in a time of unprecedented disaffection and declining affiliation.

Brous is in the inaugural cohort of Auburn Seminary’s Senior Fellows program, which unites top faith leaders working on the frontlines for justice. Brous also sits on Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Interfaith Collective and on the faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and REBOOT, and serves on the International Council of the New Israel Fund and the national steering committee for the Poor People’s Campaign. In 2013, she blessed President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the Inaugural National Prayer Service, and Garcetti at his inauguration in 2017.

She spoke at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in 2017, and at the national launch of the Poor People’s Campaign and the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018. Brous was named No. 1 on the Newsweek/The Daily Beast list of the most influential Rabbis in America, and has been recognized by The Forward and the Jerusalem Post as one of the 50 most influential Jews.

Brous is a graduate of Columbia University and was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Singer-songwriters Judy Collins, Madeleine Peyroux to Perform Saturday


As Chautauqua’s gates swing wide this opening weekend, legendary folk artist Judy Collins returns to the Amphitheater stage, and jazz singer-songwriter Madeleine Peyroux makes her Chautauqua debut bringing Leonard Cohen’s 1992 “Anthem” to life and relaying the fitting lyrics: “The birds they sang at the break of day/Start again I heard them say.”

In a double bill performance at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater, the two artists will bring distinct styles — Peyroux’s rich jazz sound and Collins’ timeless folk spirit.

“I love having this double bill of two outstanding female artists,” said Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts. “The fact that we can have both jazz and folk represented is really exciting to me.”

Because each artist attracts a different set of fans, Moore said she hopes each audience member will be introduced to a new sound — a jazz complement to Collins’ folk, or a folk complement to Peyroux’s jazz.

While Peyroux comes to Chautauqua as a first-timer, Collins has been a guest performer on Chautauqua stages for decades, and both said they want to play their respective classics as well as newer material. Such material includes Peyroux’s 2018 album Anthem, on which the title track and cover of Cohen’s hit appears, as well as Collins’ 2018 single “Dreamers,” recorded as a dedication to all dreamers and asylum seekers.

Produced during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign cycle, Anthem is the collaborative work of Peyroux and four other writers and musicians: Larry Klein, Patrick Warren, Brian MacLeod and David Baerwald. Together, the team covered two songs and wrote and recorded the remaining original tracks to create a collection inspired by political and social realities.

Collins said she had worked on “Dreamers” privately, and with encouragement from her husband, began performing the then-unrecorded “Dreamers” on her 2018 tour and eventually recorded the song a capella that year. A “Dreamers” music video featuring photographs of immigrants is now available to view online.

Chautauqua marks the first stop on Peyroux’s 2019 tour, which will take her to jazz festivals across North America and Europe in the coming months to perform selections from Anthem and her 23-year career since her debut album Dreamland. After Chautauqua, Collins will continue her national tour into the fall. 

“Sometimes I don’t want to go out and perform, but whenever I do get on stage and begin, I get lost in it, and I enjoy it more than anything in the world,” Peyroux said.

Peyroux recalled performing on a double bill with Collins at New York City’s Town Hall venue in 2012. Getting to any stage, evolving their sounds and sharing their voices took years of work, and for both artists, that work began in their teenage years.

For Peyroux, it began in the 1980s on the streets of Paris where she traveled as a busker developing her sound and style. For Collins, it began at the piano with classical compositions and moved into the world of folk music.

“Keep practicing,” Collins said, offering advice to young musicians and artists. “Practice actually does make perfect, and it can get you to Carnegie Hall. But you have to keep at it.”

First Sacred Song Service Welcomes all Chautauquans Home for the Season


  • Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, practices for of the 2019 season. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Traditionally, the first Sacred Song Service of Chautauqua Institution’s season welcomes old and new Chautauquans to the grounds. Returners will find that a few elements of the program remain the same — “Day Is Dying in the West” opens the service, which culminates with “Now the Day Is Over” and the postlude “Largo.”

But from there, Jared Jacobsen, the Institution’s organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, said he has creative freedom when planning the rest of the program. He picks a theme that doesn’t necessarily coincide with the Institution’s programming. For example, Jacobsen planned last season’s opening service to fit the week’s theme, but also had the Parkland High School shootings in mind.

For the opening service this season at 8 p.m. Sunday in the Amphitheater, Jacobsen and the Chautauqua Choir will take Chautauquans more than 50 years back to the Apollo 8 moon landing in recognition of the Week One theme, “Moments That Changed the World.”

“(The astronauts) sent back that iconic photograph on Christmas Eve of the earth as a blue marble,” Jacobsen said. “It’s that photograph, which I’m reproducing on the front of the service leaflet, that informs everything we’re going to do (in the service).”

“This Fragile Earth, Our Island Home” is a performance layered with 11 pieces of music; it first focuses on the earth as seen from outer space, then gradually narrows its focus to its inhabitants and finally zeros in on Chautauqua and the Amp.

So after the traditional “Day Is Dying in the West,” which, according to Jacobsen, was written specifically for Chautauqua by a Chautauquan, the performance starts with that “blue marble” view of the earth presented by the Apollo 8 photograph. The program features a short reading by Russell “Rusty” Schweickart as he tries to explain how his perspective of existential topics like love, death and birth changed after seeing the earth from outer space.

From there, the Massey Memorial Organ will “boom” at the opening of the hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” The Massey Organ can finally flex its muscles to an Amp audience after being damaged by overheating on Aug. 21, 2018.   

After featuring a medieval piece from Mother Julian of Norwich, whose poetry speaks of “a little thing round as a ball” shown to her by God, Jacobsen includes the Anthem “Musick’s Empire,” which he said embodies the goal of the Sacred Song Service.

“It’s all about creating, as he says, a mosaic in the air of music,” Jacobsen said. “And that’s what the Sacred Song Service is all about — we are creating out of the air of this place the vibrations of which we call music.”

As the performance continues, pieces like “Too Splendid for Speech but Ripe for a Song” help transition the program from the “blue marble” perspective of the earth to its inhabitants.

“(The piece) is very picturesque,” Jacobsen said. “It’s almost cheesy but not quite. … We love it, and the congregation gets to chime in on the last verse, which I love doing that. Chautauquans love to sing, anyway.”

The remainder of the program includes an anthem, “Within This Tent,” adapted by Jacobsen and blessings from the Muslim, Jewish and Christian traditions, before a few other pieces and the postlude, “Largo.”

Sunday, and every Sunday of the season, Jacobsen gets to do his two favorite things in the world: Help people sing and help people worship, two things he has been doing since his parents first brought him to the Institution at 5 years old. Being the resident organist for the Institution was the dream job he always wanted.

“I’m over-the-moon excited for (this Sacred Song Service),” Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen’s excitement for this season’s opening Sacred Song Service came after the Massey Organ’s trials and tribulations last season. In January 2018, a custodian discovered that the Massey Organ’s keys had been damaged by snowmelt. Luckily, new keys arrived from England and were installed just before the season started, and the Massey Organ was operable for the first Sunday service and throughout the season. 

However, at this point, Jacobsen described the Massey Organ as “unreliable” because of the accident.

“I just didn’t know that it would work from Sunday to Sunday, or from morning to morning,” Jacobsen said. “It was different every single morning that I played it in church.”

