Ashland Free Press
(formerly a local independent news journal in Ashland, Ohio)
Local Actress Discusses Her Experience with Chautauqua
1/15/2015 by Matt Timmons
For the last several years Jeromesville resident Raylene Hlavaty has entertained and educated audiences throughout Mid-Ohio with her Chautauqua style performances. In an interview with the Ashland Free Press, Raylene spoke candidly about the characters she's played and what it is like being a Chautauqua actress.
- Tell us a little about the characters you've presented. Fanny Crosby was a blind hymn writer who considered her blindness a blessing. She wrote thousands of hymns that are still sung all over the world. She always loved to hear that one of her hymns had been a help or a blessing. Margaret Junkin Preston was a Northern woman who moved South in the years before the Civil War. She was greatly impacted by the war and was well loved for her poetry.
- What drew you to these characters? I was drawn to Fanny because of her uplifting and inspiring story. I have much to learn from her cheerful, obedient spirit. I chose to present Margaret because she was a godly woman faithful through adversity. I relate to her struggle to balance her duties as wife and mother with using her God given ability as a poet.
- How did you get into the whole Chautauqua thing? I originally presented a much shorter Fanny as special music at church. It wasn't long after that I discovered Ohio Chautauqua being held in Ashland. I was mesmerized. When my boys were a little older, I had the opportunity to redo Fanny as a full length Chautauqua style character which means that I present in character and in costume and then allow the audience to ask my character questions.
- What has been your experience doing it? What do you like/dislike? I have met so many nice people who are from all different denominations. It helps me to understand that we don't all have to believe exactly alike to be used by a sovereign God. It can be tiring if there is a long drive involved or if I am not feeling well, but the thing that keeps me going is the encouragement and edification that Fanny's story (and Margaret's) brings to both young and old. I find there is something compelling about learning history and faith within someone's personal story.
- Being an introvert, how has that worked out? Well, that is an interesting question. The research, reading, script writing and costume sewing is ideal for an introvert. I feed off the quiet concentration (when that can actually be achieved) and enjoy looking for just the right words on Thesaurus.com. Sewing historical costumes is also a fun challenge. So what to do with all this knowledge I am soaking up? I feel that it must be shared and so I step out of my comfort zone. There is always the fear that my program is not as good as I think it is (that keeps me humble, I hope). Then there is the discomfort of walking into a new environment each time I perform--new place, different people. I think it has really stretched me. It is still much easier to talk to people after the program since the topic of discussion will be the program. I have found that the actual performance is quite "safe" for an introvert. I know what I am going to say and it has been carefully thought out. When I portray Fanny, I even keep my eyes closed so I don't even have to see anyone. For Margaret, however, it was a new challenge to look audience members in the eyes as I speak.
- What's the process like? How do you pick characters & bring it all the way to the point of show? I will be trying to pick characters from different time periods in the future and I tend toward literary characters (B.A. in English, you know), but before I decide to do a character, I want to know a little about them. Are they Godly? Do they show good character? Can we learn something from them about how to deal with difficult situations? Then I hit the library or the internet to find what books are available, start reading and take tons of notes. I think about what I want to say with this character and what events in their lives display those things. I look for direct quotes as much as possible so I use their own words and build my script around the quotes. The script gets passed to a few privileged people (ie: gluttons for punishment) to look it over to make sure it makes sense. When its been approved, it is time for memorizing. It can take months to memorize five or six single spaced, typed pages so that I could say it in my sleep. Costume making comes in here somewhere and I start putting it all together. And when I think it is finally ready, I host a debut in Ashland for friends and homeschoolers.
- You've performed quite a number of times. How many? What kinds of venues? I have just reached my 100th performance of Fanny and 29th of Margaret. I have presented for women's events, retreats, school groups, historical groups, churches, retirement groups, a company dinner and one high school reunion. One pair of sisters even planned their own event so their friends could see me (I still can't believe that). I have been going out to Zoar for three years for their Civil War School Days too. I did Margaret two years, but I did Jennie Wade (only civilian killed during the battle of Gettysburg) last year and plan to do her again (really short version).
- Being that you are a Christian doing Christian characters, how has that been a ministry? A few years ago I attended a Chautauqua performance of Clarence Darrow (the defense lawyer in the Scopes trial). His presentation was fine and he accurately portrayed the way God was mocked during that trial, but there were important things he left out. I had gone prepared to ask some revealing questions and did so. Afterward, I was sick at heart when I thought of the mockery made of God's word in that program. I knew then that I would create programs that would glorify God and be as accurate as possible. I have my choice of characters and the power to include whatever I want to tell. It has made me realize that there are no accidents in entertainment--everything is carefully planned to have a particular effect. I plan to glorify God. The ministry is encouragement. The stories of these women are inspirational and make us want to be a little better ourselves. And... if the audience learns a little about the faithfulness of God in history, that is entirely on purpose.
- What's been your best memory/best response? Just one? Impossible. The little girl that just looked up at me with amazement and waved goodbye in the parking lot. The woman who was practically gushing after the program because she felt so seriously the responsibility she had in selecting programs for her group. The elderly lady at a retirement village that went running off to her apartment to bring me a "ham" (used to iron big puffy sleeves) and gave it to me because she thought I could use it for my dress. The lady who had taken a trip to Alaska on a tractor with her husband to raise money for missions, written a book about it and sent me one.
- What are you working on now? I have recently introduced "Swingin' with the Saints--a fast pace musical adventure through church history." It is very different from my other programs, but so far it has been well received. It presents 15 different figures important to the music of the church from the early church to the 20th century. I do some silly things to make it through 2000 years of church history.
- Any plans for future characters? I am working on Abigail Adams now and trying to get an understanding of her time period. Jennie Wade will soon follow since I have done short versions of her already (and I have the costume). I would also like to present Katarina von Bora (Luther's wife), Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter and Ann Bradstreet to name a few. I'm afraid I have more ideas than time and energy to do them, but I keep plugging away and hope to accomplish what I can.