The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Read Between the Lines: A Q&A with The Ridgefield Playhouse

Ridgefield, Connecticut

At the Ridgefield Arts Council?s 2010 Cultural Festival, folk musicians played Depression-era songs while another participant read a passage from The Grapes of Wrath. Photo courtesy of Ridgefield?s Big Read

We love to see organizations come back to The Big Read year after year, each time developing creative ways of approaching their Big Read selection and involving their whole community. But it?s also inspiring to see new organizations recognizing the value of creating a nation of readers.

From the Grand Forks Public Library in North Dakota to Fort Hays State University in Kansas, 23 new organizations are taking part in The Big Read for 2010-2011. This week, I spoke with first-time Big Read grantee The Ridgefield Playhouse, which has partnered with the Ridgefield Library for two months of events around The Grapes of Wrath. Jodi Simon Stewart, grants coordinator from the Ridgefield Playhouse, and Mary Rindfleisch, assistant director of the Ridgefield Library, discuss their partnership and efforts to bring the saga of the Dust Bowl to Ridgefield, Connecticut.

NEA: This is the first time Ridgefield has participated in The Big Read. What drew you to the program?

JODI SIMON STEWART: The Executive Director of The Ridgefield Playhouse, Allison Stockel, read about The Big Read program the year before. She brought it to my attention and was eager for us to apply for our 2010-2011 season, which is our 10th anniversary. We thought it would be an exciting new addition to this special celebratory season. We have applied for numerous grants with other nonprofits in Ridgefield, and we were eager to spearhead another initiative that involves and benefits the entire town.

The Ridgefield Playhouse brings the performing arts to Ridgefield, and we liked the idea of being part of a literacy initiative that shows the young people in our town (as well as the adults) all of the different ways that cultural nonprofits can illuminate a novel and its time period. When we had our initial meetings with other town organizations to share our idea of applying for The Big Read, we got such enthusiastic responses from the library, the school system, and our neighboring nonprofits including the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, the Community Center, and the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra, it made us eager to apply.

We had not worked directly with the library on a grant and thought it would be a good partnership as well. The library has done so many wonderfully rich programs in the past and we knew that The Big Read would be a great program for us to work on together. The library had done a town-wide read about six years ago. It was around The Wizard of Oz and the Playhouse had participated. Obviously, it was geared toward a younger audience. We liked the idea of a town-wide read that would involve older students through seniors.

NEA: What benefit do you think The Big Read will have on your community?

STEWART: The Big Read in Ridgefield is creating a town-wide conversation that is magical. People are walking out of the library with their copy in hand. On Main Street, residents purchase their discounted copy at the local bookstore and talk about it in coffee shops and restaurants. Middle schoolers will come home from school next week having seen a one-man show about John Steinbeck and the high schoolers, who are dreading having to read it for English class, have so many wonderful ways to augment their experience with the book; They can go see a concert at The Ridgefield Playhouse about Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, and the Dust Bowl Era. They can view a photography exhibit at the local museum or a poster exhibit at the library. They can attend one of many book discussions being organized at the library. All of these opportunities help young people get into the world of the novel and help them get invested in their reading. This is what The Big Read is all about and this is what we wanted to bring to Ridgefield!

NEA: Why did you choose The Grapes of Wrath?

MARY RINDFLEISCH: There are a number of themes and issues raised in The Grapes of Wrath that we felt would resonate with the Ridgefield community. While Ridgefield is a relatively affluent, suburban, Eastern seaboard town, the recent economic woes have had a strong and widespread effect on our population, and we felt people would be able to relate to the fate of the Joads in a real and personal way. While few Ridgefielders can be said to be in danger of starvation, the threat to an established way of life due to external forces is something that is being experienced by many. Secondly, sustainable agriculture and the politics of food production are very much on people?s minds in our community and region, with the growth of farmers? markets and CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] farms and the presence of several strong and active environmental organizations. Thirdly, we felt that our well-educated and intellectually active community would embrace the idea of reading a real classic, often described as ?the great American novel,? written by a Nobel Prize-winning author. We also wanted a book that had a direct tie-in to the school curriculum, to facilitate participation by young people. Finally, with The Ridgefield Playhouse as the lead partner, we definitely wanted a title which had been made into a great movie they could showcase!

NEA: What event are you most looking forward to during your Big Read?

RINDFLEISCH: While I have greatly enjoyed several of the background events we have held (an introductory lecture by a wonderful Yale professor, a concert/presentation on Woody Guthrie, etc.), I am looking forward in particular to an upcoming book discussion at Founders Hall, Ridgefield?s senior center. When I led a discussion of The Grapes of Wrath at the library a few years ago during the Steinbeck Centennial, I found it was hard to keep the group focused on the book itself, as it inspired an outpouring of reminiscence about participants? families? own experiences during the Depression era. With the older adults who attend programs at Founders Hall I am expecting this to be even more the case. While I will work hard to make sure we come back frequently to our shared experience of the book, I am expecting the discussion to really highlight how personal the act of reading can be. Our discussion will definitely be enriched by the memories of this slowly but surely dwindling segment of our population.

NEA: What has been your favorite Big Read moment so far?

STEWART: My favorite Big Read event so far was the multi-media concert we had at The Ridgefield Playhouse at the end of September. It was entitled, ?Woody Guthrie---Hard Times & Hard Travellin?? presented by Will Kaufman. Will knew that he was coming as part of The Big Read, and he made a point of talking more about Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath than he normally does in his show. He was so engaging. He sat on the stage with a big screen behind him and---while he sang songs from the Dust Bowl and told stories about the Depression and Woody Guthrie?s life during that time---slides of the Depression were playing behind him. Will played the guitar, banjo, and fiddle, and it was a very powerful event. The combination of the slides, songs, and stories was so interesting and entertaining at the same time. Sometimes it was quite sad and other times he made us laugh, but I felt like I was transported to another time and place and it made me want to revisit the novel once again.

Ridgefield's Big Read events continue through November 19; visit Ridgefield's Big Read website for more information. To learn more about John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath, visit The Big Read website.

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