Playing the Part

Prospect’s Murner turned
his love of history into acting role

The former Oldham Co. Judge-Executive
portrays politician Caleb Powers

(June 2014) – Prospect, Ky., resident Duane Murner answered the Kentucky Humanity Council’s call for Kentucky Chautauqua characters with the perfect person in mind: Caleb Powers.
But who was Caleb Powers, you ask?
In 1900, “Caleb Powers was at the center of violent turmoil in Kentucky politics that combined all the grim elements that should appeal to historians and audiences,” said Murner, 77, a horse farm owner and former Oldham County Judge-Executive.
At that time in history, “Kentucky politics turned a blind eye to violence and corruption in the midst of an agonizing change from totally Democratic and post-Civil-War influences to a shared political existence.”

Duane Murner

Photo courtesy of
Ky. Humanities Council

Duane Murner of Prospect, Ky., says
it takes much preparation to
re-enact a character.

Powers was one of three men charged with assassinating Kentucky Gov. William Goebel. Murner said Goebel was “a particularly central and evil figure in that turbulent period.”
At the time of the shooting, Goebel was president of the Kentucky Senate and had just been defeated in the governor’s race. He contested the results, and the day after the shooting, Goebel was sworn in as governor. He died three days later.
Powers spent eight years in prison for a crime that Murner said he “did not commit, followed by eight years in the U.S. Congress.” In 1918 he began a 13-year stint serving as counsel to the U.S. Shipping Board in Washington, D.C.
Murner points out that “Caleb Powers was a perfect response to Kentucky’s Chautauqua requirement that the character be an important part of Kentucky history.” Since its inception, the Kentucky Chautauqua has reincarnated almost 70 individuals from Kentucky’s past, many famous and a few not so well known.
“While there are versions of Chautauqua all over the country (the upper Midwest Region might be one of the best), Kentucky’s is at a very high level and something not very well known, but something we have a right to be proud of,” Murner said. Performers travel all over the state, providing dramatizations of individuals from Kentucky’s colorful past.
Any organization wanting to book a Kentucky Chautauqua performer must pay the required fee, sign a contract and follow a set of requirements for presenting a program.
Murner said he began his participation in the Chautauqua program by “writing a play about John Cabell Breckinridge almost 20 years ago. I thought it was pretty good, but it turned out I was the only one who thought so.”
George McGee, Georgetown College drama professor who portrays Chautauqua character Henry Clay, suggested to Murner that since his play wasn’t going anywhere that he think about converting it into a Chautauqua performance.
This gave Murner the impetus to answer the call for characters that the Kentucky Chautauqua program sends out every other year. Subsequently, he has portrayed John Cabell Breckinridge, Gov. Simon Bolivar Buckner and Powers.
“The part of the program I enjoy most is the Q&A that follows the performance,” said Murner, 77. Interacting with audience members is important to him. “Of course, the most fun is when the audience knows something about what I am describing, which is often the case.”
He cited examples of this as including a performance in his character’s hometown where everyone knew something about Caleb Powers, and a performance before a group of lawyers who were fascinated by the lengthy appellate process and wanted to talk about it in some detail.
Murner said he “fell in love with this manner of telling history because it can be told through a series of human and personal experiences of the people who lived it. I think most people prefer to learn their history that way.”
It takes an enormous amount of time to do all the research, writing, auditions, memorization, costuming, etc. to qualify as a selected performer, he said. Extreme preparation is key to a good performance, and getting your hands on primary documents only makes a performance stronger and in turn, more believable.
Generally, it takes Murner about a 11/2 years to prepare his character, working rather diligently at it the entire time. Many Kentucky Chautauqua characters stay booked well in advance, retaining a rigorous schedule as they travel all over the state presenting history in a hands-on format.
A Kentucky Chautauqua program “becomes Kentucky history brought to life in a way that people seem to appreciate seeing it and hearing it,” Murner said. “Someone who does not have the time or inclination to read a biography or history text will be fascinated by an authentic performance of some event or person in our history.”
Dr. Virginia Carter, former executive director of the Kentucky Humanities Council, was responsible for setting a very high standard for many years with respect to the selection of Chautauqua players, he said. She began the Kentucky Chautauqua program in 1992.

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