Home News & Events Matthews Opera House brings NEA Big Read to the Black Hills

Matthews Opera House brings NEA Big Read to the Black Hills

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, the Matthews Opera House shares how their NEA Big Read told the story of their community, in the rural town of Spearfish, in the Black Hills region of Western South Dakota.

Tell us a little bit about your organization!

The Matthews Opera House and Arts Center is a non-profit arts organization that functions as the cultural hub of Spearfish, South Dakota providing diverse visual and performing arts experiences for community members and area visitors of the beautiful Black Hills.

The Matthews is dedicated to providing our rural community of approximately 10,000 residents with the best arts programming from live music in our 1906 historic theater, interactive programs and classes in our art gallery, to bringing arts programming into the schools, neighboring businesses and service organizations throughout the town.

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

Our community of Spearfish is a rural community that is located in the beautiful Black Hills region of Western South Dakota. Our organization puts a strong emphasis on engaging with the community and staying connected to Spearfish. We are connected through our numerous partners including our local college, Black Hills State University, the Grace Balloch Memorial Public Library, Spearfish School District, numerous service organizations and businesses like the Canyon Hills Lutheran Center and Northern Hills Training Center. Despite being a rural community, our home never seems to be short of culture and diversity. With the Indigenous Lakota Nations just east of our town, a diverse college campus, and an extended historic downtown, Spearfish is a town that may lack in size, but makes up for it with a distinct culture and identity.

The NEA Big Read provided The Matthews Opera House the ideal program to further our relationships with all of our partners. With our community-wide NEA Big Read kick-off day, we made sure to keep the entire historic downtown involved from business to business with our own traveling symphony. Following themes from the novel, we were able to host and sponsor numerous craft events for all ages, a gallery exhibit open to the public, workshops with artists relating to Station Eleven, and dozens of book talks including one with Station Eleven author, Emily St. John Mandel.


A Spearfish resident enjoys the Big Read kick-off by creating forgotten item masks with Jo Powell. Photo by Seth Harwood, courtesy of The Matthews Opera House.

What makes your Big Read unique?

Our community was very fortunate to receive the necessary funding so that every student who attended Spearfish High School (9th-12th grade) received their own copy of Station Eleven. Having that kind of instant participation in the NEA Big Read in a rural community, already separates what we do in Spearfish from some other communities. The Matthews Opera House puts a strong emphasis on running a Big Read that is truly intended for all audience members.

We use the three month-long program as a way to boost participation community-wide with our two partners, BHSU and the public library, with heavy participation from the Spearfish School District, and with various clubs around our towns. We also provided an additional novel intended for upper elementary-middle school students, The Big Dark, by Rodman Philbrick, so all ages felt welcomed to the program.

The Matthews Opera House and Arts Center created unique programming as we are fortunate to have both an arts center for the visual arts, and the historic opera house for performing arts. We use both spaces for our programming. The art center/gallery was grounds for all of our children’s afternoon activities such as making your own comic books, bark and twig people, and para-cord keychains.


Emily St. John Mandel signs a book at Spearfish High School. Photo by Seth Harwood, courtesy of the Matthews Opera House.

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.

The selection of the novel Station Eleven, began with the book’s thematic elements that tie in not just the post-apocalyptic themes, but also the message of how art survives even during times of great turmoil. We felt that these themes are represented strongly in Spearfish with our rural community paired with a town full of visual artists, musicians, and writers who we knew would gravitate to this theme.

Most of the community expressed how they normally do not subscribe to “post-apocalyptic” literature, but felt Mandel’s Station Eleven was thrilling. We also loved the Shakespearean elements of the novel that we could highlight. As a town that rarely has exposure to Shakespearean works, we wanted to make Shakespeare accessible to everyone in the traditional sense with the performance by the National Players in “Twelfth Night” and also creatively in the community theater musical “Return to the Forbidden Planet”.

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

We are a very proud organization when it comes to the art residencies that we provide for the town of Spearfish on a yearly basis. These residencies take place in our public school systems, at our university, and in our special services groups. This year, we were able to provide many special residencies that were based on our Station Eleven NEA Big Read programming including Daniel Kelly and The National Players.