When the internal computer of the Massey Organ was damaged again — this time due to overheating — after a morning worship two months later, Jacobsen left the grounds unsure of the instrument’s future.    

Earlier this year, the Massey Organ was sent to Massey Organ Supply Industries in Erie, Pennsylvania, for restoration and repairs. Jacobsen said they discovered multiple aspects that needed restored after the snowmelt and fire damages.   

“They totally rebuilt the Massey Organ console, which is the control desk,” Jacobsen said. “And in the process figured out that the computers up inside the Massey Organ also needed to be replaced.”

But other restorations were made during the 2019 off-season as well: Dimmers for the lights on the console were added, the music rack was made adjustable, further improvements were made to the keyboard, and the wood on the shell of the console was refinished, among other repairs that Jacobsen said “were the right thing to do (for the Massey Organ).”

Jacobsen also said the control desk was completely enhanced for the first time since the 1990s, and the computers in the chambers have been replaced.   

Last year, Jacobsen was dreading the opening Sunday of the season. Thanks to the aforementioned improvements, he is looking forward to this one. He recognizes that challenges may arise, but after spending time with the Massey Organ in the days leading up to Week One, is optimistic.

“The Massey Organ works by moving the molecules of the air in (the Amp) around your head,” Jacobsen said. “There’s nothing like that.”

Imagining Synergy: ‘Collaborations’ Connect CLSC Selections



Even on a micro-level, the very act of reading — of trusting an author, of connecting with a protagonist, of discovering the secrets cached between sentences — is a collaborative exercise.

At Chautauqua, a community already devoted to literary-minded conversation, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle’s 2019 vertical theme “Collaborations” seems even more useful.

Atom Atkinson, who begins their second season as the Institution’s director of literary arts, admits this year’s theme is “pretty capacious.” But that’s not without a purpose.

Such a broad concept affords the CLSC flexibility to interpret the theme however it may best serve this season’s readership without confining a book’s resonance, Atkinson said.

It also means the selection process is more organic. Instead of searching for books amenable to a hyper-specific idea, Atkinson can follow what excites them and produce a balanced collection of genres, subjects and styles.

Next comes the books’ placement onto the sprawling season calendar, itself divided into themes by week.

“Once we are thinking about those books, then we are thinking about what would really be exciting at a particular time that would unlock avenues of thought inside that week that might not be unlocked elsewhere,” Atkinson said, “or might only be possible through something as durational as reading a long book.”

Week One, “Moments That Changed the World,” begins with two out of the 11 CLSC selections: The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan and Kindred by the late, great Octavia E. Butler.

“We’re going to spend a week sitting with some overlooked moments and thinking about why they are overlooked and what the ramifications are of their being overlooked,” Atkinson said.

The Death and Life was the first book announced at last season’s Bryant Day, a ceremony that unveils a few CLSC books for the following year. With this pick, Atkinson hopes to signal that the CLSC remains invested in science selections, as well as works that address the question of what has already passed and what we need to move forward.

First published in 1979, Kindred, too, approaches history differently. Though the majority of CLSC books are published within the past two or three years, Atkinson capitalized on former vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Sherra Babcock’s practice of “historic selections” — classics with contemporary relevance — to make this pick, which John Keene will present on the lecture stage.

“You could pick any book that talks about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, chattel slavery and colonialism as ‘Moments That Changed the World,’ but (Kindred) … re-orients the way we think about what the past is, versus what the present is, and the ways we are comfortable situating the past in a static past,” Atkinson said.

Week Two, with community efforts at the forefront, features two nonfiction books. First up is Beth Macy’s Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America, a book Atkinson praised as “a journalistic masterpiece.”

“For a season where we wanted to look at collaborations, we were also deeply interested in the part of the book that talked about what is yet possible for how different institutions and individuals can collaborate differently, or in new ways,” Atkinson said.

In an instance of regional synergy, Macy will join individuals involved in mental health, medical care and poverty work in Western New York for a recorded roundtable conversation in Jamestown.

“(Sharing this resource) underscore(s) the fact that the CLSC’s educational value has always been in far more than the act of reading,” Atkinson said. “It’s about celebrating what’s possible because you have read it.”

That Thursday, David W. Blight will present his mammoth biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom on July 4, a fact made even more poignant given that Frederick Douglass first delivered his monumental speech “What to the Slave is The Fourth of July” on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York.

Week Three, “A Planet in Balance,” highlights another award-winning work of reportage in Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, a finalist for The Chautauqua Prize.

“We simply loved the book,” Atkinson said. They pointed to interactions between the coastal communities that Rush uplifts as evidence of this year’s vertical theme.

“(The book) takes a different approach, a different point of view, to show the tether of all of these things, which isn’t linear,” they said. “You’re not only thinking in a sort of direct way about the subject matter, but also about how a book is capable of rewiring a reader’s brain to think through a question in the first place.”

Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble is, according to Atkinson, an example of a much “looser” but “rewarding tether” to Week Four’s longevity theme.

“Some readers might not have considered the question of how someone maps their life out, but the book presents pretty clearly the endurance required and the physiological cost of a life in the arts and in this particular art form,” they said, “and the course that was set by not only being a musician, but being a musician in collaboration with three other people.”

In collaboration with Gabel, the Athena Quartet, made up of faculty from the School of Music, will perform pieces referenced throughout The Ensemble the day of Gabel’s presentation.

For a book that revolves around the constructed dichotomy of hearing and deafness, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic was, for Atkinson, an easy choice for a week dedicated to “The Life of the Spoken Word.” A longtime fan of Kaminsky, they deemed the author “the most thrilling live performers of poetry I’ve ever encountered.”

“It’s not often you find a book that connects a reader not only to an experience that is relevant to the content, which is the experience of being at an Ilya Kaminsky reading, and simultaneously an intellectual and creative challenge to reimagine what you think the life of the spoken word is or what the absence of it — ‘so called’ — is,” they said.

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer is the book of Week Six, “What’s Funny?,” as well as a welcome, though no less worthy, bit of “brevity and punch between behemoths,” Atkinson said.

Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship, by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo, follows Braithwaite’s take on hardboiled crime fiction. Situated in Week Seven, “Grace: A Celebration of Extraordinary Gifts,” Letters from Max is a collaboration of two authors that “kind of screamed Chautauqua to me,” Atkinson said.

It also occurs the same week as a seminar — Atkinson called it “a CLSC capstone opportunity” — taught by Elaine Miller, a philosophy professor at Miami University of Ohio.

“(The book) touched on grace on so many registers, and not just in the way we think of spirituality or the way we think of death, but also the way in which the deep human connection of your most important friendships can sustain you,” Atkinson said. “(Week Seven) really called out to us as the right time for that book.”

For Week Eight, “Shifting Global Power,” Atkinson chose to forgo reportage on international politics or historical tomes in favor of selecting Kanishk Tharoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars, a short story collection that, as Atkinson described it, “gives you a series of brief fictional encounters with both of those things.”

“It’s also exciting because of the unexpected surprise that (Swimmer Among the Stars) gets to live right alongside our Chautauqua Prize winner All The Names They Used For God,” Atkinson said. “(Both explore) the magical and spiritual, touching on things like faith and destiny in a far-reaching way that a short collection, a collaboration of individual works of fiction, makes especially possible in terms of juxtaposing genres and styles but also locations around the world.”

