COLUMN BY MICHAEL E. HILL
Knock, knock. Who’s there? You are! OK, so clearly I’m not the one to author or deliver jokes, but I don’t have to do that heavy lifting as we enter Week Five at Chautauqua — a week in partnership with our friends at the National Comedy Center.
Traversing some of our themes at Chautauqua can occasionally feel heavy: trust, democracy, empathy, resilience, divides — and while they are incredibly important topics to explore during our Summer Assembly, sometimes we just need to laugh. We promise you laughter and more this week as we explore “The Authentic Comedic Voice: A Week in Partnership with the National Comedy Center.” The art of comedy is deeply personal, requiring artists and creators to tap into their own experience to hone a unique, resonant and authentic voice. In this week, we examine how comedians working in an array of genres, media and styles have found their voices, developed their voices and mobilized their voices to communicate with audiences in impactful — and entertaining — ways.
From comedians to comedy commentators, we bring out some great voices to help us this week. I’m thrilled to welcome back to Chautauqua our dear friend Lewis Black, not only for a special performance and a staged reading of one of his plays, but also for a Friday master class. This king of comedy has seen and done it all, and over these past years of partnership with our friends at the nearby National Comedy Center has himself become a friend to Chautauqua. We’re thrilled to have him and them here.
In our companion Interfaith Lecture Series, we look at “The Authentic Comedic Voice: Truth Born of Struggle.” What we expect from the art of comedy is something silly, foolish, witty, or an unexpected twist or deviation from expected reality. It has been posited, however, that authentic comedic articulation, while producing laughter and hilarity, frequently arises out of struggle, out of pathos and the need to speak truth. “We laugh because it’s funny; we laugh — or cry — because it’s true.” In this week, we invite the voices of the healers who make us laugh.
Speaking of “funny men,” we resurrect the great comedic master Charlie Chaplin this week as our very own organist, Jared Jacobsen Chair and director of sacred music, Joshua Stafford, presents the second Massey Memorial Organ movie with Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush.” Even if you’re not a fan of Chaplin, you cannot help but be a fan of the master of Massey. Josh is in his first year as our permanent organist, and having taken in the first Massey Organ movie, I can attest to the great treat it is to relive the era of silent movies with accompaniment.
If part of the goal of comedy week is to hold up the value of joy, then you’ll understand the reasons we invited Straight No Chaser back to the Amphitheater on Friday. Some know that I spent more than a decade singing in an a cappella group, Potomac Fever, with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. I had the pure joy of singing many of Straight No Chaser’s arrangements during those years, so I hope you’ll indulge me if I show up in full “fanboy” mode that night. I hope you’ll join me — even if you don’t geek out as much as I will.
This past week saw a transition in our student life, as our incredible School of Music cohort departed, while the schools of Dance and Visual Arts came to life for their 2021 sessions. While it’s unusual to not have all the students here together, living in community with each other and all of us, I’m grateful to them for their dedication and commitment, and to our faculty and staff team who poured all of themselves into ensuring a safe and satisfying experience. To see the effect that Chautauqua can have on the next generation of artists, I hope you’ll attend Sunday evening’s special Alumni All-Star Ballet Gala. These remarkable dancers, all of whom spent part of their formative years here, now represent top-tier national companies such as New York City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. It’s a performance not to be missed.
Finally, I hope you’ll notice how our performing and literary arts programs have picked up on our comedy theme, with Chautauqua Theater Company’s performances of Commedia, Chautauqua Opera Company’s Scalia/Ginsburg on Friday and the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle’s Week Five selection of Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. Nowhere but Chautauqua can a theme be so deeply and naturally threaded through the overall experience.
In a recent planning meeting for the future of Chautauqua, someone reminded me that while we often explore the great issues of the day in depth, one of our strongest assets is that we want that exploration to bring joy. People are more inclined to do good in the world when they feel joyful and hopeful. I hope this week delivers both to you as we enter the midpoint of our season. I hope to experience it alongside you in community. Have a great week, Chautauqua!