CHAUTAUQUA - This very weekend, the Chautauqua season will spring to life, and we change from a rural performing venue to one of the international centers of most of the arts.
Each year, we get a substantial number of requests, asking my advice on what area residents should attend at Chautauqua. Naturally, each of us have a unique set of interests, and each of us should choose what to see and hear, based on our interests, our willingness to explore things which might be new or different to us, and our ability to afford Chautauqua's various ticket prices, which are inexpensive by New York City or London prices, but rather expensive by local standards.
So, let me tell you a bit about what they're doing this year, and tell you what I would choose, and why, from the splendid menu of wonderful things, wonderfully done. Please feel free to differ, if you want.
Beginning this weekend, the leafy sidewalks and lawns of Chautauqua Institution will become a blending place for audiences and artists of nearly every kind.
Once you become familiar with Chautauqua, it seems relatively easy to attend, but if you're trying it for the first time, it can be challenging.
Chautauqua Institution stretches along the shore of Chautauqua Lake, between Route 394 and the lake, itself. Except for their beautiful golf course, and the main parking lot, everything is to the right of the highway, as you drive toward Mayville. Chautauqua is a mostly auto-free area, meaning that you can expect to do a great deal of walking. There is a system of trams and buses which can help out a great deal, although there are periods of time in which you can wait for transportation until your toes take root.
If you have a documented handicap, you may drive onto the grounds, and park near the venue which you plan to attend. Go inside the Main Gate of the Institution, and inquire about where in that building to make such arrangements.
There are two main ways to visit Chautauqua, from Jamestown: You can drive out Route 394, which is Fairmount Avenue, past Chautauqua Mall, and continue out until you arrive there. Otherwise, you can drive out I-86, until immediately after you cross the Chautauqua Lake Veterans Bridge. Right past the bridge, take the exit toward Mayville, turn right and continue straight to Chautauqua.
If you have purchased tickets in advance, you should drive to the traffic light, right at the Main Gate, and turn left into the main lot. The daily parking fee is $8.50. You may need to drive pretty far out into the unpaved lot, unless you are lucky and find a closer place. Once you are parked, place the receipt you were given when you paid on the dashboard of your car, and leave it there, until you leave. Officially, they announce that if you wait by your car, a tram will pick you up and take you to Route 394. In my personal experience, that doesn't always happen. You may need to hike to the highway. If you have someone who isn't a happy walker, the driver can leave passengers off by Route 394, then park and hike back to meet them.
If you want to buy tickets at the gate to concerts, lectures, operas, plays, ballets and the other wonderful events of Chautauqua, things get a bit tricky. As you drive along Route 394, you will see a long, red brick building which looks like exactly what it is: a former train station. In order to turn in and buy tickets, etc. in the gate, you need to turn right before you come to that main signal light. There is a small diner on the right hand side of the road, and you turn right at the next road, past it. That will take you into a small lot where you can park for free, for up to 30 minutes, while you're buying your tickets, arranging to rent a place to stay, if you wish, and doing other business such as arranging for handicapped parking. There are also nice public rest rooms in that building.
When you finish your business, you can turn left, out of the lot, which brings you to the side of that famous traffic light, and when it turns green, drive straight across the highway and park in the main lot. When you get back from the lot to the edge of the highway, you can cross safely at the light, continue through the gate building, and show your tickets at the inner gate. They will be scanned with a computer scanner, and then you can walk inside. Immediately inside the gate, if you turn sharply to your right, you will see a glass bus stop from where buses and/or trams leave for all the parts of the grounds. If you tell the driver where you wish to go, he or she will help you get onto the right vehicle. The transports are free.
If you're on foot, and aren't familiar with the grounds, I strongly suggest that you walk directly away from the gate, once you are inside. That is a wide, brick sidewalk which will take you about three blocks, to a large, rectangular plaza, with a fountain in its center. That is Bestor Plaza, and the heart of Chautauqua. When you come to the plaza, if you turn left, you will come to the VACI art gallery complex. Continue past that and you will come to the Bratton Theater, where the plays take place. Past that is Norton Hall, where all but one of the Institution's operas take place. Sadly, this year, that means one of them: ''The Ballad of Baby Doe.''