Daniel Kelly takes the words of Shakespeare’s finest works and turns them into the lyrics of his jazz music. The National Players are a traveling Shakespeare troupe of 10-12 actors that perform on stage, and provide theater, Shakespeare and improvisation workshops in the communities which they visit.

Getting the chance to see both of these well respected artists perform in Spearfish and into our community to interact first-hand with students, and children and adults with developmental and physical disabilities were such inspiring moments. At the conclusion of our NEA Big Read programming, we conducted over 20 different community residencies with 8 different organizations in our area, serving 1400 residents.


Pianist Daniel Kelly and a resident of the Northern Hills Training Center play piano together. Photo by Seth Harwood, courtesy of the Matthews Opera House.

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

A successful NEA Big Read all starts with the community that you are running the program within. Without the community buying in to the overall vision, in terms of the programming, the book itself, and more importantly, the organizations that are running the NEA Big Read, participation can become difficult. Any time our organization created programming that encompassed the widest range of audience members, we began to see more and more diverse groups participating in events.

The beauty of a NEA Big Read is that it has the ability to make a town become closer by the end. When done right, organizations that incorporate groups from all over and work together make the community that much closer.

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?

The Matthews was fortunate to host Emily St. John Mandel in Spearfish back in February for a small, group discussion at BHSU’s Advanced Creative Writing class, school-wide discussion at Spearfish High School and evening public forum. The entire day was dedicated to the NEA Big Read and Mandel’s novel, which gave our widely diverse audience the opportunity to hear a personal discussion about the novel. St. John Mandel answered questions at Spearfish High School directly from students and their librarian, Emily Benvenga. The evening program saw an audience that had community members, university students, high school students, and even people from 50 miles away at our nearest urban city of Rapid City. The Matthews Opera House and its Big Read partners have been running the Big Read for over five years, and this was our first year we were able to bring the selected author to our home, creating strong community feedback.

Creatively speaking, our Community Apocalyptic Art Reception was an event that really championed the creative artists of the Black Hills. It was a thrilling challenge that we presented to our community and provoked the question of, “How would you create art, in a world lacking in supplies and resources?” alluding to the themes of Station Eleven. Not only did we receive creative works that matched our theme perfectly, but we also saw yet another event that housed community-wide participation. Artists from Spearfish Middle School, students and professors at Black Hills State University, and community members were all on display. The reception was the culminating event that saw the entirety of the project come together for an evening celebrating the artists of our community.


Emily St. John Mandel joins the community of Spearfish for a book talk on her selected novel. Photo by Seth Harwood, courtesy of the Matthews Opera House.


Local artist Jo Powell led a mask workshop using recycled and lost items. Photo by Seth Harwood, courtesy of the Matthews Opera House.

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

With the creativity and skills of Spearfish High School’s welding department taught by Kristi McCoy, The Matthews Opera House was able to house a life-sized replica of the Traveling Truck Stage as mentioned in Station Eleven. The Traveling Truck was an actual repurposed pickup truck that was stripped and remodeled to be used for this exact project, as well as two life sized horses crafted entirely out of metal. McCoy and the students used a passage from the novel to mimic every detail of the truck down to the painted gunmetal gray tarp and white lettering on each side.

Our gallery housed the Traveling Truck Stage and became our most prominent attraction for the town of Spearfish. A fun anecdote regarding this stage was watching the six high school welding students deconstruct and construct this massive installation in under thirty minutes to fit the truck through the door to our gallery. The fact that we were able to fit an entire pickup truck and stage into our 60’ by 20’ gallery was a sight to see! More importantly, the truck raised awareness for a different medium of art in the form of industrial arts. The Traveling Truck Stage was also used during our town’s Downtown Parade of Lights during the winter holiday season and acted as our “NEA Big Read Teaser”.


Local musicians Rod Garnett and Chris David perform. Photo by Seth Harwood, courtesy of the Matthews Opera House.

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

“First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.”
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven