Home News & Events Things we learned from UCF's epic NEA Big Read with Emily St. John Mandel

Things we learned from UCF's epic NEA Big Read with Emily St. John Mandel

Above and beyond isn’t enough to describe these grantees. Each month, we’ll be featuring a new interview with an organization from our NEA Big Read community. This month, University of Central Florida professors Keri Watson and Julia Listengarten share some reflections on the intersection of theater, visual art, and literature during UCF’s NEA Big Read this year.

Tell us a little bit about your organization!

The University of Central Florida is a public, multi-campus, metropolitan research institution located in Orlando, Florida. Among the largest and most affordable universities in the United States, UCF is dedicated to serving its surrounding communities with their diverse and expanding populations, technological corridors, and international partners.

To support its mission, each spring the university presents UCF Celebrates the Arts – a free two-week showcase of visual and performing arts that includes theater, visual art, literature, digital media, film, history, opera, high school workshops, children’s events, and much more.

Who is your community and how do you connect with them?

Orlando is a diverse city with a population of over 2 million people and UCF is a multi-campus Hispanic-Serving Institution that serves people in Orange, Volusia, Seminole, Brevard, Osceola, and Lake counties. Our primary Big Read community partner is Seminole County Public Libraries, a five-branch library system serving over 400,000 people in Seminole County.

We also partner with the Florida Prison Education Project, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, CREATE, the Orlando Museum of Art, and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

We connect with our partners through a community-wide kick-off event, book clubs for all ages, book discussions, art exhibitions, and theatrical productions inspired by the themes of the novel. By varying the location, scope, and geography of our programs, we reach a large and diverse audience and increase awareness of the value of art and literature.

UCF Celebrates the Arts showcases the creativity, innovation, and collaboration of artists and performers in the UCF community. The event I attended was especially remarkable…it was comprised of UCF acting freshmen and alumni performing various snippets of plays that spoke about music, theater, art, and writing in response to the novel.”
—NEA Big Read participant


The UCF Symphony Orchestra performs Yeston and Stone’s Tony Award-winning musical Titanic. Photo courtesy of the University of Central Florida.

What makes your Big Read unique?

By embedding the Big Read in several UCF initiatives and by partnering with a variety of institutions, we were able to introduce new intergenerational audiences to literature and demonstrate the ways in which art, literature, music, and theatre are interconnected. By hosting a variety of multifaceted arts-based programs, including an arts exhibition and multiple theatrical productions, we initiated a dialogue across disciplines to foster an appreciation of different voices and perspectives and inspire discovery. Our emphasis on visual and performing arts made our programming unique and helped us bring literature to people who may not consider themselves readers.


Emily St. John Mandel speaks with UCF creative writing professor David James Poissant. Photo courtesy of the University of Central Florida.

Why did you select this particular book and how have you seen your community engage with your selection?

Set 20 years after a devastating flu pandemic has destroyed civilization, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven tells the story of a small band of actors and musicians moving between the settlements of the altered world—until they encounter a violent prophet who threatens the tiny band’s existence. Mandel describes a world of hope, of people coping with nostalgia and loss, both in the present and the future: of the power of art and relationships to fulfill us, sustain us, and nurture us back to our best selves.

In choosing Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, we were keen to celebrate the role of literature in American life with diverse audiences. We felt that Station Eleven, with its emphasis on the importance of art even in times of austerity, was the perfect complement to both UCF Celebrates the Arts’ theme of resilience and UCF’s partnership with the Atlantic Center for the Arts.

What aspect of your programming do you feel has been the most impactful?

UCF’s collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to the Big Read differentiates it from many other events and makes it more accessible to new audience members. By offering programs at UCF Celebrates the Arts, we reached an audience of over 10,000 people. The low-cost nature of the festival encourages patrons to try new events they might not have previously considered.

We were fortunate to host Emily St. John Mandel who discussed Station Eleven with David James Poissant, an author and UCF creative writing professor. Our interview with Emily St. John Mandel was held in conjunction with a staged reading inspired by the novel. Theater undergraduate and graduate students read selections from a variety of plays on the themes of art and resilience including Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, Yasmina Reza’s Art, and John Logan’s Red.

