Chautauqua: “American Imagination”

Clouds gathered above the tent situated on the lawn of the historic Smith-McDowell House, where the Chautauqua series is held each summer in Asheville. It was the first night of the series, and Benjamin Franklin was to be the guest speaker (impersonated by actor Christopher Lowell, that is).

A musical set begins each evening’s program. The Americana duo The Honeycutters provided a warm atmosphere as the intergenerational audience took their seats beneath the tent a little after 7 p.m., munching on popcorn and sipping on pink lemonade provided by the Friends of the Library free of charge (though donations are gratefully accepted).

The Honeycutters were only a few bars into their last song when they were interrupted by a loud clap of thunder. With their last notes still hanging in the air, Director of Buncombe County Libraries Ed Sheary took the stage and calmly instructed folks to head to the rain location, nearby Ferguson Auditorium on the campus of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College where Smith-McDowell House is located. Within minutes, the audience had regrouped under a solid roof.

Just as we were settling into our new seats, the electricity went out. Library personnel opened one of the exit doors to let the natural light into the near-packed auditorium. Several minutes passed, and still no electricity. Finally, Sheary announced that Benjamin Franklin would address us under the circumstances at hand: in the half-dark without the assistance of a microphone.

Perhaps fittingly, we had to dodge lightening and sit in the semi-darkness to hear Christopher Lowell—dressed in authentic attire—bring Benjamin Franklin to life: the man who contributed the lightening rod to science, the man who recognized that lightning was, in fact, electricity.

Christopher Lowell’s performance was excellent, well worth the inconveniences brought on by a summer storm.

The Chautauqua series continues through Thursday, June 24. For more information, and the nightly schedule, scroll down past the photos, below.

The Honeycutters

Benjamin Franklin, impersonated by Christopher Lowell, caught on camera during a flicker of electricity in Ferguson Auditorium.

—- Review and photos by Mannie Dalton

Historical masters of science, leadership and artistic achievement are brought to life through dramatic readings by actors at the annual Chautauqua performance and reading series. Sponsored by Buncombe County Public Libraries these educational and lively performances focus on key figures in American history, offering a chance to remember and honor their individual contributions to the growth of our country.

The series, as described by the Chautauqua Institution, “is an is an adult education movement [that] rose to prominence in the United States during the the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chautauqua assemblies — traveling programs that included speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers, specialists and entertainers — spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s. Worth noting: politician William Jennings Bryan, a regular visitor to Asheville (he even delivered the keynote address at the Grove Park Inn’s grand opening in 1913!), was the most popular Chautauqua speaker, until his death in 1925.”

This year’s Chautauqua theme is “American Imagination,” and will feature reenactments of Benjamin Franklin, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson and Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss). Local musicians and bands perform before each theatrical performance.

According to the Asheville Chautauqua press release, the series strives to portray the founding fathers who imagined a country while establishing principles of liberty and justice: “Immigrants imagined a better life for themselves and their children. As the country grew, inventors, artists, poets and adventurers flourished. Through imagination, each produced a personal vision reflecting the world they knew.”

Musical programs begin at 7 p.m. Dramatic readings/performances begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Smith-McDowell House Museum, 283 Victoria Road in Asheville. Parking is available at the A-B Tech Community College Campus.

Nightly schedule:
On Monday, June 21: Benjamin Franklin will be portrayed by Christopher Lowell. Asheville’s The Honeycutters perform Americana/country tunes.
As described by Chautauqua’s press release: “Benjamin Franklin lived a rags-to-riches life that was marked by scientific achievement, social service, and vitally important leadership in the establishment of our Republic.  An innovator and inventor, the number, variety and practicality of his contributions make him unique in American history.”

On Tuesday, June 22: Emily Dickinson will be embodied by Debra Conner.  Western North Carolina based “mountain dulcimer player” Don Pedi opens.
” ‘Is not the imagination the most glorious domain?’ Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter.  She has been called the greatest American poet, an eccentric, and a genius. More than 123 years after her death, her poetry and her odd life of seclusion continue to fascinate readers and provoke discussion.”

On Wednesday, June 23: Langston Hughes is brought to life by Charles Everett Pace. Plus bluegrass riffs with Travis & Trevor Stuart of Haywood County.
“Langston Hughes was a poet, novelist, short story writer, and columnist. An innovative stylist, he is best-known for his work during the Harlem Renaissance.  Through his writing, he proclaimed a belief in the wondrous creative power of dreams…dreams denied, dreams achieved, dreams deferred but never dreams defeated.”

On Thursday, June 24, Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, will be performed George Frein. Country music by Asheville band The Magills opens the program.
“Dr. Seuss, is America’s most imaginative children’s writer.  Although his books were written and illustrated for young readers, they also give pleasure to the adults who read them aloud.  The Cat in the Hat, the Grinch, and green eggs have all become part of our collective imagination.”

There is a suggested donation of $4 per program or $10 for the four-night series. Info: 253-9231 or visit

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3 thoughts on “Chautauqua: “American Imagination”

  1. Media Watcher

    ” . . .Historical masters of science, leadership and artistic achievement are brought to life through dramatic readings by local actors . . .”

    The reporter might want to check her facts. None of the actors she mentions are “local.” Are the bands and musicians she mentions “local?”

  2. Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt

    Hello Media Watcher,
    In the past many of the performers featured at the Chautauqua reading series have been local, however, a representative working with the Smith-McDowell House Museum informed me that actors will be traveling from Greenville, S.C., for this year’s performance. All musical acts are local: The Honeycutters and The Magills are based in Asheville; Travis & Trevor Stuart are from Haywood County and Don Pedi “has been living in Western North Carolina for the last 20 years.” Thanks for the feedback!

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