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Play about region goes regional

Kayla Peters recites a poem written by Duluth poet Sheila Packa in a performance of One River last fall. (Photo submitted)1 / 3
The cast of One River, an original play by Tom Isbell based on the works of the "One River, Many Stories" project. (Photo submitted)2 / 3
Luke Harger, acting as author and Budgeteer columnist Eddy Gilmore, kayaks on the St. Louis River in "One River." (Photo submitted)3 / 3

It's been a little over four months since the the University of Minnesota Duluth's theater's final performance of "One River" on Oct. 2, yet student actor Kayla Peters is busy reviewing her lines.

"It's slowly coming back," the UMD senior said. "I had to do the same thing last year when we took Spoon River to France. For some reason that one felt easier, but I'll get it. It's so exciting to bring a show you've already done to a new audience."

One River was selected by two respondents to be performed at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) Region V festival in Des Moines, Iowa. This original work by theater professor and writer Tom Isbell is one of only six productions selected to compete in the six-state KCACTF regional competition Jan. 22-28. Before the production moves to Iowa, there will be an encore performance at UMD on Jan. 14 as a fundraiser for travel costs.

"We're so honored. It's the twelfth time UMD has taken a show there, though it has been a couple of years. It's the sixth time that I have taken a show," Isbell said. "This one is really, really special, just because of the community connection. It feels like this is this community's play that they're loaning to us to tell these stories."

One River is a documentary theater adaptation of One River, Many Stories, a community journalism and storytelling effort that took place in April last year. Artists, storytellers, journalists, poets, documentarians, photographers and bloggers turned their attention to and shared at least one story about the St. Louis river throughout the month. Story links were collected on one website ( so individuals could easily explore all the works. Which is how Isbell found the inspiration for the play.

"I went on the One River website everyday ... I loved how different the storytelling was," Isbell said. "There were some pieces I would read and think, 'Oh yes, that'd be a great scene. I'd love to dramatize that.' Others were beautiful articles but I didn't know how to translate them to the stage."

Isbell brought up the idea of creating an original play based on the works for the fall theater season while he didn't have a written script.

"I had a vision and the tone of the play, but no idea exactly how it would take shape yet. There was a lot of trust and blind faith from people involved," Isbell said.

Isbell interviewed individuals involved in the initiative over the course of several months while working on the script. He completed the first draft the day of the first rehearsal, Aug. 22.

"It was changing as we were doing it. Tom would come in with cuts and changes all the time. It was very challenging, but it was also a very good experience. As an actor, it's very important that we learn to adapt like that," Peters said.

Peters, originally from Chaska, said she gained a new appreciation for the St. Louis River as she worked on the show. Before she started attending UMD, she had mostly only heard about Lake Superior. She discovered the river when looking for hiking spots and finding Jay Cooke State Park. Peters revisited the park with the rest of the cast during the first week of rehearsals.

"It was really cool to hang out by this river that we'd spend so much time talking about over the next month," Peters said. "Having this show and hearing all these people's individual stories related to the river and how the river affected them, you gain a greater appreciation for the river, this place, and your community."

Although the play is mostly an ensemble piece, with actors taking on many various roles, most students portrayed one local individual who contributed to the project. Peters played local poet and author Sheila Packa. Peters had the chance to meet Packa after a performance.

"It was a little scary to meet these people whose words we're saying. I was thinking, I don't know if this is how she said it or what she meant," Peters said. "But it was actually really cool. She had this calming presence about her when she came to talk to me, so I was relieved. Plus she really liked the show."

What was it like for Packa to see herself portrayed on stage?

"At first I thought it was going to be really weird, but I thought they did a good job and I found it very moving," Packa said.

If it was nerve wracking for Peters, it was about 10 times more for Isbell. Nearly all of the individuals portrayed in the play came to a special performance one evening.

"I sat in the far corner and spent as much time watching the play as I was watching those people in the audience. There were times when an actor on stage would be saying a line to the audience and they'd be talking right in front of the person they were portraying. It was surreal," Isbell said. "But afterwards, it was one of the most moving nights I've ever had in theater. Everyone was talking to and taking selfies with their counterparts. The night that started out as extreme anxiety and fear and trepidation ended up being one of my favorite nights ever."

But how will a story so focused and entrenched in the surrounding community translate to audience members from Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, North and South Dakota and other parts of Minnesota at the theater festival? Isbell said he isn't too worried because the play has universal themes.

"I hope they walk away thinking, we need to do this in our community. I hope it inspires others to create documentary plays about their areas and capture their local stories. That's what I'd like to see more than anything," Isbell said.

If you go

What: Encore performance of "One River"

Where: Mainstage Theatre, Marshall Performing Arts Center, 1215 Ordean Court

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14

Cost: $30 for adults, $15 students

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

(218) 720-4176