When patrons entered the room for the staged reading, they were surrounded by large-scale mixed media paintings of scenes from the novel. Undergraduate students enrolled in an advanced painting class made life-size cutouts of Kirsten, The Prophet, and Arthur as King Lear standing against a backdrop of surreal landscapes, including a haunting image of an empty airport. The interdisciplinarity of the event created multiple entrance points to the novel for people who think about literature in different ways.


UCF theater students present a staged reading inspired by the novel. Photo courtesy of the University of Central Florida.


Emily St. John Mandel smiles during an interview. Photo courtesy of the University of Central Florida.

More generally, what do you think makes a program impactful or successful? Why?

Big Read programs are most successful when we reach diverse audiences and get them excited about reading and discussing a great book. Each year, we endeavor to expand the geographic area we serve, reach new audiences, and involve more of our students, faculty, staff, and community partners. Especially exciting this year was the opportunity to bring the novel to a local area prison. The men who participated in our book discussions offered insightful observations and were especially moved by the novel.

“At the start we were all a little hesitant seeing as how we’ve never actually spoken to one another in a normal setting, but we were soon laughing, trading jokes, and having a great time. I never thought I would have enjoyed the company of my classmates and I’m grateful to the club for uniting us.”
—NEA Big Read participant, Central Florida Reception Center

Could you talk about some of the events that you felt were more creative or participatory? What was the background or process behind those events?

One of our theatrical productions was The Last Paving Stone by Y York produced by Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) MFA candidates. Like Station Eleven, The Last Paving Stone is a dystopian story that explores the meaning of life and our responsibility to one another and the earth. In addition to performing the show at UCF Celebrates the Arts, the TYA graduate students coordinated the selection of local schools to which the show would travel, offered two performances of the production in UCF’s black box theater to over two hundred audience members, and executed two Central Florida school performances for over two hundred 3rd – 5th graders.

Moreover, the TYA graduate students created community partnerships with both the Henry P. Leu Gardens and the UCF Arboretum, providing schools with post-show activities from both partners that emphasized the importance of environmental preservation and provided opportunities for creative engagement and reflection.


A performance of ‘The Last Paving Stone.’ Photo courtesy of the University of Central Florida.

Could you share any favorite anecdotes or stories from your community, about the book and the program?

With the Atlantic Center for the Arts, UCF’s College of Arts and Humanities and School of Medicine hosted “The Arts and Aging: An Interdisciplinary and Intergenerational Initiative.” With the assistance of both theater graduate students and pre-med students, the interdepartmental collaboration created arts-based curriculum influenced by Station Eleven. Every Saturday morning for five weeks, MFA Acting candidates facilitated classes for members of the ACA’s Creative Caregiving program, inspired by themes from Station Eleven such as nature, art, community, preservation, and renewal.

Using theatre, music, and visual art to stimulate conversation and reflection, the program encouraged caregivers to communicate creatively with their care partners and created meaningful inter-generational relationships between student facilitators and class participants. Together, students and participants shared in readings of selected excerpts from Station Eleven, created visual art pieces, and explored imaginative storytelling through the use of movement, music, and imagination. The participants loved creative activities and shared storytelling and the students provided positive feedback on the project’s intergenerational aspect.

24% of the population in Volusia County are 65 years or older, and those tasked with caregiving for elders within this demographic is increasing. Most caregivers face specific challenges in coping with their loved ones, as well as understanding the importance of self-care. Caregiving for another person is a journey of joy and difficulty, and creative resources are needed to navigate this phase of life.

Research shows that reading reduces stress, increases empathy, slows the onset of dementia, and makes people more engaged citizens, and the arts can transform the traditional support group or respite setting into an experience that encourages meaningful relationship building and inclusion. Bringing the Big Read to seniors and their caregivers was a transformational experience for everyone involved and helped to further demonstrate the value of art to support wellness.


A group gathers for class at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Photo courtesy of the University of Central Florida.

Lastly: what is your favorite line from your reading selection?

“Survival is insufficient.”


The UCF Symphony Orchestra performs Yeston and Stone’s Tony Award-winning musical Titanic. Photo courtesy of the University of Central Florida.