And finally, closing out Week Nine, seven days themed around race and culture, and the 2019 CLSC season, is Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. On June 19, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden named Harjo the country’s 23rd poet laureate.

“Joy Harjo is obviously legendary, arguably the preeminent Native American poet, and among the foremost voices well beyond the poetry world (who is) sharing the history of Native American people in the history of jazz,” Atkinson said.

“(Conflict Resolution) is putting the question of what we consider to be a spiritual experience, what we consider to be our spiritual self, in direct conversation with our cosmic wrongs and how to address those,” they said. “And treating that challenge like the serious challenge it is.
This is a book for Chautauquans.”

U.S. Army Field Band’s Jazz Ambassadors to Take Amp Stage


  • The United States Army Soldier's Chorus performs in the Amphitheater on Sunday, June 24, 2018. HALDAN KIRSCH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

America’s Big Band will return to Chautauqua when the Jazz Ambassadors perform at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, in the Amphitheater.

The Jazz Ambassadors are a versatile, 19-member ensemble whose concerts include instrumental and vocal solo features, patriotic favorites and much more. The band has received worldwide acclaim for its performances of America’s original art form: jazz.      

Formed in 1969, the Jazz Ambassadors make up one-fourth of the United States Army Field Band. Other components include the Concert Band, Six-String Soldiers and Soldier’s Chorus. Its mission is to connect the American people and the Army by honoring soldiers and veterans at home and abroad.

The ensemble has performed at jazz festivals and events such as The Berks Jazz Fest and The Norwegian Military Tattoo, and have toured all 50 states and perform around the world.

“The types of people that we meet all across the country, it’s really eye-opening,” said Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Davis, lead trumpet player for the band.

Davis became interested in music as a small child. His inspiration to get involved with music came from his older brother who played the trumpet. He wanted to play the saxophone, but it was not available, which led Davis to play the trumpet, too.

Davis has been a member of the Jazz Ambassadors for six years, and enjoys the various roles within the band and the variety of music they play. Davis has held several positions including composer, soloist, producer and currently as lead trumpet player.

“Before I joined the band I did primarily freelance work,” Davis said. “When the position opened up I decided to audition, and it all started from there.”

The ensemble plays contemporary jazz works as well as original arrangements and compositions of past and present members of Jazz Ambassadors. Many of these works are available for free download on their website.

“Primarily the music that we play is focused on jazz music from the early ’20s all the way up until today,” Davis said.

In celebration of its 50-year legacy of service, Jazz Ambassadors recently released a commemorative album, and implemented a new program during its fall 2018 tour: “The Greatest Generation.” This program is a themed concert that honors veterans of World War ll and the music of the Big Band Era.

During its Sunday performance, Jazz Ambassadors will present “The Greatest Generation,” which will feature letters written to and from men and women during the war, as well as famous quotes from the likes of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Young Playwright’s Project Fosters Confidence In Kids

  • Awardees and honorable mentions of the Young Playwrights Project face the audience, standing in front of the actors who portrayed their scripts. ALEX WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Chautauqua Institution’s commitment to lifelong learning was on full display on Friday, June 14, in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall as hundreds of elementary school students from all over Chautauqua County gasped and cheered in unison as they watched actors from the Chautauqua Theater Company perform a myriad of colorful and exciting plays — plays written by their classmates.

This event was the culmination of months of teaching, creating, writing and designing that all took place as part of the Young Playwright’s Project. The project, now entering its fifth year, is coordinated through a partnership between the Institution and CTC, and each year it encourages more than 500 elementary school students to create and write their very own plays.

“One of our primary goals is the planting of the seeds of artistic appreciation early on,” said Lisa Gierszal, project manager for YPP and executive assistant in the Performing and Visual Arts Office. “When you show these children that their voices are valued, you really start to see some amazing things.”

The plays performed on June 14 tackled a wide range of topics and tones. Giganta Cat and the Super Hero, by Connor Horner from Panama Central School, kicked off the show with a lighthearted clash between a wicked supervillain and his giant dog, and a superheroine and her unlikely feline ally. The Food That’s Alive by Annie Becker, also from Panama Central, saw two young students save their school from a vile school lunch come to life.

But for every fun, comedic offering, there was a play that grappled with more mature concepts. The Boy Who Wanted to See His Brother by Giovannie Jackson from M.J. Fletcher Elementary School shined a light on the hardship of losing a family member, and The Bullies That Turn Into My Friends by Kathrine Lundmark from M.J. Fletcher, showed audience members that not everyone who starts off mean has to stay that way forever.

Katie McGerr, the director of all 11 selected plays and a member of the committee who chose the winners, said she was impressed, as ever, with the emotions these children were able to distill.

“It’s always amazing to see the size of the feelings they write about,” McGerr said, “(and) some of the really imaginative solutions and observations they include. These things are so smart, so unique to them. We get to see the uncensored imagination of that age.”

Elementary school students watch attentively during third grade playwright Alvianna Matson’s play “The Princess Saves the Day,” during the 2019 Young Playwright Project Friday, June 14, 2019. ALEX WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The project itself is broken into three phases. The first takes place in the fall, when Institution staff and CTC members visited the students’ classrooms to teach them the basics of playwriting.

After that, in the winter, the students get to hear their plays read aloud by community volunteers and find out which have been selected as winners.

Now, the project is in its third phase, where members of CTC dive into the final 11 plays and bring them to life. With bright, simplistic costumes intentionally reminiscent of a child playing dress-up, and a minimalist, chalk-drawn backdrop of buildings, flowers and dinosaurs, CTC conservatory actors delighted the amassed elementary school students with an energetic performance.

Avery Cannon, from Chautauqua Lake Elementary School, one of this year’s winners and writer of a play about a sentient lightbulb trying to find its way in the world, said she loved seeing her work come to life.

“The most fun part was seeing (my play) on-stage because it was something I made up,” she said. “It was fun to see that I could do that.”

That confidence and excitement for the students is something McGerr thinks is endlessly important.

“If we can have kids come through this program and come away with the confidence that what they can imagine is valid, that what happens inside their heads and hearts is valid, that would be something incredible,” she said.

The project will be returning to Chautauqua’s grounds on July 2, at 5 and 7 p.m. as part of the Family Entertainment Series.

Oh, What A Night: Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons to perform in Amp for third time, close out 2018 season


Oh, what a night: Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons are making their way back to Chautauqua for a third time.

The group was previously on the grounds in 1987 and 2004. And following shows in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Vienna, Virginia, the group will perform at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 25, in the Amphitheater for the last popular entertainment event of the season.

Originally comprised of Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, the group went on to release 19 top 10 hits, including “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” “Who Loves You” and “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night).”

Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons sold more than 100 million records between 1962 and 1978. The group then went on to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

This legacy is what convinced Chautauqua’s Vice President of Performing and Visual Arts Deborah Sunya Moore that the group was the right choice to wrap up the summer.

“Frankie Valli is a living legend,” Moore said. “He and the Four Seasons are one of the best-selling and best-loved musical groups of all time. I am so honored to have them closing our Chautauqua season.”

