Jeannine Coulombe's latest play for the Workhaus Collective comes from a place close to the heart: her hometown of International Falls, and the turmoil that swept the community at the end of the 1980s. In The Mill, Coulombe takes a look at the labor strife at the town's paper mill, along with bringing an authentic, working-class voice to the piece.
It's a play that's been in the works for a long time. "Oddly enough, this is kind of my 9/11 play. Right after 9/11, I thought I needed to go home. I went home, and wrote the first draft," she says. "It has developed a lot over the last 10 years; there's been a lot of ebb and flow. At the time, people were wondering why I was writing about unions and the working class. I think the time has truly come for the story."
The town's paper mill has loomed large over International Falls during the city's 100-year-plus history. "My father, my stepfather, and my uncles worked in the mill. Now people I grew up work in the mill," Coulombe says.
During a year-long period in 1988 and 1989, the then owners of the mill, Boise Cascade, looked to expand and modernize the facility. As they were the major employer (more than 2,000 people at its height) and the foundation of the city's tax base (about 75 percent) the company had considerable leverage "to dictate a contract and to break the hold the workers had. They hired a non-union construction company from Alabama, as to say 'If you don't sign a contract that is not in your best interest, we can find another place to do the expansion,'" she says.
Tensions swirled in the community for nearly a year, and included a wild-cat strike and a riot at the camp of the non-union construction workers. Coulombe took all of these issues and tossed in some artistic license, compressing the story into a single week.
"I rarely see the people I grew up with portrayed on the stage. I think this play will be true to the people and the world where I grew up. I tell their story through the lens of this event," Coulombe says.
The production is directed by Matt Sciple, and features Terry Hempleman, Amy McDonald, Andy Kraft, James Rodriguez, Jodi Kellogg, Eric Webster, and Katharine Moeller.
"For this play, I feel like we really had the pick of the best. We could have cast it many different ways and we had a lot of people interested in it," Coulombe says. "Actors look for good, strong roles and this play has strong roles for everybody. There's no chorus. It's all juicy roles and everyone has a journey."
Coulombe also hopes that the show draws a non-traditional audience. "I hope people who don't normally come to the theater come and see it. I would really want working-class people to come and see the play. That's closer to who I am," she says.
IF YOU GO
Playwrights' Center 2301 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis
Friday through May 5
$18 (pay what you can)
For information, call 1,800.838.3006 or visit online