The multi-talented Leslie Goddard combines her skills as public speaker, actor, author and historian into presentations and portrayals about specific events and people, sharing them in private and public venues such as libraries, museums and women’s clubs. Currently the Levy Senior Center Foundation is featuring Ms. Goddard for five weeks in a series of virtual lectures.
Ms. Goddard is a known speaker to the Levy Lecture crowd. She has regaled the Levy Lecture audiences with such presentations as “Remembering Marshall Field’s” (Nov. 2017), “Chicago’s Sweet Candy History” (Oct. 2018) and “Ten People from Illinois Who Changed History” (June 2019). Typically, she is booked at least 18 months in advance.
But these are not normal times. The people in Evanston, predominantly seniors ages 55 plus, rely on the Levy Senior Center for community, companionship, lunchtime nutrition, exercise, assistance, entertainment and intellectual stimulation. Many who would visit the Center every day are scrambling to find alternatives that fulfill their needs.
Virtual Levy Lectures on Zoom is one solution. The Levy Senior Center Foundation is promoting these virtual lectures through email, Facebook, word of mouth, newsletters, and websites. The City of Evanston’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services helps promote the webinars, too.
Ms. Goddard has presented Rachel Carson (April 28) and Queen Elizabeth II (May 5), and Georgia O’Keeffe (May 13). Jackie Kennedy (May 20) and Eleanor Roosevelt (May 26) round out the rest of the schedule.
An array of green screens allows Ms. Goddard to switch her background to suit the person, period, and location of each topic. The portrayal of Rachel Carson took place in her summer cottage off the coast of Boothbay Harbor, Me., whereas Queen Elizabeth II spoke to her audience on May 5 from the ornate luxury of Buckingham Palace.
Each script is based on at least a year of research and rehearsal; the clothes she wears and accessories she incorporates into each portrayal are historically accurate. To further extend the mystique of these women, Ms. Goddard adapts the nuances of each subject’s vocabulary, pronunciation and speech pattern.
The anecdotes she incorporates are taken from documented events, but hearing about the events from the subject’s perspective, in the first person voice, make the stories more memorable. Queen Elizabeth II is the only living character Ms. Goddard portrays, although the audience will meet the queen in 1992.
Ms. Goddard’s sunny disposition comes through each portrayal and lecture. She happily discussed with the RoundTable her interesting career path. She grew up in Hinsdale and attended Stanford University in Palo Alto, Cal., graduating with a B.A. in Theater and English. She missed the Midwest and decided to attend graduate school at the University of Illinois, pursuing an M.S. in Theater. She graduated in 1994 and continued her studies in history at Northwestern University, graduating with a Ph.D. in 2001.
While at Northwestern she began volunteering at the Evanston History Center. She occasionally portrayed historical characters as part of an exhibit or spoke to small groups about specific events or people.
Ms. Goddard is keenly interested in women’s history, American history, and Chicago history. The first two full-fledged characters she created in 2004 were Frances Willard (educator, suffragette and leader of the temperance movement) and Bertha Palmer (philanthropist, art collector and “queen” of Chicago society during the 1890s).
Gradually Ms. Goddard added other portrayals and presentations to her roster, having completed 19 scripts, of which she performs between five and eight each year.
What started as an occasional event gradually blossomed into frequent commitments that Leslie squeezed in after work and on the weekends. She has developed exhibits at the Elmhurst History Museum and served as the Executive Director of Graue Mill and Museum in Oakbrook, all while continuing to present her portrayals and lectures.
From 2008 to 2012, she managed exhibits at the Morton Arboretum and wrote two books to complement her lectures.
By 2013, Ms. Goddard was lecturing and presenting portrayals full-time – with a “comfortable” schedule of 200-250 events a year.
She found the 420 engagement in 2018 exhausting, since each presentation is at least 45 minutes long followed by a Q&A period, lingering questions even after that and then a trip home.
The best part of her work, Ms. Goddard confided, is having the opportunity to teach and share her knowledge of and interest in women who have a unique role in history. Her profession enables her to combine her strengths in historical research, playwriting and acting. She enjoys popular culture, nostalgic characters and situations, and storytelling. And she loves hearing the stories people share with her after hearing her presentations, especially the ones that focus on Chicago. Many of the stories people shared after the Marshall Field’s presentation were deeply personal, poignant, cherished memories about the role the storied department store held in their lives. Leslie’s interest in those memories as a part of history is genuine, and people sense that.
All Levy Lectures are free, but registration is required, at he Levy Senior Center Foundation website, lscfevanston.org.