A sunny circus floats into town

The Fighting Instruments of Karma Marching Chamber Band/Orchestra performs during one of its summer Chautauqua extravaganzas.

It starts as a low hum in the distance.

The sound gets closer and clearer.

Then, just when you suspected it was your imagination, the “Everybody’s Welcome Parade” comes marching through town to the sound of the 15-piece Fighting Instruments of Karma Marching Chamber Band/Orchestra.

Welcome to the arrival of Aqua Chautauqua 2008, when a troupe of more than 50 traveling performers will bring comedy, music and circus to the Island County Fairgrounds from 1 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday, July 31.

Step right up and experience the fun of “The New Old Time Chautauqua,” a traveling community of performers, friends and families who see live performance as a way to strengthen the community of the wider world by sharing laughter, friendship and the arts.

It’s an idea that forms part of the bulwark of American life.

Indeed, the original Chautauqua actually dates back to a cultural and social movement in pre-industrial America that flourished with touring bands of lecturers, dance, music and drama into the 1920s. These traveling shows took cultural enrichment to the rural areas of the country and are considered to be the first form of adult education. Pres. Teddy Roosevelt called them “the most American thing in America.”

Sixty years later, the idea blossomed again.

In 1981, The New Old Time Chautauqua was founded by a group of adventurous performers, health-care practitioners and educators who rejuvenated the idea of bringing educational and entertaining performances to diverse communities, with a particular focus on rural areas.

For more than 25 years, the all-volunteer Port Townsend-based troupe of jugglers, acrobats, comedians and musicians has staged a two to five-week summer tour in a variety of areas that might not have access to such shows, including California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and British Columbia.

They even traveled to New Orleans, La. in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where they brought free entertainment and a boost of joy to the survivors and relief workers.

This year, the troupe decided to chart a new course for the tour and travel by sea.

The group of 80 performers, crew and family members will make their way around the Puget Sound aboard several sailing vessels supplied by members of the greater Puget Sound boating community for performances in Port Townsend, Waldron Island, Lummi Island and Bellingham.

Next Wednesday, look for boats with the names Seawulff, the Eileen O’Farrell or the Svale, or perhaps any boats with juggling deckhands aboard, and you may see the Chautauquas sailing in to port.

The troupe will march into Langley and to the fairgrounds at 1 p.m. for a series of circus, crafts and nautical workshops until 4 p.m.

Here aspiring circus artists or just plain fun-seekers can learn to juggle, hula-hoop, attempt acrobatics, play samba rhythms or learn a little bit about the fine old art of clowning.

Workshop visitors are encouraged to bring musical instruments and tunes for a “Song Swap.”

Crafty types can make a mask, or some trashy fashions from recycled materials, or even a quilt for local at-risk infants.

Nautical workshops include knot-tying, sea chanteys, storytelling, a Salish Sea historical lecture and how to use GPS.

A community potluck welcomes everyone to have a meal from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at the fairgrounds. Meet Chautauqua performers and educators, enjoy live music and bring a dish to share. (No food will be sold.)

Finally, the day ends with a Vaudeville Extravaganza at 7 p.m. at the Langley Middle School Auditorium hosted by The Flying Karamazov Brothers, that band of zany performers who happen to be world-renowned masters of juggling and “cheap theatrics.”

Performances include The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Jim Page, Hacki, Faith Petric, KAZUM!, Tune Stranglers, Kaiyama, Smerdyakov Karamazov, Women of the Future, Snowcub, Foolio, Super Noodlini Family, Kym Trippsmith and The Fighting Instruments of Karma Marching Chamber Band/Orchestra.

There will also be a Haute Trash Fashion Show for those recycled designer duds made earlier in the day.

Aqua Chautauqua 2008 is sponsored by Island Coffeehouse & Books, South Whidbey Commons and South Whidbey Tilth.

Tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for seniors, youths under 13 and disabled patrons.

Advance tickets are available at Island Coffeehouse & Books, Tilth Farmers Market and online at www.brownpapertickets.com. Some tickets may be available at the door first-come, first-served.

For more info, visit www.chautauqua.org or www.ichandb.org.

Patricia Duff can be reached at 221-5300 or pduff@southwhidbeyrecord.com.