Athens Chautauqua returnsAthens Chautauqua, the living history program in which costumed performers bring historical figures to life in theatrical monologues, returns in person after a two-year pandemic delay.
Athens Chautauqua, the living history program in which costumed performers bring historical figures to life in theatrical monologues, returns in person after a two-year pandemic delay. The local reboot of the cultural and social movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was originally scheduled for June 2020.
Now programming is full steam ahead with the upcoming performance by renowned historical actress Leslie Goddard, who will portray two of the most influential women of the 20th century.
In a two-day event sponsored by The Athens Chautauqua Society, Goddard will present “Jacqueline Kennedy: A First Lady of Grace and Style,” as a free event at The Classic Center Foundry Pavilion on April 21 at 6:45 p.m. The date is 1964 and the former first lady is struggling to cope with the unwanted attention of tourists and paparazzi.
The next day, on April 22 at 2:30 p.m., the Society hosts a ticketed afternoon tea and dessert fund raiser at Trumps Catering. Goddard recreates Eleanor Roosevelt in 1945, as she considers an offer to join the United Nations in “Eleanor Roosevelt: America’s Extraordinary First Lady.”
To help her develop and authentically portray each character, Goddard, who has a master’s degree in theater and a doctorate in history, conducts extensive research about each of her subjects and writes her own scripts, drawing from primary resource materials like letters, diaries and interviews. Sometimes the volume of material is overwhelming, as with Eleanor, and yet also sparse, as with Jackie.
“Eleanor Roosevelt wrote thousands of letters, stacks of newspaper columns and more than 25 books. So, with her, the challenge was winnowing down an enormous amount of materials,” Goddard says.
“Jackie Kennedy, in contrast, guarded her privacy. She wrote no autobiography and did not keep a diary… I had to seek out materials wherever I could — such as her testimony to the Warren commission and the few interviews she granted to magazine and newspaper reporters.”
Goddard balances historical accuracy and drama when using direct quotes from her subjects, much like an author would write a nonfiction book.
“I have to be mindful of copyright, so if my subject’s own words are copyrighted, say, in a book she wrote, then I can’t cost-effectively use her own words,” she explains. “Of course [a] historical portrayal is always about a historical figure filtered through the actor. But always I strive to make sure the events, the behaviors and the emotions are, as far as possible, accurate.”
When deciding on a scene to reenact, Goddard considers the age of the characters and a pivotal moment in their lives. For the roles of Jackie and Eleanor, she has chosen scenes when they were near her own age. She also uses minimal makeup and chooses authentic costuming to provide a more convincing characterization.
“The challenge is that you need to find items that are both historically accurate but also fit me and convey something about the character,” she says. “I can often find vintage clothing that works. Jackie Kennedy wouldn’t be Jackie Kennedy without her pillbox hat and white gloves. Eleanor Roosevelt wouldn’t be Eleanor Roosevelt without a fur stole and a hat.
“I do not wear much make-up when performing as Eleanor because it was not typical for her. I aim for natural-looking make-up when performing as Jackie because that was typical for her. I actually tracked down one of Jackie’s favorite lipsticks and wear that … I do wear a wig for Jackie because that curled bouffant look is hard to get with modern tools and my own rather thin hair. But wherever possible, I try to use my own hair because it looks more natural to me. I pin my hair up in Eleanor’s 1940s style.”
One of the most interesting and yet challenging aspects of performing as two women in two days is pivoting her voice and character between the two strikingly different personas.
Jacqueline, characterized by her porcelain skin, soft voice, tailored dresses and stunning black coiffure, was demure, polished and outwardly supportive of her husband. Eleanor was plain, approachable, outspoken and often publicly disagreed with her husband’s politics.
Goddard says she uses her history and theater degrees to get into character through a complex process that has evolved over time.
“Jackie’s voice is … very much an East Coast upper-class vocal style common prior to World War II, with soft R’s. I have listened to a lot of recordings of her to try to get that down. … But it’s also a breathy, soft voice. I discovered early on that this makes it difficult for some audiences to hear and understand me, so I’ve adapted it to be more audible. There’s a limit to accuracy if it interferes with audience comprehension.”
Goddard says that the portrayal of a real-life character is more difficult than a written biography because it allows her “to explore who this person was in terms of her personality, her emotions, what makes her human.”
“One of the things I love about Chautauqua is that when you put characters together, you start to see the things they share,” Goddard says. “Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy were very different people, but they shared many things, not least of which was a desire to ensure their husbands’ legacies and preserve a heroic public image of his administration.”
For more information about these and other upcoming Athens Chautauqua events, visit www.athenschq.org. The April 22 event is an ACS fund raiser; tickets are $50 per person or $300 for a six-person table, payable by credit card, PayPal or check.
Many thanks to Patricia McAlexander for her assistance with this story and interviewing Leslie Goddard. She retired from teaching English in UGA’s Division of Academic Enhancement and is working on her third novel with the Wild Rose Press.