Valli has toured almost continuously since the group’s debut single, “Sherry,” premiered in 1962. From Nov. 26 through Dec. 6, Valli will be making seven stops in the United Kingdom as part of his “farewell tour” overseas. And he will continue to perform across the U.S. through March 1, 2019.

“It’s like taking drugs,” Valli said in a May 2015 interview with Dan Rather. “You get so into it. I don’t know what I would do with myself if I wasn’t touring. I’ve tried a few times where I’ve said that I’m going to cut my schedule for the year that’s coming, and I might take a month or so and I go crazy.”

Valli & the Four Seasons inspired the 2005 Tony Award-winning musical, Jersey Boys, which was adapted into a major motion picture in 2014. Its soundtrack includes the group’s biggest hits. Though the Broadway production closed in January 2017 after 4,642 performances, it is still currently on tour across the U.S. and U.K.

“I’m not sad,” Valli said in a 2016 interview with the Associated Press. “I never dreamed it would last 11 years. The beauty about this whole situation is it’s not over. It is now beginning to happen in other parts of the world.”

As for the performance in the Amp, Moore expects it to be an unforgettable night.

“Concert-goers can look forward to their favorite songs as we all celebrate the end of summer with an evening of unforgettable music,” Moore said.

A ‘Pilgrim’s Hymn’ for Chautauqua: Sacred Song to bid farewell to season


The Three Taps of the Gavel Sunday night will mark an end to Chautauqua’s 2018 season as Chautauquans look toward colder months and Christmas celebrations. For Jared Jacobsen, Chautauqua’s organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, translating this goodbye into a music service is a delicate process.                 

“At this closing service, we’re really torn at where is home for us,” he said. “If you’ve been here more than a couple of days, Chautauqua has become home, almost always. So you’re saying goodbye to home, but you’re also looking forward to going home. The energy is very strange. But the Sacred Song Service and President Michael E. Hill help us accept that.”

At 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26, in the Amphitheater, Jacobsen, the Chautauqua Choir and Hill will present “Pilgrims’ Hymn — Final Chautauqua Thoughts” for this year’s closing Sacred Song Service.

Jacobsen will be playing the final service on a grand piano, due to a small electrical fire on Tuesday, Aug. 21, that left the Massey Memorial Organ out of commission for the last days of the 2018 season. No part of the evening’s repertoire will be changed; as a trained pianist, Jacobsen said he would “have to turn in my fingers” if he cannot do the selections justice. As always, Jacobsen promised, the service will include “Largo.”

The title for this service comes from one of the songs the choir will sing, “Pilgrim’s Hymn,” composed by Grammy Award-winning musician Stephen Paulus. Jacobsen said once he selected this piece, he built the rest of the service based on the idea of Chautauquans as pilgrims.

“Stephen Paulus wrote this piece and it caught fire in 1997, and it is used for all kinds of occasions,” Jacobsen said. “So that’s the title of this (service) because we are sort of pilgrims when we come here. Part of the word ‘pilgrim’ implies journeying from some place to get here and then going on out of here to some place else. I like the imagery of that.”

The text, written by Michael Dennis Browne in 1997, is not what Jacobsen would call “exceedingly Christian.” However, he said this final service is a celebration of all faith traditions and should reflect the many belief systems within the Institution.

“It’s a sacred text, but it’s not necessarily a Christian text, and that’s OK with me,” he said. “This is the night where all of our worlds collide for the last time. Even people with no faith tradition or people who are still looking for answers show up this closing night because we all want to say goodbye to this place.”

In addition to celebrating all Chautauquans as pilgrims, Jacobsen also intends to close the service with prayers from various faiths.

“At the end of the service, where we normally just do this Christian prayer, I realized it needed to be bigger than that,” he said. “This is where I also pull out a goodbye in Hebrew from the Jewish tradition, and a goodbye in the Arabic tradition. I think this particular night we need to pay homage to all those people.”

The service also includes “Heaven Hill,” a piece written and composed by Chautauqua Choir member Marjorie Thomas. Jacobsen said the song represents Thomas’ close connection to the Institution and its character.

“It really captures the seasons very well, about what’s Chautauqua like in the summer, winter, spring and fall,” he said. “It’s a nice piece of music, and the choir loves singing it. It’s a trademark of this closing night.”

Other musical works include “Beautiful City,” arranged by André J. Thomas, and “The Spheres” by Ola Gjeilo. Jacobsen selected these pieces to create balance in a service built around nostalgic farewells.

“I want the choir to have one more chance at singing just for fun,” he said. “It helps lighten the mood, because this service is pretty heavy duty and it needs a little comic relief.”

But even with lighter music, Jacobsen said the purpose of this service is to help Chautauquans reflect on the season and contemplate the uncertainty in the coming months until they return again in 2019.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen to them in the next 10 months before you get back,” he said. “It could be happy, like a child or grandchild or wedding in the family, and it could be not-happy stuff, like a treatment that has to be repeated. A lot of life is going to happen in the next 10 months before we open Chautauqua again, and we don’t know what that is. So I’m trying to help people wrestle with that.”

Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson to preach at the final 10:45 a.m. worship service


The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson thought he would have fun this summer, but he “didn’t know it would be this much fun.”

“I have had the best time this summer,” said Robinson, who is wrapping up his first season as Chautauqua’s vice president of religion and senior pastor. Robinson, the former Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, was the first openly gay bishop in Christendom.

Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson

Robinson will preach for the final 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service in the Amphitheater on Aug. 26.

His sermon title is “Time to Get Out of the Boat!” Maureen Rovegno, director of the Department of Religion, will preside, and Institution President Michael E. Hill will read the Scripture.

“I wondered if I would, in fact, get to be senior pastor, and the answer is yes,” Robinson said. “It is one of the great joys of my first year.”

He said he has fallen in love with the Institution’s woods crew and is blown away by the Amphitheater staff.

The feedback of the worship services has been positive, Robinson said. “People have thanked me for the welcome to non-Christians, either people of other faiths or not part of a faith community,” he said. “They appreciate that we acknowledge their presence and that they are welcomed.”

People who come to worship from outside the grounds have also expressed their thanks that they are noticed and welcomed.

“They feel special and appreciated,” he said.

Robinson loved being joined by colleagues from the denominational houses for the annual Ecumenical Communion Service, held this season on July 8.

He is very aware that the denominational houses provide an economical way for people to come to Chautauqua.

“I visited every denomi- national house on Tuesdays, including the African-Amer- ican Denominational House, the Hebrew Congregation and the Everett Jewish Life Center,” he said.

Robinson said the denominational houses haven’t always been appreciated for the contribution they make to the common life at Chautauqua.

He is planning to write a Zagat guide to the denominational cookies.

“At the Unitarian Universalist House, I had a Rice Krispie Treat; I haven’t had one since I was a child,” Robinson said.

He noted that his talks with Sterling Freeman about the AADH have been good, and Robinson is expecting a name change from its board.

The Interfaith Friday Series, a new program this year on the 2 p.m. interfaith lecture platform, was as illuminating and interesting as he had hoped.

“My job here is to arrange for speakers. In other settings, I am the speaker,” Robinson said. “I liked the process for these presentations because I was in conversation with the presenter.”