If you're not going to one of those places, you can cross the grassy plaza to its opposite edge. When you arrive there, turn right, and follow that street, with a slight jog to the left, around the library, and you will soon see the huge, open-air Amphitheater, where orchestra concerts, ballets, one of this season's operas, and all of the popular performers do their thing.
Seating is first-come, first served. Seats are hard, wooden benches without arms or backs. Most are under a sturdy roof, but there are sections which are uncovered, and a strong wind can blow a lot of rain under the roof.
If where you sit is important to you, I encourage you to arrive early, and to bring a cushion or a folded blanket to sit upon. Chautauqua once sold cushions imprinted with the familiar quote from Britain's Prince Phillip: ''The Mind Cannot Absorb What the Form Cannot Endure.'' This is a truism.
Only the Bratton Theater and some of the smaller performance halls are air conditioned or heated.
One last thing: You must show your ticket to enter the grounds, and again to enter the place where the performance will take place. You should not throw away your ticket, as you will need to show it again, to leave the grounds. That's annoying, but it prevents someone from paying for one event and then attending many more, making them more expensive for us.
The Chautauqua Theater Company is a professionally run company, which will produce three quality, full productions of plays, throughout the season. They also perform two New Play Workshops, which are plays which have newly dripped from their playwrights' pens. They are performed so the writer can see his stage directions followed and hear his dialog spoken. Each performance is followed by a talk-back, so the writer can get the audience's and the actors' feedback about his or her play. Virtually always, he re-writes parts or even all of the play, and the second performance can be expected to be substantially different from the first.
Because even the very talented company cannot be expected to learn a whole new play in one day, the actors carry their scripts as they act, but I find I no longer notice that they're reading, soon into a performance.
The bill this season will be ''A Raisin in the Sun'' by Lorraine Hansberry, opening June 27, and running at differing times through July 6. Next week's column will be all about the talented cast of that American classic, about an African American family which comes into an inheritance, and which needs to choose one family member whose lifelong goal can be achieved: The family could move to a better, safer neighborhood, one family member could attend medical school and become a respected professional, or one member could open his own business and become a true breadwinner for his family.
The second full production will be ''The May Queen,'' by Molly Smith Metzler. It will be performed July 18-27. That is the story of friends who graduated from high school together, who years later, encounter the beautiful young woman who was the Queen of the May and held every other office indicating popularity and good looks in their school. That play was commissioned by the CTC, and is having its first professional production.
The concluding work will be ''The Tempest,'' by William Shakespeare. It is the story of a magician who has been cheated out of the government which she once ruled and cast adrift with her only daughter, in a leaky boat. By studying magic, she has mastered the island, to which they have drifted, and now commands the weather, and all of nature. When she uses her magic to bring to her island the people who cheated her of her government, there is sure to be lively action. See that play Aug. 8-15.
Tickets for these three cost $30 each. The two New Play Workshops cost half price: $15. They will be ''Dairyland,'' which will take the stage July 10-12. It is the story of a professional food writer who seeks authenticity in the big city, only finding herself drawn back to her family's farm.
The other choice is ''The Guadalupe,'' which will be performed July 31-Aug. 2. It concerns a family of farmers, near the U.S.-Mexican border, who need to face the growing danger from drug cartels and other criminal activities which will soon force them to make what could be a painful choice.
The company has a conservatory attached to it, in which each year, a group of immensely talented young actors study at Chautauqua, and receive experience on the stage, with top-quality professional directors, designers and other experts. If you've attended the plays at Chautauqua over the past few years, you've seen graduates of the Conservatory win an Oscar, (Jessica Chastain, for ''Zero Dark Thirty,'') win a Tony (Gabriel Ebert, for ''Mathilda, the Musical,'' ) plus play regular, important roles in television series, (Peter Mark Kendall in ''Girls,'' for example. There are dozens and dozens more.)
