Chautauqua is a family act for Cynthiana’s Smiths

In Kentucky Chautauqua

In Kentucky Chautauqua Betsy B. Smith plays Emilie Todd Helm, Edward Smith plays Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan and former University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp, and Ethan Smith plays Johnny Green and Price Hollowell. Photos by Rich Copley | LexGo.com.

  • Click here for a look at all five new characters for Kentucky Chautauqua’s 2009-10 season.

If you call the Smiths in Cynthiana asking for a Chautauqua performer, you’ll have to be more specific.

Are you calling for Edward Smith, who plays Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan and former University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp in the Kentucky Humanities Council‘s living-history program?

Or do you want his wife, Betsy B. Smith, who plays Emilie Todd Helm, Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister and the wife of Confederate Gen. Benjamin Hardin Helm?

Maybe you want their oldest son, Ethan Smith, who plays Johnny Green, one of the few survivors of the Confederate Orphan Brigade, and Price Hollowell, a key figure in Western Kentucky’s Black Patch War.

Edward Smith gives a preview performance as Justice John Marshall Harlan June 1 at the Lexington History Center.

Edward Smith gives a preview performance as Justice John Marshall Harlan June 1 at the Lexington History Center.

“Chautauqua is just kind of our thing,” says Edward, an associate theater professor at Georgetown College.

Chautauqua performers present significant characters from Kentucky’s history in 45-minute presentations. The roster includes Abraham Lincoln and Grandpa Jones.

George McGee, a Georgetown College theater professor who has played Henry Clay in Kentucky Chautauqua for years, brought the Smiths into the program.

“Betsy and I actually met in his drama class,” Edward says . “So when I came back to teach at Georgetown, I knew he (McGee) was playing Henry Clay, and he said, ‘Whenever they do a call for characters, you should audition.'”

It was a good way for the professor to keep his acting chops sharp. Smith developed the Rupp character, which he has played since 2001.

Ethan noticed what Dad was doing and decided he wanted to get in on the act. But he was 13 at the time. Chautauqua characters are people who have had a significant impact on Kentucky history. Not many young teens fit that description.

But Ethan found one in Price Hollowell, a boy who testified against the infamous Night Riders who attacked Western Kentucky farmers who did not participate in a tobacco-company boycott.

Ethan Smith as Johnny Green, one of the few surviving members of the Oprhan Brigade.

Ethan Smith as Johnny Green, one of the few surviving members of the Oprhan Brigade.

“It started as a summer project,” says Ethan, now 18. “Being a Chautauqua performer is a lot of responsibility because you represent the Humanities Council and all the other performers. So I would have understood if I wasn’t even picked to audition. But it was still a good research project, because Price Hollowell’s story is not known to many Kentuckians.”

Then, Mom got in on the acting.

“I had a V8 moment,” Becky says. “I was the history major with the communications degree who was so immersed in Civil War history as a kid. If you had told me at 9 or 10 I could have a job wearing a long dress, talking about Abe Lincoln, I’m in.”

Betsy took on Helm, the “rebel in the White House,” according to her Chautauqua billing. The character has taken her all the way to the stage of John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where she and several other Chautauqua performers were part of the Our Lincoln presentation Feb. 2.

Chautauqua usually doesn’t have the actors performing that far away.

As a historian, Betsy has enjoyed the chance to help her husband and son develop their pieces. Ethan says that in developing Hollowell, he used books from his mom’s shelf that he couldn’t find anywhere else. When he decided to develop another character, she pointed him to Johnny Green’s Journal, which “you can’t just find in bookstores,” Ethan says. “It’s not Harry Potter.” He also devoured a 1,200-page history of the Orphan Brigade.

Ethan as Green and Edward as Harlan debuted their new characters Monday at the Lexington History Center before a panel that included history and theater experts.

A big part of the job, the Smiths say, is figuring out how to tell their characters’ stories in 45 minutes.

Ethan’s Green comes off as a war-weary adventurer, describing some of the hardships of the Civil War and relaying what kept him going, from dedication to the Confederate cause to a deep desire to get home to Kentucky.

Edward was intrigued by Harlan’s status as a former slave owner who was the only dissenting vote in the high court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which upheld segregation, and other 19th-century civil rights cases.

“It intrigued me to see how he could go from this to this, to truly be a guy who changed his mind,” Edward says.

Before his performance at the Lexington History Center, Ethan Smith (left) gets some advice from his father, Edward, who has already performed.

Before his performance at the Lexington History Center, Ethan Smith (left) gets some advice from his father, Edward, who has already performed.

In addition to building a 45-minute monologue, the actors have to be pretty sharp on their characters’ history and the times they lived in, because people in the audience can toss in questions.

In the Smith home, that leads to lots of chatter and work as the actors read up and talk about their subjects. And that’s not lost on the younger Smiths: Harry, 13, and Ross, 11.

Edward proudly touts their success in speech competitions and says Harry has started to ask when he’ll get to do a character.

“We do have to tell him, ‘Harry, it’s not really a birthright,'” he says.

But don’t be surprised if this trio of Chautauqua performers eventually grows into a quintet.

  • Later this summer, we’ll catch up with Bet Stewart as Rosemary Clooney.
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