Aspen Times Weekly: Historical Character |

Aspen Times Weekly: Historical Character

by Andrew Travers
Alexander Hunter as Fred Iselin.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go:


Presented by Aspen Historical Society

Wheeler/Stallard Museum Grounds

July 11:

9 – 10 a.m. Coffee Talk with Chris Lane, CEO, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies

Noon – 1:30 p.m. Lunchtime Conversation with Nico Karagosian, development director, Hawn Foundation

4 - 6 p.m. Character Performances with Eve Homeyer, Lady of the Night, and Natalie Gignoux

July 12

9-10 a.m. Coffee Talk with Aspen Mayors Bill Stirling, Mick Ireland, John Bennett and Steve Skadron

Noon – 1:30 p.m. Lunchtime Conversation with Bob Braudis, Jay Cowan and Michael Cleverly

2 – 4 p.m. Young Chautauqua Performance

4 – 6 p.m. Character Performances with Hunter S. Thompson, Bil Dunaway, and Fred Iselin

Over the next few days at the Aspen Historical Society, you can ask Eve Homeyer about breaking into the boys’ club of Aspen politics, talk to Hunter Thompson about gonzo journalism and his campaign for Pitkin County sheriff, or chat up a mining era prostitute about her clientele.

The Historical Society is bringing them all to life, through local actors, during its two-day Chautauqua presentation at the Wheeler/Stallard Museum grounds.

Last year, the nonprofit launched a five-day Chautauqua celebrating its 50th anniversary. The tradition continues this year, with two days of events, including the character presentations, in what Historical Society director Kelly Murphy says she hopes will become an annual tradition.

The programming is driven by the theme “Freethinkers: Shaping Our Community.”

The Historical Society has infused interactive theatrical performance into its program over the last five years, since local actors Mike Monroney and Nina Gabianelli joined its staff.

“For me it was about finding someone who I had an affinity for, and for their spirit,” explains Gabianelli, a veteran actor and vice president of programming and education at the Historical Society. “I’m not impersonating someone. I don’t need to look like that person. But I do want to have a passion for them and an understanding of how they think.”

To prepare for the roles of local historical figures, actors utilize the resources of the Historical Society, and conduct research with the help of city grants. Gabianelli recalls digging into the life of Sarah Gillespie, one of the first women settlers in Aspen, who arrived in the winter of 1880-81. Gabianelli and Historical Society staffers couldn’t even find Gillespie’s full name at first, because she was known — in historical documents — simply as Mrs. B. Gillespie. A search of turned up family records, and from there, they filled in the details, finding nuggets like the fact that one of Gillespie’s sisters married into the Willits family, and was instrumental to ranching life in the midvalley in the late 19th-century.

Gabianelli says she’ll also often review local newspapers from the era in which her characters lived, to get a sense of events and trends of their time (there were six newspapers in 1881).

For more recent figures, like “Strudel Queen” Gretl Uhl, actors can talk to family members, watch video and listen to oral histories archived at the Historical Society. And for recent public figures, like Hunter S. Thompson — who will be played by local poet/actor Kim Nuzzo at Chautauqua — an actor can review their first-person writing, along with biographies and documentaries.

Characters like Stuart Mace and Walter Paepcke have popped up at events like Time Travel Tuesdays and school programs with local third- and fourth-graders (characters like Hunter Thompson and the hooker don’t come along to the elementary schools, Gabianelli noted).

“People learn in different ways, and for some people picking up a history book is not appealing to them,” says Murphy. “Through a portrayal, you can really bring it to life for people.”

She compares the character events to the familiar cocktail party question: If you could have dinner with any historical figure, who would it be?

“We’re kind of doing that through these portrayals,” says Murphy.

On Friday at Chautauqua, local theater teacher and Aspen 82 host Lynn Aliya plays Homeyer, Aspen’s first female mayor. Kimberly Reyfuss plays a “Lady of the Night,” a composite of the working girls who populated Aspen’s brothels during the silver boom. And Gabianelli plays Natalie Gignoux, the legendary local taxi driver and Bohemian.

On Saturday, Nuzzo plays Thompson, while Theatre Aspen founder Kent Reed plays Tenth Mountain Division solder turned Aspen Times editor Bil Dunaway, and Alexander Hunter plays ski industry pioneer Fred Iselin.

The Historical Society is also using the actors’ process as an educational tool. This summer, a group of 10 kids, aged 8 to 14, are taking part in a Young Chautauqua camp, where they research and then portray characters in 10-minute presentations that outline who their characters were, why they made certain choices, and how they influenced Aspen. The kids perform Saturday afternoon at Chautauqua.

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