The Pilgrim's Progress

Three Rivers Meeting
Great American History Theatre

"THIS MONTH, I'M the man. Next month, I'm unemployed. But that's the way it goes in my line of work." So it goes for Jim Stowell, a fixture in Twin Cities theater scene for decades and possibly the holder of the greatest job in the world. People pay him to travel to some godforsaken corner of the globe, record an adventure, and report back--at $10 a pop! Nice work if you can get it.

Stowell arrived in the Twin Cities in the mid-1960s on the heels of an undistinguished stint in the Air Force, and though his hair may be thinning, he still sports a thick bush of a mustache and his eyebrows still dance a jig when he recalls the journey that has made him one of the premier storytellers in the country. To honor this 30-year contribution to the arts, the Great American History Theatre has launched a month-long celebration that includes readings of Stowell's monologues, performances of Stowell's latest works, Three Rivers Meeting and Cuba Si!, and a special night, hosted by Leslie Ball, in which Stowell will take audience requests for favorite stories.

"Kids come up to me after shows and say, 'Geez, you're lucky.' And I am," Stowell agrees. "But I worked like a fiend to get here. Like a fiend."

Stowell's theater career began in the late 1960s and early 1970s at the Children's Theatre, where he studied with Bain Boehlke, Wendy Lehr, and John Clark Donahue. "That's where I learned about craft," Stowell explains. A passionate young man with a revolutionary's sense of social injustice, he spent the next 14 years working as an actor and playwright at the now-defunct Minnesota Theatre Ensemble and Palace Theatre. His solo career essentially started in the mid 1980s, when former Brass Tacks artistic director Patty Lynch paired Stowell with Kevin Kling for a sellout evening of solo storytelling.

"You didn't have to be a genius to see that it was working," recalls Stowell. "The house was full. And, at the time, Kevin and I were the only ones in the Twin Cities doing it. We had a monopoly," he laughs.

Like all great artists, though, Stowell makes the product look a lot easier than the process behind it. Stowell estimates that he spends one to three years acquiring the money to go somewhere: the Amazon, Cuba, Mexico--seemingly, wherever he has a good chance of getting killed. He is, for instance, currently trying to arrange a trip to Chiapas, Mexico, to live and shop with the Zapatistas.

Except for notes, Stowell doesn't start composing until he returns home, and then typically writes until he has seven or eight hours of material. Next, he starts cutting and shaping the material, a process that, in the case of his latest work, Three Rivers Meeting, took 11 months. Ultimately, he doesn't memorize his stories verbatim; rather, he outlines the scenes and transitions and improvises along the way. "I'm not a photographer or a reporter," Stowell explains. "I'm more like a painter or musician. I use my experiences and turn them into jazz."

Three Rivers Meeting is vintage Stowell. Using the confluence of the Minnesota, Vermilion, and Cannon rivers as a metaphor for his own life journey, Stowell travels back and forth between his recent encounters with a local Indian chief and his tempestuous relationship with his mother while growing up in McAllen, Texas. Woven into the fabric of the tale is a thoughtful and often humorous meditation on the nature of race relations between Indians and whites, with the young Stowell cruising the border looking to beat up Mexicans, and the elder Stowell canoeing with an Indian elder who helps run a casino.

The set comprises nothing but a picnic table, an ice chest, and a few trees, but Stowell manages to paint an imaginative world so lucid that the stage itself is almost incidental. The real show happens inside your mind, in a place veteran Stowell-watchers will instantly recognize--a world both realistic and surreal, infused with a novelist's attention to psychological detail, a comedian's sense of timing, and an actor's gift for poignant silences.

Three Rivers Meeting continues at the Great American History Theatre through January 25 and Cuba Si! from January 15-18. January 22 is audience-request/Potluck Night. For information, call 292-4323.

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