Time is running out to catch the 2023 Ed Kinney Speaker Series.
After "An Afternoon or Evening with Chuck Yeager" starring scholar-actor Doug Mishler later this month, there are only two installments left in the popular program presented by the Museum on Main.
The immersive performances on the Firehouse Arts Center stage are done in the Chautauquan style, meaning the speaker embodies the real person for a biographical presentation and interactive Q&A before answering final audience queries out of character based on their extensive research.
The annual series in Pleasanton, named for the late former mayor of the city, is one of the few places on the West Coast where people can experience this type of performance, which originated in Chautauqua, N.Y.
"You're in a certain moment in time with the historical character" is how Museum on Main Executive Director Sarah Schaefer described the setting in her opening remarks at "An Afternoon or Evening with Cass Elliot" last month.
I had the opportunity to watch the July edition, and what an insightful, entertaining opportunity it was. (In addition to the live matinee and evening shows on performance day, the museum offers a one-day-only virtual viewing afterward via the BigMarker webinar platform.)
With a charismatic stage presence very much representative of the 1960s-'70s singer she portrayed, scholar-actor Karen Vuranch pulled the audience right in as she covered a whole lot of ground in a short period of time about the life of Cass Elliot.
I went into the performance with cursory knowledge about Elliot and her group The Mamas & the Papas, namely their hits like "California Dreamin'", "Go Where You Wanna Go" and "Dream a Little Dream of Me". I knew what she looked like, and of course I'd heard the unseemly myth about the cause of her death at 32 years old. (As Vuranch adamantly reinforced, it was a heart attack in her sleep, not choking on a ham sandwich.)
But it was fascinating learning so much more about Elliot – her successes, her struggles and everything in between – through a primarily first-person presentation.
Her rise as a powerful singer with no formal training. Her battle with substance abuse and addiction that began with diet pills at her mother's urging as a teen. Her friendships with the likes of John Lennon, the Beach Boys and Sharon Tate. Her efforts to shed the "Mama Cass" image. The countless ups and downs for the quartet that catapulted her to fame.
Come to find out, she attended the same college in Washington, D.C. as a certain editorial director – apparently despite not completing high school in Baltimore … guess American University's admissions standards haven't changed much over the decades.
And Vuranch's performance was set two days before Elliot's body was discovered in a London apartment in 1974 – a certain editorial director's birthday.
Just an enjoyable, educational evening; I wish I could've been in the room.
I've only had one experience with Chautauquan performance live and in-person, not via Museum on Main but in Colonial Williamsburg in 2018.
A scholar-actor portrayed George Washington on an outdoor stage for scores of us looking for a little interactive, educational entertainment – and maybe a place to sit down for a bit during a warm Virginia fall afternoon.
The format was engaging and informative, but honestly what stands out in my memory were the murmurs in the audience as the performer recited excerpts from President Washington's "Farewell Address" verbatim about his decision to leave office, a landmark moment in American history.
One couple near us just got up and left, mumbling something about the show being too political. I was caught between outright laughing and being frozen in discomfort. People really think this scholar was skewing documented history to push some ... whatever.
Perhaps the lesson is these performances are not for the faint of heart – or mind.
That's where the power of Chautauqua lies: its authenticity. And maybe that's not always a comfortable exercise when presenting about a real person in history. Informative about society and our shared human experience though.
I asked Schaefer this week about her favorite performance from this year, and she pointed to Leslie Goddard's portrayal of American suffragist Alice Paul in June.
"Alice Paul was a standout show for me in the 2023 season. Each season, we bring historical characters to life and many of them are household names. However, Alice Paul, despite her heroic and impactful story, remains relatively unknown," Schaefer said.
"For us, the Alice Paul performance spotlighted the potential of the series. Her show was an opportunity to shine light on an unfamiliar story in history and provide an opportunity for our audience to learn that history through an immersive and moving theatrical experience," she added. "The household name performances are always interesting to watch, but it's the unknowns that give our audience a chance to be profoundly changed by something new."
There are three more chances this year to catch Chautauqua at the Firehouse (or from home).
The Chuck Yeager installment arrives on Aug. 15 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., accompanied by the virtual viewing on Aug. 22.
Mishler will share a range of reflections from the life and times of the World War II fighter pilot who later gained international fame for breaking the sound barrier – rumor has it just don't ask the Yeager onstage, "do you have the right stuff?"
"We've all heard about Yeager's daring flights and record-breaking speeds, but I'm excited to hear about his experience evading the Germans after his plane was shot down in WWII," said Rachel Brickell, the museum's director of education and coordinator of the speaker series.
"The French resistance helped free his parachute from a tree and hid him in a nearby barn while the Germans searched for him. Yeager was then moved secretly from house to house across the French countryside to Spain where he stayed until he returned to England to resume his flight missions," she added.
Tickets for the Yeager show are still available; go to www.museumonmain.org or call 925-462-2766.
The last two installments will see former British prime minister Winston Churchill (portrayed by Kevin Radaker) on Sept. 19 and English author Mary Shelley (played by Susan Marie Frontczak) on Oct. 3 -- the perfect time for the writer behind "Frankenstein".
Then again, for the Museum on Main, "it is getting to be spooky time" already, noted Schaefer. Tickets for their popular, pre-Halloween Ghost Walk tours of downtown went on sale this week and usually go fast. It's one of the museum's biggest programs each year, right alongside the Ed Kinney Speaker Series.