What is Chautauqua? Ask Stephen Bent

Since he first became a Chautauquan in 2004, co-band leader and Flying Karamazov Brother Stephen Bent has had to field the question “What is Chautauqua?” Here’s his heartfelt answer, re-posted from a Facebook blog he composed after the Redwood Vaudeville Tour came to a close.

Q: Dear Stephen, what is Chautauqua, and why are you so obsessed with it?

A: I’ve been making a conscious effort to not overuse hyperbole in my language, and to stop describing everything as “the best [movie, ice cream, knife fight etc.] ever,” because I think it cheapens language. So when I say that Chautauqua is my favorite thing in the world, I really mean it. My first tour, immediately after graduating from high school, was literally the best two weeks of my life. I couldn’t believe that such a group of people existed. They stayed up all night singing Beatles songs around the campfire, they juggled in the sun all day. They lived in tents and cooked everything in huge communal meals, and put on crazy vaudeville shows for people who had most likely never before seen juggling, acrobats, or magic. They taught workshops on cancer awareness, folk song swaps, juggling, mask-making. They wore beautiful costumes made from recycled trash. They told the worst jokes, over and over. Like Harry Potter at Hogwarts, I had found my people and couldn’t believe life could be so amazing.

I could write for pages about any aspect of Chautauqua. My god, the music alone is life-changing. I didn’t improvise before I started jamming on tour, and now that’s one of the high points of my year. We had a horn funk jam at the first campsite this year that elevated me in a way I can’t hope to describe. Singing around the campfire, whether it be a roaring chorus with everybody joining in, or the last two people as the final embers disappear, is always a magical experience. The fantastic musicians who come on Chautauqua never fail to inspire me to be the best musician I can possibly be.

Stephen (pointing, with co-bandleader Paschiel in white hat) directs band rehearsal at the very site which later hosted the mind-blowing, soul-shaking, neighbor-annoying funk jam.

But it’s not just the music, or the juggling, or the food, or the dance parties on the bus, or the skinny dipping in the river, or watching the kids in juvie light up as they discover they can juggle. It’s so much more than the sum of its parts. See, the thing about Chautauqua is that it’s really all about community. Our own internal community, and exploring the positive impact we can have on the communities we visit. This is a group of people who bicker constantly and love each other actively, unconditionally, and whole-heartedly. This is a group of people working together towards a common goal, and doing it with endless energy and enthusiasm. Like Glee Club was, but with a marching band.

Anyway, tour’s over, and I’m kinda bummed. It’s always hard to come down from such a high. The non-Chautauqua world always feels a little empty, boring, uncaring, after spending a few weeks with these people. God, I love them so much. I woke up the day after tour ended feeling physically exhausted, yet energized in a way I haven’t experienced for a long time. I felt like I could do anything, and I felt intense compassion for all humanity.

I’ve been walking around wanting to explain this feeling to everybody. No amount of words could express how deeply I care about this group and everyone in it, or how grateful I am to those who work tirelessly to make the tour happen every summer.

Here’s a short clip of The Flying Karamazov Brothers (Stephen, Rod, Amiel and Scuff on guitar) answering the same question on stage. That’s a Chautauqua!

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