The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Reading Between the Lines: Northern Stage

White River Junction, Vermont


Cartoonist Pat Barrett at Northern Stage's Big Read kick-off event. Photo by Kyle Silliman-Smith

With one of the highest National Guard participation rates of any state in the country, Vermont is in a unique position to appreciate Tim O?Brien?s The Things They Carried. Kyle Silliman-Smith, Community Engagement Manager for the Northern Stage theater, says, ?Northern Stage believes that through the power of art and literature we as a state can help our brave men and women return to a supportive and healthy home. What better way to begin than through the stories in The Things They Carried?? Read on for the full interview with Silliman-Smith, and to learn about how Northern Stage is using The Big Read to encourage creativity in its community.

NEA: Northern Stage is new to The Big Read. What drew you to the program?

KYLE SILLIMAN-SMITH: As a theater company, Northern Stage believes in stories because of their power to express and investigate the human condition. We are committed to increasing literacy through the medium of theater and to building future artists. Our long-range plan includes expanding theater education and establishing partnerships with statewide education institutions. In 2005, Northern Stage ran the first Project Playwright, a school-based literacy program that sends professional playwrights into schools to help fifth and sixth grade students write original ten-minute plays. The success of this program has inspired us to expand the reach of our arts-based literacy programs. When Northern Stage?s Artistic Director Brooke Ciardelli discovered The Big Read, it seemed to be a perfect fit as it expands our programming into high schools and builds partnerships with various community organizations such as The Center for Cartoon Studies, libraries, and arts councils.

NEA: Why did you choose to read The Things They Carried? Why did you think this book would connect with your community?

SILLIMAN-SMITH: Tim O'Brien's collection of stories about an American combat platoon in Vietnam was an obvious choice for Northern Stage. Vermont represents one of the highest National Guard per capita participation rates of any state in the country. With so many men and women returning from combat zones each month, O'Brien's work creates an ideal backdrop for discussing issues that many Vermont families struggle with today. The National Guard is a unique branch of the military in that active duty soldiers do not return to a base with their fellow soldiers but are placed directly back into their pre-combat lives. This means that rural Vermont communities serve as the only base that many veterans have. Northern Stage believes that through the power of art and literature, we as a state can help our brave men and women return to a supportive and healthy home. What better way to begin than through the stories in The Things They Carried?

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

SILLIMAN-SMITH: The Big Read Summit on April 30th. It is a series of activities in Northfield, Vermont, that ties together what Northern Stage is most proud of in our programming. The day begins with artist workshops to encourage self-expression among all Vermonters, no matter their age or story. These workshops include cartooning, playwriting, and acting. The day continues at Norwich University, the first military college in the United States, with high school students from around the state performing original monologues created through the in-school residency portion of The Big Read. Each student?s monologue tells a story of truth and memory, a prominent theme in The Things They Carried. These scenes range from realism to fantasy, and express an emotional experience that the student has gone through or is currently going through. These pieces are followed by a general lecture on The Things They Carried by Lea M. Williams, associate professor of English at Norwich University. Professor Williams will speak about themes in the book, history, and O?Brien?s writing style. The summit will conclude with a powerful panel discussion entitled ?The Stories We Carry: the Impact and Artistry of Narrative.? Represented on this panel will be a veteran, active duty soldiers, educators, a historian, writers, a performing artist, a visual artist, and a veteran advocate. This panel will spur passionate, high-level discussion and debate about themes in the book, the experience of Vermont veterans, and the art of storytelling.

NEA: What has been your community?s reaction to The Big Read?

SILLIMAN-SMITH: Our community programs began very recently, so it is difficult to determine the overall reaction from the community at this time. However, the in-school residency portion of the program began in March and the response has been powerful. Northern Stage hired a professional playwright to travel to five Vermont communities and work with high school students. These students studied themes in The Things They Carried, met with veterans, and created their own artistic pieces in the form of both monologues and comics. Angela Santillo was the playwright hired to lead the program and here are some of her thoughts:

?I have seen students name characters after themselves and others write about talking doughnuts. I have read emotionally charged words about family, hilarious ramblings about vacations, philosophical discourse on citizenship, poetic examination of traumatic events, and hilarious looks into the stresses of teenage life. I have watched students nervously sit in writing workshops with their peers and read aloud stories about their personal triumphs and tragedies. Whatever the story, these students have all taken the same risk and that is to share something they carry.?

Northern Stage?s Big Read activities continue through May 14. For more information, visit their website. To learn more about The Things They Carried, please visit The Big Read website.

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