Chautauqua Theater Company alums have been through a lot over the years — surviving the days spent in Bellinger Hall, making the arduous trek to the “Murder Bar” for libations and looking out for wild animals lurking on the grounds. Many have gone on to bigger things, quite literally — the Great White Way, for instance.
In recent years, six CTC alumni — Santino Fontana, Gabriel Ebert, Alex Morf, Bryce Pinkham, Brian Smith and Bill Heck — have gone on to star in Broadway productions of Matilda, Of Mice and Men and more. Fontana also recently voiced the character of Hans in Disney’s “Frozen.”
Many of the alums cited Chautauqua as a springboard in their training.
“It’s one of the most valued summer programs for aspiring actors coming out of grad school, and I think that the evidence is really how many people who went to Chautauqua are now doing work in the professional entertainment business,” said Pinkham, who was nominated this year for a Tony Award for his role in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.
For CTC alumni now working in New York City, some said another valued aspect of the program is the ability to remain in contact with other conservatory members and theater professionals long after they depart from the Institution’s gates.
“I got to work with most of these people in the outside world as well, so it creates great connections,” said Ebert, who recently won a Tony for his role in Matilda. “I got to hang out with incredible professionals.”
Ebert, Pinkham and Morf all made up part of the conservatory in 2007. All three said they enjoy keeping up with each other now as they work in New York City.
“I felt that being at Chautauqua was sort of like getting chosen to be part of an all-star team,” Morf said. “Everybody we were working with was so good and just wanted to say ‘yes’ and was hungry to learn. … It was really nice to be in an atmosphere where we were all working together and building our own skills. I think it helped to demystify things and give me the confidence that I could perform anywhere with really great artists.”
Working in the lakeside community also provided an escape from a more hectic pace of life in cities like New York.
“Its setting — to get out of New York City for the summer and go to this gated town that’s … completely devoted to making quality art and raising the level of human consciousness — it’s an inspiring environment to work in,” Ebert said.
Pinkham agreed working at Chautauqua pushes the conservatory, based on the academic engagement that occurs throughout the grounds.
“There’s this intellectual veracity to Chautauqua. The theatergoers and the people who come to spend their time there during the summer are avid readers, they’re avid cultural digesters,” Pinkham said. “They want to be in the conversation, they want to have a debate, they want to discuss material.”
Pinkham said he felt this cerebral curiosity allowed productions to translate into conversations offstage.
“When you’re doing a play or a performance of any kind at Chautauqua, it feels like more than just a performance, it feels like a catalyst for a discussion,” Pinkham said. “That’s always very satisfying to an actor, to remind them what we do is more than just entertainment.”
According to Pinkham, Chautauqua motivates actors, pushing them to engage and team with students from programs all around the country.
“It puts you together with an ensemble of actors you’ve never met before,” Pinkham said. “That’s a great lesson in collaboration, and networking, and doing your best work in a short amount of time and all the while giving service to an important play.”
Though alumni have gone on to build impressive resumes, some have also briefly returned to Chautauqua. Morf, whose life has changed since he left the Institution, said Chautauqua appeared largely untouched upon his return for a business trip.
“It was very eerie because it seemed exactly the same,” Morf said. “Walking through the Athenaeum — and certainly over at Bellinger, everything looks exactly as I remembered it looking, which is really an amazing thing to feel. [It’s] like nothing’s changed.”