Big Read explores Wilder play, novel

Now that Homer starts its fourth time exploring literature through the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program, organizers have come up with a system that works. Pick a book. Invite the town to read it together. Bring together scholars, writers and book lovers to explore the work. Stir. Repeat as necessary.

For the 2017 Big Read, the Friends of the Homer Public Library have added another element. Call it the Big Speak, too. Organizers chose Thornton Wilder’s novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” but also his classic play of small-town America, “Our Town.” The program invites the community to read both the novel and play, but also to watch and perform a Homer High School production of “Our Town” and to record their own small town stories.

The Big Read starts at 6 p.m. Saturday with a kick-off celebration at Alice’s Champagne Palace when Pier One Theatre actors do a staged reading of “Our Town.” On Feb. 10 and 11, Homer High School student actors perform their own production of “Our Town.” Set in fictional Grover’s Corners, the play looks at an American small town through the lives of its citizens.

The Friends of the Homer Public Library board of directors chose the Wilder work because of the opportunities for theatrical collaborations, but also because of the theme of small-town living, said FHPL coordinator Mercedes Harness.

“The play ‘Our Town,’ we thought it provides an opportunity for us to do an examination of what we value about our town and our community,” Harness said.

As happens in “Our Town,” where some of the actors relate aspects of their lives in short monologues, people of Homer also speak about their lives through a collaboration with KBBI Public Radio.

“The idea is for people to tell their own Homer story in 3 minutes,” Harness said.

People are invited to record snippets about Homer: how they came here, what it means to them or the joys and challenges of living here.

KBBI Director of Content Kathleen Gustafson has already recorded a half-dozen talks. From 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Feb. 4 and 5 at the Homer Council on the Arts, Gustafson also does a storytelling for radio workshop to teach people about the art of radio storytelling. At 6 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Pratt Museum, in “Our Town: The Homer Experience,” people can celebrate the radio stories and listen to locals tell their stories.

There also is a chance for local playwrights to win a staged reading of their own small-town Homer plays with the Top Drawer playwriting competition. The winner gets publication in the library’s Top Drawer collection and a reading next summer at Pier One of the play. The deadline is Jan. 31.

Another staged reading will be “An Evening With Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder” at 6 p.m. Feb. 9 at the library. Stein and Wilder had a long correspondence. Gustafson reads the letters of Stein while James Anderson reads the letters of Wilder.

Poet and teach Erin Hollowell does a workshop, “Love Letters in the Snow,” at 6 p.m. Jan. 24 at the college. She will discuss the art of writing love letters and help people write letters or poems of their own.

The Wilder Big Read also includes discussion of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” a novel set in Peru about the people killed in a collapse of a bridge. A witness, Brother Juniper, seeking to understand the tragedy, interviews people who knew the victims.

“‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ is an interesting book,” Harness said. “(It) poses the question: Why did this thing happen?”

The Big Read includes several discussions of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” At 10:30 a.m. Jan. 28, University of Alaska Anchorage literature professor Toby Widdicombe discusses the novel. Kachemak Bay Campus English professor Lia Calhoun also holds a book discussion at 6 p.m. Feb. 2 at the college and authors Rich Chiappone and Tom Kizzia discuss the novel at 6 p.m. Feb. 15 at Alice’s.

Though set in Peru, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” has parallels to Alaska, Harness said.

“We are faced with that question when the environment doesn’t cooperate the way we would like it to. Why do these things happen? When tragedies happen, how do they change us?” she said.

In an exploration of those themes, Widdicombe joins mental health professionals Linda Chamberlain and Kathy Carssow and minister Lisa Talbott in another talk on Jan. 27, “Faith, Love and Loss: A Panel Discussion on ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey.’” Chamberlain will talk about the experience of trauma on people who go through tragedies, while Talbott will look at some of the spiritual implications.

“I’m really excited for that event. It brings together a wide variety of bodies to have a conversation,” Harness said.

Capping out The Big Read will be a keynote address at 6 p.m. Feb. 25 by Washington Post literary critic Michael Dirda, sometimes known as “the most well-read man in America.” Dirda also does a craft talk at 6 p.m. Feb. 24 at Kachemak Bay Campus.

“He talks about the value of leading a reading life, which given our current political climate is a valuable conversation to be having,” Harness said of Dirda’s talk.

Homer held Big Reads for Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” which included a visit by Tan as part of her keynote appearance at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference; Tim O’Brien’s “The Things We Carried,” with a talk by O’Brien, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at

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