Interview: Jeannine Coulombe

Jeannine Coulombe

It doesn’t rain but it pours: playwright Jeannine Coulombe has two major productions opening within a week.  The first, The Mill, produced by Workhaus Collective, performing (as always) at the Playwrights Center, opens this Friday, April 20 and closes May 5.  Jeannine’s second play, Where The Mountain Meets The Moon, an adaptation for young audiences of the popular Grace Lin novel, opens at Stages Theatre Company in Hopkins, opening April 27 and closing May 20.  We recently caught up with the playwright at a coffee shop.  Jeannine talks about her plays with a calm but very infectious passion.

HowWasTheShow: What’s The Mill about?

Jeannine Coulombe: The play is based on a real event.  In International Falls, in 1989, there was a union riot.

There’s a paper mill in town, Boise Cascade, it’s been in operation since 1909.  In the 80s, at a time when a lot of manufacturing was shutting down – mines, taconite processing plants – Boise Cascade decided to expand and enlarge the mill.  They hired a non-union general contractor, BE&K, to do the work.  And they asked for a “more flexible” union contract.  It was an obvious attempt to undermine the power of the local union.

International Falls is a strong union town.  Of the 6,000 residents, 2,000 worked at the mill.  The threat was that if the union didn’t buckle under the company would leave.  So here was the quandary: accept the contract, or destroy the town.

The union decided to act: they stormed the “man-camp” (as it was called) of non-union construction workers and destroyed it.  Several security guards were injured.

HWTS: But no one was killed.

JC: No.  There was a strong sense that the Beekers – that’s what everyone called the employees of BE&K – were “the other”.  They were from the South, many were African American, Spanish-speaking.

The union chose to riot.

HWTS: You’re from International Falls.

JC: Yes

HWTS: Are any of the characters in the play based on people you know?

JC:  Not really.  No.  Like everyone from the town I have a strong connection to the mill.  My father, my step-father, my uncles all worked there.  But the central characters of The Mill are fictitious: a man who’s been working at Boise Cascade for 36 years, and his family.  The play takes place entirely in his backyard.  It goes from Monday to Sunday.  The style is very realistic – a change for me.  No ghosts, no time-jumping.

I’ve been working on The Mill for 10 years, ever since 9/11.  It’s my most personal play and the most political.  The play focuses on the effects of larger economic development on regular people.  It’s a hugely important issue and I think the timing is right – look at what’s happening in Wisconsin.

HWTS: How long have you been connected to Workhaus?

JC: Since its inception, 6 years ago.  I was one of the founders of Theatre Unbound, but then I had a baby and decided I didn’t have time.  But when Workhaus came along I couldn’t resist.  It’s the only theater in the cities that focuses on playwrights.  I love the collective approach.  Whosever play is being produced is the artistic director.  So I chose the director, [Matt Sciple], I was there for auditions.  We take turns producing.  For my play Dom[inic Orlando] is doing PR, everyone works the box office.  I’m especially proud of the fact that 70% of Workhaus’s budget goes to paying artists.

HWTS: Where The Mountain Meets The Moon?

JC: A completely different process.  I got the commission last March, first draft was due May 31, rewrite was due July 1, etcetera.  The play adheres to the Stages tradition of taking children literature and turning it into exciting and unusual theater.  My play uses several non-realistic dramatic devices – for example, a play-within-the-play.  It’s a lovely book, the way Grace Lin weaves together traditional Chinese stories.  It’s being performed with al all-Asian cast.  Rick Shiomi (of Mu Performing Arts) is co-directing, along with Stages Theatre Co.’s artistic director Sandy Boren-Barret.

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