Vaudeville shows, jugglers and acrobats are fairly common here in Olympia, but there are many communities where newfangled versions of traditional family entertainment — or indeed, any kind of live entertainment at all — are still a rare treat. And that’s what the New Old Time Chautauqua is all about.
The Chautauqua is doing a fundraising vaudeville show tonight in Olympia — featuring the Mud Bay Jugglers, Tallhouse Arts Consortium and other acts from Olympia and beyond — but the nonprofit group’s purpose is to take the show on the road, bringing entertainment and education to communities where the arts are in short supply.
“The summer tour is all about going to underserved communities,” said Wes Hauffe, a member of Tallhouse and organizer of tonight’s show. “A lot of times, we go to rural areas where there’s just no money in it for a performer to go there, and so they don’t get a lot of shows.”
Last year, the group went to Alaska, and this summer it will be Eastern Oregon.
Each summer tour stop includes more than just a show. They begin with a parade, then offer free workshops and small performances at places such as senior centers, child-care centers and prisons. Finally, there is a big community performance that raises funds for a local nonprofit.
In the spirit of the original Chautauquas – traveling shows common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that provided both entertainment and education – workshops are often but not always about the performing arts.
“I have done consensus-building workshops, and in the spirit of the old Chautauquas, sometimes we just pick a topic and have discussion groups,” said Harry Levine, a Chautauqua board member, one of the Mud Bay Jugglers, and part of the Citizens’ Band. He remembers juggler Amiel Martin offering workshops on the brain.
The Chautauqua also performs at the Oregon Country Fair in Eugene. In fact, the 30-year-old group was founded by some of the fair’s performers.
It’s rare when all the members of a band or performing group can take the time to go on a volunteer tour for two weeks to a month, so those on tour perform in various configurations, and that’s part of the fun, Levine said.
“Usually, there’s a lot of people on tour who know how to juggle, even if they’re not all professional jugglers,” he said. “We usually create a giant group juggling piece. I think last year we had maybe 20 jugglers. It was very simple what we did, but due to the sheer size, it looked really impressive.”
About 50 performers and crew members will travel in buses and vans and spend nights camping or sleeping in community centers, churches or schools.
“It’s almost too much fun,” Levine said. “Sometimes it’s really hectic, but you usually finish every day with a sense of accomplishment.”
Hauffe said, “It’s a big crazy thing, and I mean crazy in the best way.
“I really like going to the senior citizens’ homes and performing there,” he said. “People really light up. Many people tell us that they performed or they had seen Chautauquas. It is really cool having that connection happen.”