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NEA Big Read: From Page to Stage

From clown camp to library programming, stagehand to playwright, the Volusia County Public Library’s project manager, Karen Poulsen, wears many hats: and when the NEA Big Read comes to town, she puts on all of them! In today’s blog post, Karen Poulsen talks about collaborative creativity, honoring local history, and bringing the NEA Big Read to the stage in Daytona Beach.

Mid-rehearsal on the set of Karen Poulsen’s “The Prairie Prankster.” Photo by Mike Kitaif.

NEA Big Read comes to town

Four years ago the committee that was working on the application for our first NEA Big Read grant, asked me to write a play to celebrate To Kill a Mockingbird. At that time, I wasn’t involved in the NEA Big Read and was honored to be asked to write a play for the library system. After we received that grant, I became the grant administrator and have been coordinating the programs for the past three years.

The Original Play Series that the Volusia County Public Library conducts with our NEA Big Read programming has been very fulfilling to me personally and a great collaboration with our community partners. What I love most about researching and writing, is that I never know where it will lead as I find inspiration to create a new full-length play. As a playwright, my enjoyment comes from watching the actors bring the script to life so I can share the story and characters with an audience. For that first NEA Big Read play, “Hey, Atticus!” I started my research by reading several books on Harper Lee and felt like I really got to know “Nelle” as she was referred to by her friends. I went to her hometown in Monroeville, Alabama and saw the play, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was produced by local actors and followed by a reception on the historic courthouse property. I also visited several locations and spoke with many residents.

The adventure continues

The play was a labor of love for all involved. Just three weeks before we opened, the original actress playing Nelle sustained injuries from a car accident. I called upon local actress, Jeanna Carley, to fill the lead role. Since then, Jeanna has become a regular in this series and is very grateful to give back to the community and library. She also starred in the second play of the series, “On the Radiola,” written to celebrate our NEA Big Read with The Great Gatsby.

The cast of “On the Radiola” at the 2017 NEA Big Read Original Play dress rehearsal. Photo by Mike Kitaif.

This year, the Volusia County Public Library chose the book True Grit as our NEA Big Read reading selection. I didn’t have to think twice about who I wanted to feature. I had previously written a play in 2013 to celebrate Viva Florida 500, called The Ultimate Fieldtrip. Morgan Bonaparte “Bone” Mizell was one of ten characters I highlighted in our Florida history and I always thought he should have his own play, not just one scene. I already had a lot of research materials and was the creator, writer and director of a clown camp for seven summers at the library. It didn’t take long to combine my research on Bone with some clown routines: and “The Prairie Prankster” was born.

From page to stage

The other three characters in the play were based on real people in history. Originally the bar owner was a man, P. R. Reed, but I wanted to feature Jeanna in a role again. The bar owner then became Pricilla Ray Reed and it actually made the story work even better by changing the relationships of the characters. It was set in the late 1800s in the Arcadia Bar and Grill Saloon, Bone’s old stomping ground. The actors brought a lot of humor to the play and many broken bar bottles!

The cast of “The Prairie Prankster” at the 2018 NEA Big Read Original Play dress rehearsal. Photo by Mike Kitaif.

Beyond the curtain call

The program has grown so much in the past three years with the creativity and dedication of those involved. Our amazing library facilities staff build and design sets. Additional staff contribute by assigning rehearsal space, participating as stage managers and ushers, and helping with props. The talented community actors and production crew have devoted many hours to rehearsals and performances. The Little Theatre of New Smyrna Beach has loaned props and costumes and promoted the play to their patrons. The DeBary Hall Historic Site, Hopkins Hall of Lake Helen and the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach have all graciously donated space for the production.

Stage set for “The Prairie Prankster” rehearsal. Photo by Mike Kitaif.

My part in putting these plays together consists of writing, directing, locating props, costumes and furniture, and general production of the play. But, it wouldn’t be possible without the inspiration and opportunity provided by NEA Big Read, Arts Midwest, the County of Volusia, our library staff, and so many members of the community. Because of the support and encouragement, these scripts are always available for free to other NEA Big Read grantees and community partners for productions or staged readings. Best of all, our NEA Big Read programs are free and open to the public. It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring live theater to our community and enhance the experience for those who are regular theater patrons and individuals experiencing a theatrical performance for the first time.

The cast and NEA Big Read staff on set for “The Prairie Prankster”. Photo by Mike Kitaif.