When Doug Mishler strolled on stage as Teddy Roosevelt last fall at Durango Arts Center, he mesmerized a packed crowd with presidential tales of the West.
On Sept. 12, Mishler will return to Durango in another Chautauqua-style, living-history presentation. This time, he will appear as inventor and mad genius, Nikola Tesla.
“I just finished my portrayal of Picasso,” Mishler said. “I’ve become fascinated by genius and what it does to the humans who are geniuses and what they contribute and what genius does to them.”
For more than 20 years, Mishler has brought historical figures to life in about 1,000 presentations. In addition to his portrayals of Picasso, Tesla and Theodore Roosevelt, he’s enacted Henry Ford, Ernie Pyle, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Hart Benton and P.T. Barnum.
Mishler is a history professor with a flair for acting. He is affiliated with the University of Nevada-Reno and a long-term scholar-enactor with the Colorado Humanities Living History Program. It’s through this connection that Mishler came to Durango as part of the Fort Lewis College Life Long Learning series. In the past few years, FLC’s free town-gown program has affiliated with DAC to bring Chautauqua programs to a wider audience.
“This fall In Durango, I’m going to focus on the whole of Tesla’s life, on his days trying to generate electricity through the earth,” Mishler said. “I’ll be doing a section on his year in Colorado – causing fires, earthquakes and the ground to shoot sparks as people walked.
“Tesla will be in his 70s,” Mishler said. “It is late in his life, and many think he is crazy or irrelevant. But, as is actual fact, each year, reporters came to see Tesla on his birthday, and he would offer his new work.”
Mishler has been fascinated by Tesla for years and sprinkles references to him as “the wild man.”
“Tesla’s personal oddities make him so strange,” Mishler said. “He was made ill by the sight of pearls on a woman’s neck, for example. And yet there is this a0lmost mad scientist in his lab with his huge electrical coils creating 100-foot-long lightning bolts – so close to the fictional Dr. Frankenstein.”
Mishler’s Tesla has been paired with actor-storyteller Susan Marie Frontczak, who will portray Eleanor Roosevelt. Frontczak is a Boulder-based storyteller who has brought to life many historical figures, including Marie Curie, Mary Shelley, Clara Barton and Erma Bombeck, among others. On Sept. 11, she will recreate one of her three programs about Roosevelt: “What We Are Fighting For.”
Originally an engineering graduate from the University of Colorado Boulder, Frontczak worked for 14 years at Hewlett-Packard designing integrated circuits. Along the way, she “dabbled in the arts.”
“A community theater performance here, a paid storytelling gig there,” Carmen Drahl wrote in an article for Chemical and Engineering News. “Then one day, she decided she was ready for something different.”
Frontczak took a yearlong leave of absence from HP “to try storytelling full time.” And Drahl added that Frontczak’s co-workers said she was “brave.”
“It was one of two things,” Frontczak said: Half her co-workers thought she’d never make enough money to live on. The other half figured she’d tire of it.
“They were convinced that by the end of the year I’d be running back to HP begging for a job,” she said.
Two decades later, Frontczak has performed in theaters, schools and corporations in 43 states as well as eight European countries.
Both Chautauqua programs at DAC are free and open to the public.
After each Chautauqua performance, the actor-scholar will take questions from the audience, first in character and then as a performer.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.