In 2007, the Golden Isles Arts & Humanities Association (GIAHA) received their first NEA Big Read grant. In the years since, they’ve taken on books from The Maltese Falcon to True Grit, A Wizard of Earthsea to Station Eleven. As they close out the eleventh anniversary of the NEA Big Read in coastal Georgia, GIAHA Executive Director Heather Heath shares some reflections from their community across the years.
“Survival is insufficient”
This February, in 2018, we kicked off our 11th Big Read: appropriately, with Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It appealed to us enormously with its theme of “survival is insufficient” because that’s has been our raison d’etre as an arts organization – that art is not a luxury but a necessity in our lives. The arts inform, transcend and reveal what it is to be not only an individual, but also a part of this world; and it feels even more important in a smaller community that does not always embrace the arts as an important member of that community.
A graphic novel excerpt by Nathan Burton, part of a class taught by Professor Bob Pendarvis. Photo courtesy of Golden Isles Arts & Humanities.
“The arts inform, transcend, and reveal what it is to be not only an individual, but also a part of this world.”
How the journey began
In 2007, we were selected for a Big Read award for the first time. It was a heady experience for us to be a part of National Endowment for the Arts program. Eleven years later, it is still a heady experience; one that we take very seriously, as we are now working with seven Coastal GA counties to provide programming around our NEA Big Read selection each year. We are all small organizations but the power that we have working together has made an enormous impact on our communities and our visitors who now eagerly await the event each year.
That is one of the two things that has been the most exciting about participating in the NEA Big Read for the past 11 years. It is the partnerships that we have developed with two library systems, three school systems, our local college, and a variety of organizations and businesses that helps with the success of each Big Read and continues throughout the year as we work together on other events, look to develop new programs, and share resources and ideas throughout the year. The NEA Big Read has created a regional network to promote not only literary reading, but also each other’s programs, services and events.
Students in a story drawing workshop by Professor Bob Pendarvis at the Hog Hammock Library. Photo courtesy of Three Rivers Regional Library System.
Brunswick High School student Kelsey Marsingill with her piece, “Art Endures”. Photo courtesy of Golden Isles Arts & Humanities.
The lasting impact
Secondly, the NEA Big Read has allowed us to experiment with programming that we would not normally be able to do, which has created new types of events, several which occur now on an annual basis. When we read The Maltese Falcon in 2012, we produced a live radio version of the story, based on the Lux Radio Theatre script, complete with live sound effects and period costumes. It was so well received, that we now annually produce staged radio plays. That same year, we also did a program called “Pinot Noir and Noir” where we had a wine tasting, a talk about what film noir is, and then screened the film noir classic, Out of the Past. This grew into our very popular annual series, Cinema Gourmet, where once a month from October to April, we have delicious food, a film screening, and a talk about the film. Neither of these long-term programs would have come about without the NEA Big Read.
NEA Big Read banner for a downtown Brunswick parade last year. Photo by Lisa Jinkins.
Taking on Station Eleven
This year, with Station Eleven, we wanted to celebrate the arts and explore the rich local culture in our own community that is often recognized by our visitors, and seldom by our locals. Furthermore, we wanted to see if Shakespeare, which is so treasured in the novel, would be appealing here in Brunswick, GA. The initial plan was to have different arts organizations, especially ones that we had not worked with in the past, create or perform something inspired by the Bard and work it into a cohesive evening – The Shakespeare Variety Hour. Golden Isles Youth Orchestra, Golden Isles Ballet and the Brunswick High School’s drama and choral departments all signed on.
As performance time grew closer, it was apparent that all was not going as cohesively as planned. The ballet had created a stunning short dance inspired by Macbeth but the Romeo and Juliet piece lacked…well, male dancers. The youth orchestra’s director, who had been all for it in the fall, was no longer there and the new director was focused on an upcoming workshop intensive so the work they were offering to perform was not anything remotely Shakespearean. The students at the high school were not inspired by Shakespeare at all, except for a few choral students who were working on solo pieces from Kiss Me Kate. But miraculously, as things tend to happen in the theater, the evening took on a shape that did showcase the greatness of the Bard. But what it did even more was to highlight the immense talent of our local students, fostering in them and in our audience an interest in this work and in the NEA Big Read that they may not have had before; and it has us planning another Shakespeare inspired event for the upcoming season.
Heather Heath with dancers from the Golden Isles Ballet. Photo by Val Salnikov, courtesy of Golden Isles Ballet.
Members of the orchestra. Photo courtesy of Golden Isles Arts & Humanities.
Every year that we have participated in the NEA Big Read, we have gained new audiences and patrons, new partners, new programs and new insights into how to best reach out to our community. This is one of, if not the best, community programs that we have ever been involved in and we will continue to offer it in some incarnation each year even if we are not selected through the NEA grant. The NEA Big Read is a big deal in Coastal GA!
Heather Heath with the Golden Isles Youth Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Golden Isles Arts and Humanities.