His big news was that there will be a nine-DVD set available from the Chautauqua Bookstore of these presentations.

“These presentations can be the basis for adult education in any religious setting,” he said.

Looking toward the future, Robinson is excited that there is a space for an Interfaith Center on the developing master plan for space use at Chautauqua.

“We are a long way from a building, but it is the first time an interfaith space appears on the plan,” he said. “It is a symbol of the Institution’s commitment to work in an interfaith way that might result in a center.”

The hardest part of the first year?

“I have used a prayer book for 40 years. Having to write the service every week is a new experience,” he said. “But I grew up in a church like that.”

In final morning lecture, filmmaker Grace Lee and critic Ann Hornaday explore identity, stereotypes, and culture through film

  • Grace Lee, left, independent producer, writer and director of "American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs," shows clips featured on the website K-TOWN ’92 during a conversation with The Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday Friday, Aug. 24, 2018 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

In the final lecture on Week Nine’s theme, “Documentary Film as Facilitator: Storytelling, Influence and Civil Discourse,” filmmaker Grace Lee discussed stereotypes facing Asian-American women, the collective memory of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and the roles of women in politics.

At 10:45 a.m. Friday, Aug. 24, in the Amphitheater, Lee talked about both the substance and style of her work with Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post’s chief film critic.

Lee was born and raised in Columbia, Missouri. She would go on to attend the prestigious UCLA Film School, and has now directed films in styles ranging from narrative fiction to documentary. Lee’s work often deals with stereotypes, identity and culture.

In her 2005 film, “The Grace Lee Project,” Lee interviewed women from all over the country that share the name Grace Lee. When Lee was growing up in Missouri, she was the only person she knew with her first name. To her surprise, when she moved to places like New York or California, she found that her full name, Grace Lee, was actually quite common.

“It’s like the Jane Smith of Asian-American names,” she said. “But more interestingly, when I started asking these other people about the Grace Lees that they once knew, they were always stereotypically perfect, overachieving Asian-Americans. They went to Harvard at age 15, were excellent violin players, they were devout Christians, and I was none of those things.”

So, Lee set out to test the validity of those stereotypes. She said she traveled the country and met with many different women named Grace Lee, trying to put together a picture of their actual identities compared to the stereotypically expected ones.

On that journey, Lee met Grace Lee Boggs, an elderly Chinese-American woman who for 50 years had lived and worked as an activist in a predominantly African-American community in Detroit. Boggs — described by Lee as an “incredible philosopher-activist-writer” — was in her mid-80s when Lee made “The Grace Lee Project.”

Boggs’ story stuck with Lee. A decade after “The Grace Lee Project,” Lee made a film that took a deeper look at Boggs’ life, titled “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.” Boggs was 95.

Lee then played a clip from “American Revolutionary.” Lee and Boggs are in Boggs’ kitchen, and Boggs has asked Lee to trim the hair on the back of her head and neck, which Lee is doing. 

“You know, it’s very funny what happens to the hair of old people,” Boggs says. “You begin getting hair in your nostrils. Did you know that?”

The audience chuckled. Lee would go on to explain that she includes humorous moments because they help people from different backgrounds and perspectives to identify with the film’s subject.

Later in the clip, prompted by Lee’s questions, Boggs gives her perspective on identity and stereotypes.

“You said one of the reasons for you making this Grace Lee documentary, I’m paraphrasing, was that you wanted to refute the stereotype of Asian-American women as passive. The whole thing has different meaning for me,” Boggs says. “I didn’t think of myself so much as Chinese-American, and I didn’t think of myself so much as a woman, because the Chinese-American movement hadn’t emerged, and the women’s movement hadn’t emerged.”

Hornaday and Lee then dissected both the content and style decisions in the clip. First, Hornaday asked why Lee made the decision to include herself in the film.

“I did not want to be in this film, because I had already made a film called ‘The Grace Lee Project,’ ” Lee said. “How self-indulgent is that? And Grace Lee Boggs was only in it briefly, so I was determined that no, I’m not going to be in this film because (Boggs) has 70 years of movement and history in Detroit, and we need the time to get to it.”

However, Lee’s editor suggested that much of the footage of both women together was compelling, in part because it showed the relationship between Boggs and Lee. The hair-cutting scene, Lee said, is a prime example. Lee ultimately agreed with her editor.

Lee’s closeness with her subject, according to Hornaday, contrasts with the distance that “classicist” documentarians like Ken Burns often employ. Again using the example of the hair-cutting scene, Hornaday asked Lee about the intimacy in “American Revolutionary.”

“Grace Lee Boggs is somebody very personally important to me,” Lee said. “As someone who studied history in college, I studied the civil rights movement, I studied social history — how could I never have heard of this person? Another second-generation, Asian-American woman, daughter of immigrants, living in the Midwest like I was, but I had never heard of her.

“Seeing these kinds of same histories is something that really motivates me in terms of the kinds of stories I want to tell. I have to be personally engaged. That’s what’s going to motivate me through the many years of trying to find funding, trying to follow a story even when I don’t know what the end result is going to be.”

-Grace Lee, Filmmaker 

The next work the two discussed was Lee’s 2017 interactive web documentary, “K-Town ‘92,” about the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

“That was an event that made a huge impact on me 26 years ago, not only because it was such an explosive moment in this country’s history,” Lee said, “but because, for the first time, Korean-Americans showed up in the media.”

The images, however, were not positive — news coverage of the riots mostly showed armed Korean-Americans standing on the roofs of their businesses to protect them from rioters, or mourning the loss of their businesses after they had been burned down, according to Lee.

“K-Town ‘92” puts that news footage next to archival footage and interviews, from both 1992 and 2017. After watching an introductory segment, users can navigate a repository of clips from all of those perspectives. Lee’s aim, she said, was to give viewers a pick-your-own-narrative experience.

“One of the big questions of ‘K-Town ‘92’ is, ‘Who gets to tell the story of Los Angeles, 1992?’ ” Lee said. “I really felt as somebody living in Los Angeles for the last 20 years, as somebody rooted in the Korean-American community, that these films were going to continue to recycle the same kinds of archival images that I found weren’t telling the whole story.”

In response, Lee set out to create a representation of the riots that put the multiple narratives on an even plane, “flattening” the narrative. By taking the voice of the filmmaker out of the equation, she said, viewers can experience the events according to their own interests.

Before “K-Town ‘92,” Lee had experience in a different experimental genre — the mockumentary. Her 2012 film “Janeane From Des Moines” incorporates real footage from the 2012 presidential campaign trail, but the main character Janeane — a conservative housewife seeking answers from Republican politicians ahead of the Iowa caucuses — is played by actor Jane Wilson.

Hornaday asked Lee about pushback the film received — some felt that it was not upfront enough about the fact that many of the scenes were scripted, and the main character was an actor.

Lee pointed out that the film was never intended to be a documentary, and when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, it was not in the documentary category. Lee also emphasized that campaign events are not entirely unscripted, either, calling them “political theater.”

“(The film) is really a question about who is performing,” Lee said. “Is Jane Wilson performing as Janeane, who has really embodied the kind of needs and distresses that she’s going through in the story? Or are Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachman performing to some extent when they talk to voters?”

