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Original 'Mockingbird' production kicks off Big Read

November 30, 1999|By Heather Keels

HAGERSTOWN

The thing about mockingbirds, Niki Perini says, is that they don't just mimic other birds' songs. They take bits and pieces of what they've experienced and weave them together into something new.

In a way, it's not very different from what author Harper Lee did as she crafted her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," from her own memories of growing up in a rural Alabama town, said Perini, the artistic director of Authentic Community Theatre. Inspired by the parallels between Lee's life and the novel, Perini wrote an original dramatic portrait of the author's life, which she and other local actors performed Sunday at The Maryland Theatre.

The production, followed by a screening of the 1962 film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird," served as the kickoff event for a month-long celebration of the novel as part of a National Endowment for the Arts program called "The Big Read."

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Through grants for literary-themed events in 117 communities throughout the country, NEA is aiming to rekindle an interest in reading among children and adults who, statistics show, are finding less and less time for books, said David Kipen, NEA's director of literature.

Kipen said he was heartened by a packed theater at Sunday's event and couldn't wait to describe it to the behind-the-scenes coordinators at the endowment's national headquarters.

"It's important for me to go back to the office every once in awhile and show them that this sort of hypothetical audience out there, this hunger for reading that we know is there ... is really out there," Kipen said. "There is documentary evidence that people, if you lead them to a good book, will drink it up and come back for seconds."

Sunday's biographical production served as a teaser for an Oct. 9 discussion with Charles J. Shields, author of "Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee." Shields will lead a discussion with students at Hagerstown Community College, followed by a public discussion at 7 p.m. at the downtown library branch.

Perini said she used Shields' biography as a reference as she wrote the short play, but she had to use her imagination to fill out many of the details.

In the coming weeks, Perini plans to repeat the process with middle-school students throughout the county as she helps them develop original skits based on characters and plot elements in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

It's a creative exercise that will allow students to experience the basic artistic process of combining fiction and fact into a new reflection of truth ? just as Lee did when she wrote her famous novel.

If the experiment is a success, the students won't just come away with a new appreciation for reading, Perini said. They might end up creating some mockingbird songs of their own.

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