If I could choose only one play, which would be difficult, because I very much want to see every one of them, I'd have to say, ''The Tempest,'' is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, but I've seen it in at least a dozen different productions, ''Raisin in the Sun'' is a moving and urgently important play about life in our country, but I taught it to students for decades, and have seen many productions, so my choice would be ''The May Queen,'' because it's new and I have seen two other plays by Molly Smith Metzler and liked them both.
If you haven't seen one of the other plays multiple times, or you haven't seen them for 10 years or more, then choose them, with my blessing. If you enjoy pioneering in the arts, see the new plays, also. I would be surprised if you came out of any of them feeling disappointment.
The Chautauqua Opera Company is one of the oldest companies on this side of the Atlantic, and their performances are always worth attending.
Sadly, this season, there are only two choices: ''Madame Butterfly,'' by Puccini, in one, which will be performed for only one evening, in the Amphitheater, on July 5. It is a story of an American naval officer, stationed in Japan, who takes a local girl for a wife, but while she believes this is a marriage forever, he thinks it is a convenience, to be forgotten when his transfer to another port comes through. Performance in the Amphitheater gives two advantages: it brings people to opera who might not yet have been thrilled by the artform, but who will wander in and may find a new delight in their lives, and it makes it possible for the opera to be sung in its original language, with the English translation projected on screens above the stage, for those who want literal understanding of everything said and sung.
Norton Hall, the company's usual home, was donated to Chautauqua with a proviso that opera could be performed there only in English. Depending on the quality of English translation which is available, such productions can be problematic.
The second production of the season will be ''The Ballad of Baby Doe,'' by American composer Douglas Moore and author John Latouche. That is based upon a true story of a beautiful young woman who wins the heart of a wealthy mine owner in the Colorado, in the days of the Wild West. He abandons his wife for Baby Doe, and builds her a city and an opera house, but when scandal and economic changes combine to rob him of his millions, is love enough for an older man with a younger woman?
Again, I've seen dozens of ''Butterflys,'' so while it is one of my favorites and I'll be attending the performance for certain, if I had to limit myself to only one opera, this season, it would be ''Baby Doe,'' which I've only heard once before. If you're experiencing opera for one of your first times, or if you're one of those who loves to sit at an opera and be thrilled and swept away by the gorgeous melodies and the deep emotions of the plot, go with ''Butterfly.'' You won't go wrong, with either choice.
The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, or CSO, is a fully professional, in-residence orchestra, which typically performs every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evening in the Amphitheater.
There also is an additional orchestra, whose musicians are graduate students in some of the finest universities and conservatories in the world. Called the "Music School Festival Orchestra," it typically performs on Monday evenings in the Amphitheater. Always check your printed schedule, or the Institution's website at www.ciweb.org, because such an enormous program cannot be other than subject to conductors who become ill and cannot perform and airlines who bring soloists to chautauqua too late for their own performances, etc. It doesn't happen often, but it can happen.
The big news, this season, will be that the eight finalists, seeking to become the music director of the CSO, will each conduct one or more performances, some time during the season. The orchestra has operated for several years without a music director, while Institution officials searched diligently for someone to demonstrate the necessary mixture of the ability to program and conduct the orchestra with musical brilliance, with the talent to make Chautauquans feel welcome at symphony concerts, and to meet and mix with the audience, with ease. Audience in-put will be sought, regarding the candidates, I have been promised.
These are the candidates under consideration, with the dates of their performances at Chautauqua, and the program to be performed:
It's always a treat to hear the conducting of Grant Cooper, and while he is not a candidate for music director, he will be leading the CSO on July 8 and Aug. 9.
Those who were thrilled by last year's ''Romeo and Juliet Project,'' which brought together the Institution's brilliant programs in theater, opera, vocal music and dance, to envelop a classic work of art with every imaginable art form, a similar evening is planned for July 26, when associate Artistic Director Andrew Borba, of the CTC will lead all the art forms and the orchestra in a program called ''Go West,'' which will be conducted by Timothy Muffitt.
It all starts this weekend. I can't wait. How about you?