The final clip shown at the lecture came from Lee’s yet-unreleased project covering the current surge of women of color running for political office. The clip showed Lucy McBath, a candidate for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, arriving at a campaign event to a large, welcoming crowd.

McBath was originally running for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives, but after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting earlier this year, she decided to run for Congress. 

Lee’s production team is all women of color — a conscious choice, she said.

“One of the things I’ve observed is that when you have a close cultural connection to this community, you’re going get different results,” she said, “rather than just parachuting in and trying to tell a story that people have already told — the kinds of stories that news crews come in and tell.”

In 2016, Lee’s work earned her an invitation to be the keynote speaker at the International Documentary Association’s Getting Real Conference. The main themes of the conference, which she spoke about in her address, were art, diversity and sustainability.

In part of that address, which Hornaday read to the audience in the Amp, Lee spoke about how the three themes were inseparable to her. She said they also prompted difficult questions about what the documentary community looked like, who got to be a part of it, and which stories mattered — all themes that she explores in her own work, often through the perspective of Asian-Americans.

“I had to make a decision, like, I don’t know if I should talk about Asian-Americans because this is the broader documentary community,” she said. “But then I realized, if I don’t talk about it, we’ll never talk about it. If I’m given this platform, I have to talk about it.”

Eugene Sutton concludes Interfaith Fridays with progressive Christianity view


The Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, delivered the season’s final edition in the new Interfaith Friday Series in the Hall of Philosophy, in conversation with the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion on Aug. 24.

To conclude the nine-week series, which has seen interfaith advocates from numerous faith traditions, Sutton represented progressive Christianity.

“A progressive religion has a bit of humility,” Sutton said.

After opening with a moment of silent reflection, Sutton quoted Theodore Roosevelt: “A great democracy has got to be progressive, or it will cease to be great and it will cease to be a democracy.”

“The same with religion. A great religion must be progressive,” Sutton said. “It has to be progressive or it will cease to be great. And it may find it ceases to be a religion. And by progressive, I don’t mean liberal in the sense that we talk about today. To be progressive means you prioritize, you privilege, individuals over institutions. Persons over programs or pronouncements. Justice over judgements. Humility over hubris. And theos over theology.”

Sutton described some of his faith journey through multiple Christian denominations. He was raised attending Baptist church in Washington, D.C., but as he reached his teen years, struggled to reconcile his understanding of God with the racism he experienced in the late 1960s.

“If God is so good, why are God’s people so bad?” Sutton said.

He was atheist before coming back to evangelical Christianity through the YoungLife youth program at age 17, but struggled with the image of a vengeful God.

“It bothers me when we assign the worst characteristics of humanity to God,” Sutton said. “God must weep if that’s the way we think of God.”

He described progressive Christianity as a source of freedom — freedom to love and freedom to reason.

“We don’t believe, as progressive Christians, that we have to check our minds at the door as soon as you enter the doors of the church,” he said. “But rather, we can use our God-given abilities of observation, cognition, in order to know some things about this world, some things that were not known 10,000 years ago, or 2,000 years ago.”

Sutton also suggested a progressive church must look outward.

“The purpose of Christianity is not about you and getting you to heaven,” he said. “I can’t think of a more self-centered, narcissistic form of faith than ‘It’s all about me and Jesus.’”


What follows is an abridged version of Sutton’s conversation Friday, Aug. 24, in the Hall of Philosophy. Sutton and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.

From where you sit in your tradition, why should we be moving in an interfaith direction either here at Chautauqua or in the world?

We live in a diverse, interfaith world. If you don’t like diversity, you can’t possibly like God. It’s not about uniformity and building towers. It’s about bringing down towers and dealing with diversity. Living in an interfaith world, it’s not a question of “Will you do interfaith work or not?” You are doing interfaith work. The only real question is, “Are you going to do it well, or are you going to do it poorly?”

When you come to the metaphorical interfaith table, what gifts do you bring as an progressive Christian to that table?

We know how to borrow. We’ve borrowed since the beginning. It’s at least possible that our Lord Jesus, before he began his ministry, actually went to the East and learned from other traditions as well. But also, (Christianity) is adaptable to local customs. You could walk into an Episcopal church for a eucharist, and it’s very similar to a Roman Catholic mass. But then go to a Church of God in Christ, a largely black Pentecostal church, and you’d say, “My gosh, is that Christianity, too?”

It is an incredible gift, (The Lord’s) Prayer. It begins, “Our Father,” not “The Christian God,” not “The Hindu God.” Our Father.

If it’s possible that Jesus went to the East, to learn gifts of other traditions, then what gifts do you see in other religions that might benefit Christians?

In other traditions, there are expectations of prayer that in the Christian tradition, we’ve assigned, really too much, to only the monastics. We’re too busy, we can’t pray, we can’t order our day with prayer as you do. I encourage all Christians: find yourself a monastery or convent and visit. Bathe yourself in the rhythms of prayer. I feel sometimes like progressive Christians, sometimes they’re embarrassed of Christianity. I wish sometimes more and more Christians would take a minute. Even one minute, several times a day and say, “I’m gonna pause. I’m gonna pray.”

So, do we have texts that tell us that ours is the one true religion?

Yes. Our dogs get in the way. It’s not my dog, or my dogma. It’s your dog. Our dogma gets in the way of conversation. We’re trying to visit each other, but our dogma is barking and trying to call attention to itself, but it gets in the way. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the light.” It’s the way of devotion to God. Love is the way to truth that leads us to light.


Robinson concluded the interview with the same final question he had asked all previous Interfaith Friday speakers, with a humorous slant.

“Is Christianity the only religion free of extremists?” Robinson asked.

“Yes,” Sutton bantered back.

“OK,” Robinson said with a laugh. “Now we’re ready for question and answer.”

“No,” Sutton answered Robinson’s original question, in seriousness. “Lord, deliver us from fundamentalists everywhere. We are free to make choices. Help us to make better ones.”

Filmmaker Dan Habib draws on personal experience in lecture on disability and inclusion

  • Dan Habib, project director and filmmaker with the University of New Hampshire's Institute on Disability, delivers his lecture "Disabling Segregation" Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018 in the Hall of Philosophy. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Dan Habib has produced award-winning documentaries and garnered Emmy nominations, but he might have never become a filmmaker if not for his son Samuel Habib’s disability. When Samuel was born with a mitochondrial disease that led to cerebral palsy, Habib began making films that deal with disability advocacy.

“All my films, every day of my life — it’s all somehow motivated by Samuel in terms of the work that I do around disability rights and filmmaking.”

– Dan Habib, Director, “Including Samuel” 

It was Samuel’s doctor that urged Habib — an accomplished photojournalist  — to document his own family’s experience of disability through photography. Shortly afterwards, a group of teenagers convinced Habib that video would be a more powerful medium for the Habib family’s story. He turned the project into a documentary and has been making films about disability ever since.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, in the Hall of Philosophy, Habib delivered his lecture “Disabling Segregation.” Habib drew on research, personal experience and his son’s life to argue that children with disabilities can and should experience regular developmental environments instead of being sequestered in programs like “special education.”

Habib, now with the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability, has been involved with social justice since his days as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. There, he said, he was a photographer for the school newspaper and participated in anti-apartheid and anti-racist movements — but not in any disability rights movements.

