Week 5 Letter From the President

Welcome to the fifth week of our 146th Assembly. It’s hard to believe we’re already at the midpoint of our annual convening. I’m grateful for the first four weeks of inquiry but even more delighted that we have five left, to crack open thought-provoking topics, to celebrate our shared humanity and to relish in the power of gathering together as we pursue this shared mission. If this is your first week joining us, we welcome you. If you’ve been on the journey with us before this week, know how grateful we are to you for spending extra time with us.

This week we celebrate “The Life of the Spoken Word,” which seems particularly appropriate at a place like Chautauqua, where we lift up great oratory and preaching, and celebrate artists who use the spoken word to share their stories. As consumers, creators and critics, we are experiencing a renaissance of the spoken word. This week, we join the history and modernity of compelling oratory to explore broader themes of social and intergenerational connectedness and the ways that our speech, our stories, bring us together.

Our journey begins with “This American Life” host and storyteller extraordinaire Ira Glass in a Saturday evening Amphitheater special, setting the stage for a rich week to follow. From political rhetoric and civil discourse, to the arts of theater and poetry, to podcasts and stories told around the campfire, we’ll ask “what is the power of the spoken word?” And we’ll explore how this modern age has changed its delivery. Throughout the week, as we look to the future of the spoken word, we’ll present ways to use technology to preserve our past, our history, our stories.

There are so many exciting programs to illuminate this week, but I’d draw your attention to Larry Arnn’s lecture on Tuesday. Dr. Arnn is the 12th president of Hillsdale College, where he also serves as a professor of politics and history, teaching courses on Aristotle, Winston Churchill and the American Constitution. There is a vibrant debate going on right now about the role that our colleges and universities can or should play in shaping our discourse. I have enjoyed receiving the college’s monthly publication Imprimis, which tackles so many of today’s hot-button issues. I know Dr. Arnn will provide even greater context.

Our companion Interfaith Lecture Series this week looks to a time before the founding of Chautauqua, when a very particular expression of the spoken word took root and may have led eventually to our founding, as we examine “Chautauqua: Rising from the Ashes of the Burned-Over District.” We refer often to Chautauqua’s beginnings in 1874, and its history going forward, but little-known is the history that preceded Chautauqua’s founding. The Chautauqua Assembly reflected many movements that had their genesis in what was called the “Burned-over District” resulting from the “on fire” religious environment and culture of the early 19th century in Western New York. The Assembly synthesized the religious passion of the age with its own unique contributions to American culture, as did other religious and civic expressions of the region arising out of that epoch. In this week, we will revisit that incendiary era, and then meet some other religious and civic entities that have also stood the test of time.

A couple of other quick notes about our week. As some of you know, Chautauqua Theater Company received the great news this year that a play it had workshopped in 2017 is now headed to Broadway. I say that because at 2:15 p.m. Saturday in Bratton Theater, CTC will be workshopping How the Light Gets In. I believe we haven’t seen the last of work that started its life at Chautauqua heading to The Great White Way. Don’t miss your chance to be a part of this growing legacy.

Two very special friends return to Chautauqua this week. I cannot wait to welcome back the Rev. Otis Moss III as our chaplain of the week. Otis is a Chautauqua favorite, and I know his words will inspire, challenge and uplift us this week. Welcome back!  And one of my very favorite artists and people, Rhiannon Giddens, joins us for a very special concert on Thursday. Back at Chautauqua by popular demand, Rhiannon is the co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, was awarded a 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and won the 2016 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo. I had the unbelievable privilege of spending some quality time with her during our last visit and count her as a kindred spirit. She’s not to be missed.

Each week that I sit down to write these words to you, I’m reminded of the vast treasures that exist at Chautauqua. Picking one or two things to highlight in a given week is always tough because each activity we present is worthy of a shout out. As I write this column Thursday, I am excited that the Music School Festival Orchestra and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will again combine forces in the Amphitheater. Their joint performance last year was one of the most stunning artistic experiences of my life.

As you head into this week, what things are you most looking forward to? What are those anticipated moments? I’d love to hear your thoughts as a way to share together. For those on social media, drop me a line on Twitter at
@MichaelHillCHQ or on my Facebook page at While time and schedules don’t allow me to personally visit with everyone on the grounds, I hope we can celebrate your favorite moments this week.

Have a wonderful week, friends!

Tags : CommunityLetter From the President
Michael E. Hill

The author Michael E. Hill