The Big Read Blog (Archive)


November 14, 2008
Martinsville, Virginia

Located in bucolic Martinsville, Virginia, Piedmont Arts will host its very first Big Read next March. According to director of programs Barbara Parker, "We try to serve as a catalyst for as many arts and cultural opportunities for as many groups as we possibly can." Parker spoke with the NEA about Piedmont Arts' plans for their Big Read of To Kill a Mockingbird and how she hopes it will benefit the Martinsville community. (Click to see Parker?s Big Read celebrity photos.)

NEA: Can you tell me about Piedmont Arts and about Martinsville?

BARBARA PARKER: [Martinsville is] one of those jewels that people don't know about. Not only do we have the Blue Ridge Mountains, it's probably best known for Martinsville Speedway, which is the host to Nextel cup races. . . .What we found unusual about this small town area is that Piedmont Arts is here. We're museum partners with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and we're also an accredited museum by the America Association of Museums. In addition to that, [Martinsville] has a brand new Virginia Museum of Natural History. So to have two world class museums in an area of 70,000 people is amazing. We are about one hour south of Roanoke, Virginia, and one hour north of Greensboro, North Carolina, so we're poised right in the middle of two metropolitan areas.

NEA: This is not just your first time with The Big Read, but also with any one community-one book project?

PARKER: We had talked with the library about doing [a one book-one community project]. What really got us excited and fired up about doing [The Big Read was that] I had booked Montana Repertory Theater Company to perform To Kill a Mockingbird for March 31, 2009. Everything just kind of snowballed after that. I found out about The Big Read by just plugging things in on the internet, and looking for activities that we could do to surround To Kill a Mockingbird. We had applied for NEA grants before, but primarily for exhibit-related activities. So this just seemed like the perfect, perfect thing. As I started reading about other activities that groups had done and the fact that Charles Shields, who is a Virginia author, wrote an autobiography of Harper Lee, I just went, "Oh my gosh, there are so many things that we could do to promote this, and it could be a really big thing for us." Sometimes the stars just align, and this was one of those times.

Barbara Parker explained that Piedmont Arts' Big Read was an offshoot of plans to bring Montana Rep's production of Mockingbird to Martinsville. " [To Kill a Mockingbird] is my favorite book, my favorite movie, and to see it onstage . . . I just felt like it was something that was timely and that people would respond to. And so we took a chance." Photo credit: Bernadette Moore/Piedmont Arts

NEA: What are you planning for The Big Read?

PARKER: We started planning all these things, and we decided that if we got The Big Read grant it would be fabulous, but if we didn't we would still go forward with some of them. Our kick off event is February 28. We'll be distributing free copies of the book. We'll have speakers, politicians, that sort of thing. Our honorary chair of The Big Read is Virginia State Senator Roscoe Reynolds, and he's a lawyer. He always has a book with him, and he just lights up when you ask him what he's reading. He was the perfect fit.

On March 9, Charles Shields. . . [will] be here doing a talk and book signing in our old courthouse uptown, and our uptown Rives Theater will present the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Our local writers group is sponsoring an essay contest called "Who's Your Atticus?" and people should write in about 500 words or less about a person they know, [who embodies] that honor and sense of justice that Atticus Finch had. We're actually giving cash prizes, and [the winning essay] will be printed in the local newspaper. We'll have an exhibit of photographs by David Spear. He's a North Carolina photographer, and he did a series . . . about a family that lives near him named the Neugents. It was in the 1970s when he actually did this series, but you would think it was in the Depression. The way this family lives, it's just true poverty in the rural South that doesn't change. When you look back at the characters of Bob & Mayella Ewell [in To Kill a Mockingbird], and how the way they lived influenced their reaction to what happened, I [see] the same things in The Neugents. One thing I'm most excited about is we are partnering with our local newspaper The Martinsville Bulletin, and everyday they'll be printing a photo of someone reading To Kill a Mockingbird with the title "What Page Are You On?"

NEA: What effect do you hope The Big Read has on your community?

PARKER: I hope that it will . . . challenge people to go back and read To Kill a Mockingbird again. It's something that's read in the ninth grade here in Virginia, but I've read it several times, and it's a book that's not just for ninth graders. I think the lessons to be learned are timeless, and I really feel like -- what's the saying -- those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it? And who would have known when we got this [and] when we booked this show, that we would have something like this historic election of Barack Obama? I think that this [novel] just reminds people what it used to be like, especially young people who are shocked when they hear stories about what it was like in our country for African Americans. . . .I think every town in the U.S. has a story to tell about prejudice, and there are still incidences of that. I just hope it reminds people of what things used to be like and how far we've come.

Aside from that, I really hope it promotes literacy. We have been a manufacturing town for a long, long time. Hooker, Basset, and Stanley furniture companies are all headquartered here in Martinsville or in the surrounding areas. [The town has] had the mentality for a long time that maybe education wasn't as important as getting a job in the factory. Because of so many jobs going overseas that has changed. I hope it promotes the idea of how important education and literacy are. We want to try to get those non-readers to read also.

NEA: What's on you reading list besides To Kill a Mockingbird?

PARKER: Oh, wow, I wish I had time to read more. I was a shy kid, and I came from a family of readers, so you know I read for escape and imagination. Now I read just for the silence of not listening to a television. The things that really stick with me are The Secret Life of Bees and The Lovely Bones, and I read Wicked after I saw the stage show. . . . I think [some of] my favorite books are The Great Santini and A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote.

NEA: Do you have anything you'd like to add?

PARKER: Just that we are so excited about [The Big Read], and we hope that this will be the first of many Big Reads to come. It's an incredible opportunity. I cannot say enough about our local newspaper. They developed a cultural calendar to promote the events every Thursday of what's going on in the community. I wish everybody had that kind of support from their local media. The community has come together: we have two other local foundations who have contributed funds to this project, so it's been something that we can really wrap our arms around.