“I never heard the words ‘disability rights’ or ‘disability advocacy’ or ‘inclusive education’ in all the human rights and social justice issues of the time, back in ‘83 through ‘87,” Habib said. “I never heard about disability, and I almost never saw people with at least visual disabilities on campus.”

Habib said his current involvement in disability rights is mostly due to his son’s condition, but he also pointed to the country’s historically negative treatment of those with disabilities as a motivating factor. For example, from the 1920s until the 1970s, he said, the eugenics movement led to the forced sterilization of 60,000 people in the United States.

“I think that historical context is important, because it’s like the Black Lives Matter movement — if you don’t know that we’re a country with a history of racism and slavery, you don’t really get why that movement exists.”

Habib’s first film, “Including Samuel,” depicts the Habib family as they work to include Samuel — who uses a wheelchair to move and a speech device to communicate — in their lives and community.

Habib said they thought it was particularly important to make sure Samuel felt included in school, where enormous emotional and social growth takes place for American children. According to Habib, the efforts to include Samuel were not trivial — they were critical in his journey toward independence and adulthood.

“We know through 30 years of research that kids with disabilities who are included in regular education end up with better communication skills, higher academic achievement, wider social networks, fewer behavioral problems, more opportunity for higher education and more meaningful employment as adults,” he said.

Habib held up his son as evidence that inclusion leads to a better life. Samuel is now 18, freshly graduated from high school. He had a weekly sports segment on the school’s TV news, went to prom, and will be attending college this fall.

At many steps along Samuel’s journey, his community came together to make him feel like he belonged, Habib said. In one anecdote, Habib described Samuel’s involvement in his school’s production of Guys and Dolls.

“He was able to knock the dice off of his lap and say his lines using his communication device, Habib said. “Nobody batted an eye, because that’s just the way Sam would roll. In fact, the stage at the time was not wheelchair-accessible, so Sam and another girl named Hannah who also used a wheelchair had to enter the back of the stage using an old lift.”

Unfortunately, the lift made a squeaking noise that would interrupt the play.

“So,” Habib said, “the community came together, and they decided to build two ramps on either side of the front of the stage so that Samuel and Hannah could come up in front.”

Through that and other acts of community support, Samuel was able to participate in activities from baseball to Boy Scouts. According to Habib, Samuel grew up feeling a sense of belonging in his community.

If the research is any guide, that sense of belonging has contributed to Samuel’s present successes. But it’s not just Samuel who benefited from having the community, Habib said — the community also benefited from having a person with disabilities in its ranks.

For example, Habib said the ramps in Guys and Dolls let Samuel and Hannah get on stage, but other actors also used those access points, adding another dimension to the play’s staging. And when a refugee who didn’t speak English joined Samuel’s class in elementary school, his teacher said the students were better able to welcome her because they already had practice dealing with Samuel’s disabilities.

Research supports that conclusion, too. Habib said a study from a researcher at Vanderbilt University compared groups of students without disabilities to integrated groups made of students both with and without disabilities.

The study found that the able-bodied students who were in the integrated groups consistently scored higher than the students who were in the groups without students with disabilities. Habib explained that this was because the able-bodied students in the integrated groups would help the students with disabilities. By reteaching the material to those with disabilities, the able-bodied students were learning it more thoroughly.

Unfortunately, Habib said, not all educational environments are integrated like Samuel’s was. In the early ‘90s, Habib reported a photo story on a boy in their community named Todd. Todd, too, had a disability.

“Todd, through elementary school, which happened to be the same elementary school that Samuel went to, was fully included in a regular education. And he loved it,” Habib said. “He was so excited to go to school, and I know this because we were neighbors with this family as well.”

But in middle school, Todd was sequestered in a separate classroom for all of the students with disabilities. At the time, Todd didn’t have access to communication technology like Samuel had. Todd couldn’t communicate or express himself effectively until he was 21, when he did finally get a communication device.

“The first thing (Todd) said, he typed out, ‘F— you,’ ” Habib said.

According to Habib, Todd went on to say how angry he was for being deprived a sense of belonging in his community and not being able to participate in the regular educational community.

“That’s the flip side of Samuel’s experience,” Habib said. “And I know because I know this man to this day. Todd has had a really hard time adjusting to adulthood — no work, no higher education — because he never had that experience. And unfortunately, Todd’s experience is more representative of what we know about this country than Samuel’s.”

Habib went on to say that 56 percent of American kids with intellectual disabilities are segregated in schools, and only 17 percent of kids with those disabilities are “meaningfully included in regular education.” That’s despite the research that suggests that these students would do better if they were included, Habib said.

In addition to “Including Samuel,” Habib has also produced other films about disability such as “Who Cares about Kelsey?” and “Mr. Connolly Has ALS,” the latter of which features the story of Gene Connolly — the principal of Samuel’s high school — and his battle with ALS. Connolly died on Aug. 19.

Habib said his newest project, “Intelligent Lives,” explores perceptions of intelligence and follows three young people with disabilities in high school, college, and the workforce. “Intelligent Lives” will be released in September 2018.

Rebecca Cammisa discusses her processes through latest film ‘Atomic Homefront’


Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Rebecca Cammisa spoke to the process and impact of her latest film, “Atomic Homefront” at Thursday’s 10:45 a.m. morning lecture on Aug. 23. She was joined on the Amphitheater stage by film critic Ann Hornaday in a conversation for Week Nine’s theme, “Documentary Film as Facilitator: Storytelling, Influence and Civil Discourse.”

“Atomic Homefront” confronts the effects of radioactive, Manhattan Project-era waste dumped in West Lake Landfill in St. Louis County, Missouri, which drained into the nearby natural water supply; the film chronicles concerned residents of the two affected areas of St. Louis’ suburbs — those along Coldwater Creek and Bridgeton — and the negligence of governmental bodies, including the Environmental Protection Agency. The film is now streaming on HBO.

This was Cammisa’s sixth film; her first film, “Sister Helen,” won the 2002 Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Directing Award, as well as an Emmy Award for Outstanding Cultural and Artistic Programming, and was nominated for an Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary Film Award by the Directors Guild of America.

Her 2010 film, “Which Way Home,” was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary, received four Emmy nominations, and went on to win a News & Documentary Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Programming and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards Grand Prize. For her work on the film, Cammisa received a Fulbright Fellowship for Filmmaking. In 2011, Cammisa directed and produced “God is the Bigger Elvis,” which received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short Subject.

Hornaday, who lectured Wednesday, Aug. 22, about role of the audience in film, opened the conversation by asking how Cammisa stumbled upon this story, or if the story came to her.

“The film I set out to tell was about how journalism was under threat,” Cammisa said. “There’s always going to be a Washington Post and a New York Times, but my concern was communities out in this country that are in … small towns whose newspapers are folding, where journalists are being fired — the downsizing.”

However, she ran into trouble; newsrooms aren’t accessible, she said. Thus, she turned her attention to finding a “big story” and then documenting how reporters and publications in that area handled the news. It was a friend that turned Cammisa toward the radioactive waste in Missouri. Again, she ran into difficulties trying to reach the press, scrapping her original plan and dedicating the film solely to the radioactive waste.

