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Living Local History on Stage!

California settler John Sutter and Donner Party member Margaret Breen stop by for an informal conversation with Tahoe residents, Sept. 23
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Tahoe local since 1974, David Fenimore, Director of Undergraduate Studies in English and Core Humanities Instructor at University of Nevada, Reno, treats his community with a top-notch Chautauqua performance at the first annual Emigrant Experience. Fenimore will bring to life California settler John Sutter.

Moonshine Ink: David, the Friends of the Truckee Library is thrilled to have you perform at its first annual Emigrant Experience fundraiser, to be held Sept. 23. What exactly is Chautauqua?
David Fenimore: It’s an art, a performance. Someone portrays a character through the character’s own words and brings the character alive, plus adds commentary on today’s issues. In other words, what would John Sutter say if he were alive today?

MI: What is the history of Chautauqua?
DF: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, performers traveled around the country, educating audiences about culture, history and politics. Like your venue, 'The Emigrant Experience,' people would travel to camping areas and attend an array of events, featuring well-known speakers, preachers, musicians and politicians.

MI: What characters have you played?
DF: Western author Zane Grey, folk singer Woody Guthrie, Donner Party survivor Lewis Keseberg, and New York newspaper publisher and editor Horace Greeley.

MI: How do you prepare for your roles?
DF: For John Sutter, I read his letters – to creditors, suppliers, other settlers, and army and Mexican officials – and diaries stored at the U.C. Berkeley Bancroft Library. I also reviewed many maps and deeds. Chautauqua performers should be accurate and keep their roles interesting and relevant.

MI: Can you give us a small window into John Sutter’s life?
DF: Sutter had seen Napoleon as a boy and was impressed by his power. He too wanted to have an empire. Originally from Switzerland, Sutter traveled to Missouri. But after finding Missouri 'too settled,' and after a couple diversions to Hawaii and Alaska, Sutter planted his roots in California in 1839, in the Sacramento valley, where he did indeed start a small empire.

MI: How do you perceive Chautauqua?
DF: Chautauqua offers an opportunity to come face to face with history; what did California look like in 1839? And Chautauqua asks: How are we going to know the future if we don’t know the past?

MI: What is the schedule of your Sunday night performance?
DF: First – in costume – I’ll perform a monologue. Next, I’ll answer questions from the audience while I’m still in character. Lastly, my character will be dropped and I’ll answer questions as a scholar. Certainly at some point I will project John Sutter’s outlook on what he might say if he were alive today. My friend and colleague Doris Dwyer will do the same thing with Donner Party survivor Margaret Breen.

To learn more about John Sutter and Margaret Breen, come celebrate The Emigrant Experience at Donner Memorial State Park, Sunday September 23 from 4 to 9 p.m. Tickets cost $45/person and may be purchased at The Bookshelf at Hooligan’s, Truckee Book and Bean, Truckee Library, and Donner State Park. An author panel will precede the Chautauqua as well as a barbecue by Smokey’s Kitchen, wine and beer sold by Rotary, and bluegrass music by Sawmill Road.

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February 14, 2019