Actor-historians will share stories June 23 through 27 for free event series
— Hardesty Park in Akron will take a trip to revival events of the past, as a number of historian-actors will embody such prominent figures as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, along with a Titanic survivor, Indian captive and a 49er.
The Ohio Chautauqua Tour combines living history, education, theater and music and will make a stop in Akron June 23 through 27. The actors are not your typical performers: they’re scholars who diligently research the people they inhabit. Ohio Chautauqua will offer a living, breathing piece of history, helping residents grasp these prominent figures without textbooks and lectures.
“You want to think of them more as first person interpreters; they’re going to don the character, they’re going to be dressed like them and it will allow individuals to better relate to the person,” says Leianne Neff Heppner, president and CEO of the Summit County Historical Society, which is co-sponsoring the event along with the Akron-Summit County Public Library. “It’s really a tremendous opportunity for us, and it’s a way to reach to out a population that’s not familiar with the Historical Society or the Special Collections Division of the library.”
The program is funded by the Ohio Humanities Council.
“These are professional actors, they’re very good at what they do,” says Judy James, Special Collections Division Manager for the Akron-Summit County Public Library. “They’re not only good actors, they know the history of these people. They spend a great deal of time researching these individuals. This is history brought to life, and this is the stuff for me that makes history fun.”
James says the program is for all ages.
The performances will take place under a giant 500-person striped revival tent and include local musicians, food and other entertainment. The theme this year is “Journey Stories,” with Titanic survivor Edith Russell (Debra Conner), 1849er J. Goldsborough Bruff (Hank Fincken), Indian captive Olive Ann Oatman (Dianne Moran), philosopher Henry David Thoreau (Kevin Radaker) and civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Marvin Jefferson). After the presentations, audience members may ask the characters questions and talk to the performers afterward.
This tour is special for a number of reasons. Only four locations in the state are chosen each year, says Heppner, who adds that this year also is the 175th anniversary of the founding of Summit County.
Also, Chautauqua Institution co-founder Lewis Miller was a prominent Akron inventor, philanthropist and educator. Miller, says James. is “by far one of the most interesting historical characters in Summit County.” She says he doesn’t seem to be as well known as other early Akron historical figures. Miller’s daughter married Thomas Edison in Akron, and Judy James and David Lieberth will do presentations at an open house June 26 and 27, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., at the red and white Italian brick home at the top of Glendale Hill (Lewis Miller’s home), which also was the site of the wedding.
Heppner says she can trace an Akron connection to just about every character coming to town. A number of Titanic survivors and victims from Cornwall, England have connections to Akron — two of them are buried in Glendale Cemetery, James notes. Thoreau has connections to Akronite John Brown.
The slate of events also includes food trucks, and local musicians — like Rachel Roberts, Alex Bevan and the LeGrair Brothers — will kick off the Chautauqua presentations. The Historical Society and Library will host companion exhibits covering Lewis Miller, the Titanic, John Brown artifacts and the diaries of Samuel Lane, who ran the Gold Rush, among other items and materials. Jon Schmitz, archivist of the Chautauqua Institution, will speak at First United Methodist Church on Mill Street about Lewis Miller’s involvement in the founding of the Chautauqua movement, June 28 at 3 p.m., rounding out this packed week of events.
Ohio Chautauqua also relies on a number of local volunteers to handle all of the moving parts.
Says Heppner: “I am so excited for the opportunity because I’ve seen the characters do the presentations before. You do feel like you’re in a different time period.”
Other Ohio stops on the tour include Chillicothe, Clifton and Coshocton.
The Chautauqua Institution, in New York, originally started as a Methodist camp in the 1800s, and over the years it’s become a community that melds religion and the arts and culture, says James, who points out a number of Akronites have homes there.
Hardesty Park is located at 615 W. Market St. Entertainment begins at 6:30 p.m. Adult workshops will take place every morning at 10:30 a.m. for adults and 2 p.m. for children.