Woodstock Creative Living Series: Expanding Horizons for Six Decades

Started as a way of reviving the Woodstock Opera House, this long-running lecture series is still feeding people’s curiosity and inciting their imaginations. Sneak a peek at what’s to come in this year’s 60th anniversary season.

When the Woodstock Fine Arts Association began in 1961, its goal was to bring live performances back to the Woodstock Opera House. At the time, the 1879 building was in dire need of modernization.

“Part of the impetus for starting the association was to help in the restoration of the Opera House,” says Mary-Ellen Prindiville, current president of the Woodstock Fine Arts Association (WFAA).
And they did just that, providing organizational support for the restoration campaign.

In 1964, WFAA debuted the Creative Living Speaker Series to promote cultural and educational activities for all ages and to build friendships and community spirit centered on saving the Opera House.

Six decades later, the Opera House is in top condition and the WFAA leads one of the longest-running non-university lecture series nationwide.

“What we want to do is bring these speakers who feed people’s curiosity to northern Illinois,” says Prindiville. “It enhances the quality of life in our communities by bringing outside voices who can feed people’s desire to keep learning, meet new people, encounter new experiences and ideas.”

Every year, the series invites speakers from across the country to engage with audiences on a wide range of topics, covering everything from the arts and sciences to entertainment and history.

The series has hosted icons and legends as well as experts in many fields. Notable appearances include American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, television personality Martha Stewart, singer-songwriter Judy Collins, and television and film producer Rebecca Eaton, who introduced American audiences to Downton Abbey.

Amazingly, WFAA has never missed a season, even when it faced roadblocks like Opera House renovations from 1975 to ’76 and the recent COVID pandemic. In November 2019, the series kicked off with actor, singer and activist Miguel Cervantes, who plays the title character in “Hamilton” on Broadway. Cervantes wowed audiences with personal stories and a live musical performance.

“We had to reschedule his talk due to a family tragedy,” says Prindiville. “So, when he did come, there was a palpable sense of ‘How are you?’ As soon as he took the stage, he shared heartfelt, poignant words of his tragic loss, which was movingly acknowledged by the audience. Later in his presentation he invited a high school student from the audience onstage to perform with him, so that was an amazing example of the rapport speakers and audience members share in the intimate Woodstock Opera House auditorium.”

The weekday programs begin with an hour of coffee and conversation starting at 9 a.m. at Stage Left Cafe, an intimate venue next door to the historic theater. For many, this is a social opportunity to meet friends and chat before the show. The talks typically last 45 to 50 minutes and feature a short question-and-answer segment with the lecturer afterward.

Currently in its 59th­ season, the Creative Living Series is set to wrap up with Oscar Tatosian on April 20. Tatosian is director and president of Oscar Isberian Rugs, a third-generation family business in Evanston. His program focuses on the history of handwoven oriental rugs, as he shares knowledge of the art and personal stories from his international travels. He’ll also have an array of rugs from his collection on hand to illustrate. Tickets can be purchased online at woodstockoperahouse.org or by calling (815) 338-5300.

WFAA’s 60th anniversary season kicks off Sept. 21 with polar explorer and environmental ambassador Will Steger, followed by former NASA engineer and author Homer Hickam on Oct. 19. The series promises a fresh lineup of two other intriguing conversations, including a world-renowned ceramicist and creativity guru yet to be announced. Tickets go on sale July 18.

This year’s season is condensed between September and December due to an additional round of Opera House renovations slated for the winter, Prindiville says.

The work of WFAA remains entirely sustained by volunteers, just as it’s been from the start. To Prindiville, the lecture series is a tool for people to access world-class speakers close to home.

“It’s a resource for people,” Prindiville says. “They don’t have to travel far to have access to this wider world of culture, knowledge and talent.”