Date of Graduation

Fall 2012


Master of Arts in Theatre


Theatre and Dance

Committee Chair

Christopher Herr


Chautauqua, circuit Chautauqua, tent show, lectures, Midwest, Little Theatre Movement, American theatre

Subject Categories

Theatre and Performance Studies


The term ‘Chautauqua' is prevalent across much of rural America, but many Americans are oblivious as to its origin. It originated in upstate New York, and circuit Chautauquas were very popular in rural areas; the movement was at its peak between 1907 and 1922. Typically, it was a multi-day civic celebration that introduced reasoned debate, current events, light entertainment, and legitimate theatre to smaller, rural communities that had previously had little exposure to any of these presentations. During this time, there were few communities in rural areas that did not have some sort of Chautauqua presence.The movement had vanished by 1933, and is commonly overlooked in theatre history texts. This thesis reviews the content and nature of the circuit Chautauqua movement. It explores how the movement emerged from the lyceums, county fairs, and travelling theater of the late 19th century. It examines how this movement evolved along with rural America during a time of great change, combined with improvements in education and infrastructure to improve the quality of rural life, and planted the seeds for the Little Theatre Movement. It explores how the movement was ultimately undone by an unprecedented convergence of developments in radio and film technology, sociological shifts, and economic events. The circuit Chautauqua played an integral role in the acceptance of the arts in rural America, and its importance in the development of an American theatre culture has been overshadowed by its brief existence, its often trivial content, and its rapid downfall due to once-in-a-generation societal development.


© Christopher Staggs

Campus Only