“That’s sometimes what happens with doc filmmaking: You have a very specific idea in mind and then you’re somehow moved by some weird, spiritual force that places you where you need to be to tell a story properly.”

-Rebecca Cammisa, Director, “Atomic Homefront”

Cammisa’s methodology for the film was to jump in and try to understand what was happening, she said. In the case of “Atomic Homefront,” the story became the conflicting testimony between the EPA and the community. Cammisa’s job: finding the truth. She and her crew lived in St. Louis for six months on-and-off, followed by three months of filming on-and-off.

In the first day of filming, Cammisa shot a clip played for the audience. In it: a meeting between the local first responders’ unit and the Missouri National Guard, and an interview from a concerned resident. After the conclusion of the clip, Hornaday asked if filming that meeting was difficult. Cammisa said the first responders were receptive; for the National Guard, however, “we figured, ‘Shoot first, ask permission during.’ ”

The clip also featured graphics of radioactive particles emerging from the ground and spreading. For Cammisa, the graphics became a necessity because the subject of the film — radioactivity — is invisible. As for human dispositions, Cammisa looked for passion when casting interviewees.

“To me, I don’t really care if a person looks good. I don’t really care if they’re charismatic,” she said. “To me, what’s charismatic to me is the fight, the struggle. … In the films I make, I just show up. So my casting is who’s there, but also who’s working. It’s more about the throughline — how can we follow the arc of what people are doing?”

One of those fighting, struggling characters is Dan Norris, a clip of whom Cammisa and Hornaday shared with the audience. Norris worked for the West Lake Landfill and initially threw the story at the public with an open letter to the press. In the letter, he writes about the “cozy relationship between the state regulators and (the landfill) company,” corruption and silencing; he became a whistleblower.

What made Norris more powerful, Cammisa said, was that he had photographs — photographs of the cracks in the landfill seeping radioactive material and photographs of off-the-chart radium readings.

The relationship built between Cammisa and Norris was a mutual understanding of the story’s importance, she said.

“Dan — he worked hard, he did his job and what was so lovely about him is he just cared about transparency from a scientific standpoint,” Cammisa said. “He just knows his data, and data sets you free. … When the news was bad, the governor’s office wanted the news to be good. Where have we heard that before? I spoke his language and he understood we were not going to use his interview to do a certain stance or bias.”

Hornaday asked about Cammisa’s approach to the story — did she script scenes or edit before production was finished?

“My films are unscripted,” she said, “because I’m usually going into worlds that I know nothing about or have researched heavily. … So usually jumping into the deep end is what I do. So I go into a world, I’m in it, and then I start to see ‘this is what’s going on.’ But then as things happen … (and) anything I would script — forget about it.”

From there, Hornaday transitioned to the third — and final — clip of the morning, featuring radiochemist Michael K. Schultz, who performed tests on the soil around the original dump site; his tests revealed the levels of radiation were grossly higher than the legal limit. After the conclusion of the scene, Hornaday asked if Schultz was paid to perform those tests — an ethical question of transparency she had addressed in her Wednesday lecture. Cammisa said Schultz was not paid to perform the tests, but was compensated for providing the results and running the tests an additional two times.

Because of their extensive research, inquiry and interviews, Hornaday asked Cammisa if she considered documentarians as journalists — again, a point Hornaday addressed Wednesday.

“I don’t think all of them are,” Cammisa said. “I don’t say I am. If I had gone to journalism school, and really was a professional in the methodology of journalism and had a degree in it, I would call myself a journalist. I don’t. But … when I do a story, I want to adhere to journalistic principles. I want to get everyone’s side of the story; I don’t go in with a bias; I’m really there to try and find out what has really happened.”

As “Atomic Homefront” and the mishandling of radioactive material has garnered attention, Hornaday asked what impact the film has had and how Cammisa has managed its reverberations.

Cammisa said that after the release of the film, a group of St. Louis County citizens held a meeting with Scott Pruitt, who was EPA administrator at the time, at which they played the film. Days later, she said, Pruitt ranked West Lake Landfill as one of his Top 10 Superfund sites; 11 days before the premiere of the film on HBO, the EPA announced its cleanup plan.

“The film helped get traction in terms of the EPA and that’s exactly what we wanted to get to,” she said.

After the conclusion of Hornaday and Cammisa’s interview, Chief of Staff Matt Ewalt opened the Q-and-A by asking for Cammisa to elaborate on how she funds her projects.

Despite being an award-winning filmmaker, Cammisa said applying for funding can be difficult as there is a large community of artists vying for the same grants. Depending on the subject matter, she said, it can be even more cumbersome and Cammisa has “a knack for picking stories that aren’t sexy.”

Ewalt turned to the audience for questions; one attendee asked if since starting this project, Cammisa has turned into an advocate.

“I’m a person,” Cammisa said. “I’m from the Hudson Valley. I grew up swimming in the Hudson with the PCPs. … We’re all tainted or affected somehow by something. And what I’d like to see done is justice and a pure environment. And after experiencing and seeing what these people have been through, it’s really important. So while I’m not an activist, … the film itself just shows you what age this is, what has happened here, and can this help educate and inform other communities? … You know what this film is about?

“Telling the truth.”

Sultry Summer Nights: Richard Marx to perform hits from 30-year career in Amp performance


With few “Endless Summer Nights” left, Chautauquans can find comfort in the fact that the grounds will be “Right Here Waiting” for them next summer.

Singer-songwriter Richard Marx will give the penultimate popular entertainment evening performance at 8:15 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24, in the Amphitheater.

Marx has earned five Grammy nominations, and won Song of the Year in 2004 for “Dance With My Father.” Marx has nine top-10 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Three of those songs peaked at No. 1: “Hold On To The Nights,” “Right Here Waiting” and “Satisfied.”

In his 30-year career, Marx has released 11 studio albums. Marx’s self-titled debut album peaked at No. 8 on Billboard’s Hot 200 chart, and his second album, Repeat Offender, earned him his first No. 1.

“I could certainly fake it,” Marx told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I hadn’t done enough living to write songs that were void of tremendous clichés, but I’d listened to enough songs and I’d had enough fantasy — and maybe a little heartbreak, too — to get by.”

Marx has written and produced for many other artists, including Kenny Rogers, Natalie Cole, Josh Groban, Michael Bolton and Keith Urban.

Marx’s latest album, Beautiful Goodbye, was released in 2014. The album featured a tracklist of all-new songs — a first for him since 2008’s Sundown. Upon the release of Beautiful Goodbye, Marx said its contents were “sexy.”

“I find the melodies in trance music … so sexy. They sound like soundtracks to the sexiest movie,” Marx told ABC News in 2014. “I thought it would be kind of fun to create an atmosphere that sounds (like that) and apply my songwriting and create a hybrid.”

Even in the midst of the current pop landscape, Timothy Yap said in a review that the album highlights Marx’s ’80s-centric voice.

“Instead of chasing trends and competing with whippersnappers such as Ed Sheeran and Robin Thicke, Marx has stuck to what he does best,” Yap wrote. “Just like many of his previous offerings, the songs here move in the friendlier landscape of adult contemporary where ballads are at the fore, which are also Marx’s strongest forte. While the subject matter of these paeans either showcases Marx as a hopeless romantic or a man who thinks of romance as hopeless.”

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