Getting into Orson Welles’ head ...

Jacob Flannick
Special to The Black Mountain News

Before slipping into character, George Frein does a lot of research, poring over books and documentaries of whichever historical figure he portrays on stage each year.

His yearlong preparation proved particularly crucial for the character he will portray at the Buncombe County Chautauqua festival June 15-18 at Warren Wilson College. Sponsored by the Friends of the Buncombe County Library, the 16-year-old festival will stage actors’ portrayals of Orson Wells and others for four consecutive nights at Morris Pavilion on campus.

Shows start at 7 p.m., and the audience may sit under the pavilion or in their own chairs in the lawn. The cost for each living history event is $4. In addition to Welles, depicted this year will be Gordon Parks, Mary Pickford and Walt Disney.

An avant-garde actor, director, producer and writer, Welles helped expand the creative boundaries of the entertainment world. Among his best-known works are the 1938 radio broadcast “War of the Worlds” and the 1941 film “Citizen Kane.”

“I had no idea he was so complex and so brilliant a man,” Frein, a retired college professor, said. Welles’ experimental flair helped establish him as a creative giant in film, radio and theater.

All four figures to be interpreted by actors are historical figures in moviemaking. The Chautauqua series this year is called “America at the Movies.”

He is one of four performers who each will portray during a four-day event a historical figure who helped redefine moviemaking. The event, Chautauqua, starts June 15 and will take place at Warren Wilson College.

The actors, historical interpreters and other scholars, deliver 35-to-45-minute monologues while in character. Afterward, the performers will take questions from the audience, first while in character then as themselves. The performances belend education with entertainment.

The first Chautauqua took place on its namesake lake in western New York in 1874, eventually proliferating across the country. The shows dwindled around the Depression era, at least partly because of competition from the very movie industry that this series at Warren Wilson will highlight, Frein said.

Chautauqua came to Asheville in 2000, first held under a tent at the Smith-McDowell House Museum before it moved to the auditorium at the Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. This is the second consecutive year it has been scheduled at Warren Wilson.

The Asheville event, organized by the Greenville Chautauqua Society and financed by the nonprofit Friends of Buncombe County Libraries, has proved popular, drawing as many as 400 people each show, said Abby Moser, director of preschool outreach for the county library system. She helps organize the show and sometimes moderates it.

“The scholars are exhaustive in their research,” she said. The performances, she added, are “unique experiences.”

Indeed, for Frein, the humanities scholar, offering audiences a glimpse into the lives of significant historical figures has proved rewarding.

The first time he took to the stage was during the mid 1980s in North Dakota, where he said the event was revived several years prior. He has since performed across the country every year. When he moved to Greenville, S.C., in the late 1990s, he was asked to portray a different character each year.

As for the stage performances themselves, they are entertaining.

But while their tone is “more dramatic than a college lecture,” Frein said, they are meant to satisify, as well as to “plant questions in the minds of the listener.”

“We don’t play it for the applause or for the art,” he said. “We play it for the questions.”

That, he added, was a defining characteristic of Welles. Playing his character, Frein noted, has proved far more intricate than the figure he played last year, President Harry Truman.

Referring to Welles’s work, he said, “He wanted people to have to think their way through what they’re saying.”

Anyone wishing to volunteer for the performances may call Abby Moser at 250-4720.

Miming the moviemakers

What: Buncombe County Chautauqua festival

When: 7 p.m. June 15-18

Where: Morris Pavilion, Warren Wilson College

Cost: $4 each night