Manifold performers take to the stage with the support of Chautauqua donors

Mark Anderson | Chautauqua Institution
Chautauqua Theater Company associate director Katie McGerr, CTC artistic director Vivienne Benesch and Music School Festival Orchestra music director Timothy Muffitt meet during rehearsal for The Romeo & Juliet Project Monday afternoon in the Amphitheater.

The Romeo & Juliet Project is a clarion call to the rest of the regional area and the United States and Canada,” Chautauqua Institution President Thomas M. Becker said. “I think it’s a way of saying, ‘Come and look deeply at a community that is capable of this extraordinarily huge and unreplicated undertaking. Look at the investment we’re making, and look at what an incredibly high level each of these areas is performing.’ ”

It is community support that serves as the foundation of Saturday night’s endeavor of remarkable magnitude. The burden of the writers, directors, composers, performers and others involved in the creative process is to honor Romeo and Juliet’s place in the artistic canon and to infuse the work with a new and vibrant life. And from the project’s inception, it has been the task of the Institution’s supporters to furnish the means to make this creative process possible.

Thankfully, the project has the backing of a generous, committed and cultured cadre of donors, each with a deep appreciation for and an avid engagement in the arts.

Take husband and wife Bill and Carolyn Byham, for whom the performing arts have played a lead role in their relationship since the very beginning.

Back in the mid-1960s, Bill and Carolyn had been dating for some time and were living in New York City. Bill, then a JCPenney employee, was racking his brain for a unique way to propose to Carolyn.

“I was trying to think of someplace that was unusual because all of the good places — on top of the Empire State Building or in a handsome cab or something — had been taken,” Bill said. “So I proposed to Carolyn on the opening night of the new Metropolitan Opera House.”

That was in 1966, and the couple’s commitment to the performing arts hasn’t faltered since. Just last summer, Bill and Carolyn returned to the Met for a performance of The Ring of the Nibelungen by Richard Wagner. They are also behind the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh’s cultural district, along with a dormitory for high school performing arts students called the Byham House, also in Pittsburgh.

When Bill and Carolyn, who’ve had a home on the grounds for the past nine years, learned that the Institution intended to host an inter-arts collaborative production of Romeo and Juliet, they saw it as an invigorating experimental pursuit.

Carolyn, former president of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and a trustee of the Institution, thinks Chautauqua’s community is one of the few that could pull off The Romeo & Juliet Project.

“It’s an incredibly unique collaboration,” Carolyn said. “I don’t think there’s really any place else in the world that could do such a project in such a way.”

Wendy Cohen, who along with her husband, Edward, is another supporter of The Romeo & Juliet Project, agrees that the project is special. She believes the production is a good way to give a voice to the Institution’s inimitability.

“I think it’s important to show the uniqueness of Chautauqua, to demonstrate the capabilities and the incredible talent both in our professional and student bodies,” Cohen said. “I’m sure I’ll be blown away by the project, and I really think the audience will be as well. So hopefully this will be something people will talk about for a long time.”

Cohen, who has been coming to Chautauqua since 1998 and who has served in the past as president of the Friends of Chautauqua Theater, draws on past experiences to support this assumption; she really does know the level of artistic production the Institution is capable of.

In fact, Cohen was around for the 1999 multimedia production of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, which featured the talents of the School of Music, the Chautauqua Symphony and the Chautauqua Ballet Company.

“I was blown away by the capabilities and the talent of Carmina Burana, the fact that Chautauqua was able to do it,” Cohen said. “It was just an amazing celebration of all the arts. So when I heard the Institution was planning an inter-arts production of Romeo and Juliet and adding all of these other departments and performing arts organizations, I wanted to do my part to make sure it could happen.

“I’m privileged to be able to participate in something like this,” she added.

Cindy Letro, past chair of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, said one of the greatest privileges of helping to fund the project is the opportunity to learn new things about the creative process, through observing the way various performing arts organizations interact.

“What I think is exciting is to get different disciplines involved, disciplines that individually are all remarkable but that come together to create something even greater,” Letro said. “In this case, you’ve got almost every single arts organization involved, so it was a no-brainer for me to support the project. It’s very exciting, and the end result could be something that could be transported beyond Chautauqua to other arts organizations around the country.”

One of the fundamental goals of any arts organization, she said, is seeking funding and exploring ways to stay relevant in today’s society.

“This project gives all the arts organizations a way to freshen themselves and to do things that are both traditional and nontraditional,” Letro said. “I think it’s a truly remarkable thing, and I think it’s something the Institution should be very proud of. And all the folks involved in this project’s philanthropy are constantly amazed by the creativity of the people that are here working on these projects.”

The Romeo & Juliet Project is made possible through the generosity of Cathy Bonner, Carolyn and Bill Byham, Wendy and Edward Cohen, Cindy and Francis Letro, The Jerome M. Kobacker Fund and Peter and Holly Sullivan.

“The families who are funding this innovative undertaking will open new doors for us to seek support,” said Geof Follansbee, CEO of the Chautauqua Foundation. “If we demonstrate to those who truly care about the growth of the arts in our society Chautauqua’s singular capabilities, I am confident that we can attract new investment to further the extensive commitment Chautauqua is making to the process of creating art, the training of artists and the presentation of outstanding performance. We are excitedly grateful to the generous Chautauquans who have provided the seed corn to create this opportunity.”