Becker talks Chautauqua’s 2015 weekly themes at Trustees Porch Discussion


Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker leads the last Trustees Porch Discussion of the season Wednesday, giving information about next season’s programming.

It may be the end of another season for Chautauqua, but for the Institution’s senior administrative staff, it’s just the beginning of nine months spent brainstorming, planning and programming for summer 2015.

Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker led the final Trustees Porch Discussion on Wednesday morning in an effort to shed light on the programming process. In a conversation with 50 or 60 community members, titled “Looking Ahead to the 2015 Season,” Becker discussed the weekly themes for the next year and answered questions from the audience.

Becker began with a general overview of what the staff looks for when they sit down to program Chautauqua’s calendar. He said that they usually strive for a “mixed bag” of topics, with various themes and speakers to ensure that there’s something to pique everyone’s interests.

“We try to find a balance between topics that are cutting-edge and contemporary and topics that are transcendent,” Becker said. “We want to invite you into an engagement with depth, complexity and nuance.”

Becker said that Chautauqua’s unique schedule allows for a more profound engagement with topics than most other lecture platform series. He used TED Talks as an example: while their 18-minute time restraint is convenient, it often places a limitation on the intellectual depth that can be explored by the listener. At Chautauqua, where a theme is chewed over for five separate days and through various lenses and disciplines, the audience can achieve a greater understanding of ideas, Becker said.

Comprehension is also advanced in that the themes sometimes extend beyond the five-day week limit. Becker said that the Institution has incorporated several multi-year themes, such as a focus on health care or even the Inter-arts Collaboration Initiative. These are motifs that run vertically throughout the nine weeks and throughout the years, touching various aspects on the Institution’s calendar.

“They can either drive the theme, or sit underneath it in a commentary sort of way,” Becker said.

2015 Weekly Themes

Becker then moved to discuss the program themes for next summer. The entire season’s calendar will shift one week next year, with Week One beginning on June 29 with the topic of “21st-Century Literacies.” Becker said that the week will focus not only on promoting literacy in the traditional sense, but also in unconventional areas, such as visual literacy or financial literacy.

Week Two’s title is “Boys Will Be Boys, Then Men” and focuses on raising a healthy generation of young men in a turbulent world. Becker said that this theme was spearheaded by the Rev. Robert Franklin, director of the Department of Religion.

“We’re taking advantage of an asset that was already built into Chautauqua,” Becker said.

Week Three’s theme is simply “Immigration.” It seeks to take a broad approach to the topic, analyzing not only American immigration but population movement on a grander and more global scale. Becker said that while he realizes this topic may be a bit of a powder keg, Chautauqua plans to tackle it with civility and rationality.

“I realize that there’s a very unhealthy political process going on about [immigration], and it’s easy for people to get caught up in the flavor the day as far as opinions go,” Becker said. “But we’re not going after the political process. So if you’re looking for two people yelling at each other about who’s right and who’s wrong, don’t come here. You won’t see that unless you do it on your own porch.”

Week Four revolves around “Irrationality,” featuring the return of Duke University professor Dan Ariely, accompanied by several of his colleagues. They will speak on behavioral economics, critically examining why humans act the way they do — often unethically, impractically, immorally and illogically, Becker said.

“You may not have heard of the speakers, because they’re a lot of academics,” he said. “But I guarantee that anyone who comes will have an amazing week.”

“Art&Politics” is the subject for Week Five, and will revolve around the idea of what it means to have a work of art transformed into political expression. The first performance of the 2015 inter-arts collaboration, Carmina Burana, will premiere this week.

Week Six’s theme is one that Becker described as “wildly inventive,” and is a meditation upon “Vanishing.” It will ask its audience to reflect on what has vanished in society — everything from cultures and languages to ice caps and species — and to find the meaning in their absence, whether it be positive or negative.

Week Seven’s topic is “Redefining Europe,” and is brought to Chautauqua through a partnership with Colonial Williamsburg. Becker said it will explore the current dynamic between Eastern and Western Europe and what it means to be a citizen of Europe — if there is such a thing. Week Seven will also feature the second performance of Carmina Burana.

Week Eight’s theme is “The Middle East: Now and Next.” Becker said that 2015’s Week Eight will have a similar structure to this year’s Week One, in which Roger Rosenblatt hosted a series of dialogues with various writers. In a similar vein, 2015’s Week Eight will feature returning scholars on the Middle East in conversation with young, up-and-coming players who they believe will have significant impacts on the future of the region.

“This will be a duet of various people for five days,” Becker said.

Finally, Week Nine will close out the season, and the multi-year health care theme, with “Creating Healthy Communities.” Becker said Week Nine will explore creative connections within societies, intentional community design, and the added value of community support.

“We want to determine: what’s the infrastructure of a happy, healthy community?” Becker said.

Community Feedback

Once the 2015 weekly themes were announced, Becker gave the microphone to the audience to ask questions. Several people wanted to know if it was too late in the programming process to make suggestions on the 2015 themes, such as recommending scholars and artists that might complement the chosen topics.

Becker said that it was certainly not too late for suggestions, and that the administration is always eager to receive feedback and advice from the general public.

“Programming is a very interactive process, and we’re grateful for that,” Becker said.

One freshly initiated Chautauquan, Bill Hendrickson, was finishing his first visit at Chautauqua and wanted to stay up to date with Institution scheduling.

“What is the best way for a newbie to keep up with what you’re doing in terms of programming?” he asked.

Becker said there are multiple ways to stay engaged with Chautauqua’s planning while off the grounds. The Institution sends out email blasts containing significant news about Chautauqua, and also releases its off-season publication, The Chautauquan, in the winter and spring. The best way to stay in touch, however, is by visiting the Institution’s website, Becker said, which is always kept updated.