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Becoming Robert Frost

Instead of lecturing about a historical figure, Communication Studies Associate Professor and Interim Chair John Anderson embodies the figure by reenacting pivotal moments in American history. These reenactments are reminiscent of the 19th-century Chautauqua traveling educational performances.

Chautauquans impersonate great speakers of the past through “living history” performances, Anderson said. Not only do they lecture “in character,” but remain so while answering questions from the audience. Anderson said in an issue of the College’s Expression magazine, “This playful, participatory element provides a serious forum for public discourse about humanities issues such as ethics, historical and literary interpretation, and social policy.”

Anderson became a neo-chautauqua performer in 1994, after his graduate professor encouraged him to apply for the Oklahoma Chautauqua. The first characters he portrayed were novelists Henry James and William Faulkner (whom he presented at Emerson for Communication Week in 2011).

“It’s really daunting,” Anderson said about preparing for a performance. “It’s something you are always learning more about. When you’re answering questions in character, you try to have a mental footnote of the individual from primary literature, but you also rely on secondary sources,” he noted.

As a communication and performance studies scholar, Anderson is particularly interested in the way language is used by a particular character. It is important to speak like the character, said Anderson.

Anderson’s most recent performance took place at Hofstra University prior to the second presidential debate. He portrayed poet Robert Frost, whom John F. Kennedy invited to read at his 1961 inauguration. Anderson explained that there has long been a connection between politics and poetry, which Frost embodied. He was the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration, and there have been several since. Anderson, as Robert Frost, introduced JFK (played by Mike Lowe) for a presentation on civil rights. “The idea with each performance is to provide historical context for issues that are still relevant in the election today, such as voter rights, economy, race, and labor issues,” Anderson said.  

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