For years, the Ashland Chautauqua planning committee had a running joke that it could use water as a theme for its educational series.
The idea wasn't a terrible stretch – the members already knew a number of characters that would fit in the genre "Oceans, Rivers and Seas," according to Deleasa Randall-Griffiths, chairwoman of the planning committee.
This year, they began to take the theme a little more seriously, and began the nationwide search for Chautauqua actors to portray five historic figures whose stories are interwoven with the presence of water.
On Tuesday evening, it's anchors away for the award-winning educational and entertaining event, returning for its 19th year.
Once more, this free, five-day event's evening performances will take place at Brookside Park’s Myers Band Shell. Each performance starts at 8 p.m., with an opening act at 7 p.m.
All of the scholars are top-notch performers who assume the costume and the character of the person they portray, giving vivid, first-person accounts of the historic figure's life and perspectives on important issues.
These scholars spend months, and sometimes years, studying for these roles.
Plus, on the night of the performance, they have to be able to accurately answer questions posed to that character by the audience members.
All five of this year’s performers have made appearances on the Band Shell stage in past years.
Ashland Chautauqua's evening performances get underway with an Evening with Herman Mellville on Tuesday.
George Frein, a Chautauqua scholar, will portray the sailor and philosopher, best known as the author of "Moby Dick."
Mike Gorrell, the founding member of the bluegrass band "Northwest Territory," will open for Frein.
Irish legends abound with tales of Grace O'Malley, a pirate queen and political activist who sailed the high seas in the 16th century.
Karen Vuranch will play O'Malley on Wednesday night, after a performance from the Steve Brown Jazz Trio.
On Thursday, John Anderson will play conservationist and Cape Cod writer, Henry Beston, best known for writing "The Outermost House."
Spoken Images, a Readers Theatre performance ensemble that gives audiences the same experience that readers have when they get caught up in a good book, will open for him. This is the only opening act that isn't musical in nature.
The Titanic disaster has long held a sense of mystique for many, and on Friday, Debra Conner will portray Edith Russell, a fashion reporter and survivor of the famous nautical disaster.
Singer and songwriter Steven Stanley is her opening act.
And on Saturday, Hasan Davis will play York, a slave and explorer on the Lewis and Clark expedition, preceded by a performance from singer and songwriter Kristine Jackson.
The number of audience members varies from night to night, with as many as 500 sometimes filling the benches of the Band Shell, Randall-Griffiths said.
Back this year is the 5-Nighter drawing for a special prize on Saturday evening. To be eligible for the drawing, you must pick up the 5-Nighter Passport at Tuesday evening's performance and come back to each nightly show to get it initialed.
"We had 50 people who came all five nights last year," Randall-Griffiths said. "And we've gotten so many donations for door prizes. We're going to give more than one big door prize for the 5-Nighters. We have a pretty loyal following, but we always want to get new people too."
In addition, daytime "behind the scenes" workshops for youth and for adults are held throughout the week in various community locations. These are also free and open to the public.
These workshops, led by the visiting Chautauqua scholars, allow participants to dig more deeply into the psyches of the historical characters.
For example, on Tuesday at 11 a.m. at Mill Run Place, Vuranch will lead an adult workshop called, "The Use of the Arthurian Legend as a Political Tool."
Similarly, at 2 p.m., Conner will host a youth workshop on "Titanic Surprises" at the Ashland Public Library.
A complete schedule of events, including workshop times and locations, is available on Ashland Chautauqua's newly redesigned website at ashlandchautauqua.org or by calling 419-281-4584.
In case of inclement weather, evening events might be moved indoors. You can check the rain site hotline at 419-281-3018 or check the Ashland Chautauqua Facebook page by 4 p.m. on the day of the show.
The funding for Ashland Chautauqua comes from a grant from the Ohio Arts Council and local grants and donations from individuals and businesses.
"This whole community just really steps up to help us," Randall-Griffiths said. "That is what keeps us going. Because none of us are paid. We're all doing this voluntarily. But when you've got people saying, 'I can do this for you,' it really helps you keep going."