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A BEND IN THE RIVER: Playwright adds documentary theater to ‘many stories’ project

Ryan Haff (left) and Erica Von Bank are beavers living in the St. Louis River watershed in a scene from “One River.” (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 7
Lauren Hugh (foreground) and Kyliah Thompson perform during a rehearsal for “One River” at the Dudley Experimental Theater at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Tom Isbell culled the submissions of the One River, Many Stories project to create “One River,” a documentary theater performance comprised of St. Louis River-themed vignettes. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 7
Actors Ryan Haff (from left), Wes Anderson and Erica VonBank perform a scene. The 90-minute play offers viewpoints from the geologists, poets, birders, journalists and kayakers who shared stories about the almost 200 mile river that flows into Lake Superior (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 7
Alyson Enderle performs during rehearsal for “One River” at the Dudley Experimental Theater at the University of Minnesota Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)4 / 7
Rebekah Meyer (right) and Erica VonBank narrate the creation of the Duluth Ship Canal during a rehearsal for “One River” at the Dudley Experimental Theater at the University of Minnesota Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)5 / 7
Ryan Richardson performs in a scene recalling the 2012 flood at a rehearsal for “One River.” (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)6 / 7
Actor Phil Hoelscher (right) explains how glaciers helped form the St. Louis River during a scene from “One River” at the Dudley Experimental Theater at the University of Minnesota Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)7 / 7

Among the close followers of One River, Many Stories was a playwright-teacher-author with a plan to give the multimedia project theatrical treatment.

“I would scour that website every day,” Tom Isbell said, referencing the site where news stories, photographs, personal essays and poetry about the St. Louis River were — and continue to be — aggregated as part of a community project centering on a single topic.

He culled the submissions to create “One River,” documentary theater composed of St. Louis River-themed vignettes, which opens at 7:30 p.m. today and runs through Oct. 8 at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The 90-minute play offers viewpoints from the geologists, poets, birders, journalists and kayakers who shared stories about the almost 200-mile river that flows into Lake Superior.

“It’s based on what would be interesting on its feet, what I thought would be valuable,” Isbell said. “It’s a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the stories we could tell about the St. Louis River, but it’s a start.”

The organizers behind One River, Many Stories, which went live in April, wanted to see what would happen if everyone — media professionals, citizen journalists, elementary school children — all focused on a single topic to create a collection of news stories, family histories, photography and video. The subject matter honored late journalist Mike Simonson of Wisconsin Public Radio, who had planned to focus on stories of the St. Louis River after his retirement, but died before he got the chance.

Among the public events, print and broadcast media and blog post contributions to the project: river-inspired prints by students at Laura MacArthur Elementary School; Adam Jagunich’s drone footage from above the Oliver Bridge; a poetry reading at Beaner’s Central hosted by Sheila Packa. Now, six months later, a play.

“Our vision was citizens and journalists telling stories,” said John Hatcher, an associate professor in UMD’s journalism department who created the project alongside journalism professor Jennifer Moore and Paul Lundgren of Perfect Duluth Day. “If you had told me that someone would present a documentary play on it — you could give me 10 guesses, and theater would not be on the list of guesses of things that would come from the project.”

Isbell, a professor of theater at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is the author of “The Prey,” a dystopian fantasy trilogy. His plays “The Mostly True Adventure of Homer P. Figg,” “Teddy Roosevelt and the Treasure of Ursa Major” and “Teddy Roosevelt and the Ghostly Mistletoe” have played at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He wrote the play “Dear Finder” in 1999 with seven students. He has also appeared in TV shows such as “Family Ties,” “The Golden Girls” and “Murder, She Wrote.”

“One River,” he said, is a mix of “The Laramie Project,” “A Prairie Home Companion” and the podcast Radiolab.

The play has self-awareness. There is a scene where an actor in the role of Isbell and other actors in the role of actors talk about the play’s journey, Isbell said.

It opens with words by Anishinaabe elder Sharon Day, who is involved with water walks — extended ceremonies to honor and pray for rivers, lakes and oceans — and ends with another piece about caring for the water.

In between are a mix of scenes including theatrical accounts of local writer Eddy Gilmore’s essay about paddling to Whiteside Island; Tony Dierckins’ post on ZenithCity.com about the myths surrounding the Duluth Ship Canal (cue the coconuts as horse hooves); and Tim Holst telling about the local geology, including actors in the role of glaciers.

If you go

What: University of Minnesota Duluth’s production of “One River” by Tom Isbell

When: Runs 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday and Oct. 4-Oct. 8; and 2 p.m. Oct. 2. (Tonight’s opening is sold out.)

Where: Marshall Performing Arts Center, Dudley Experimental Theatre at University of Minnesota Duluth

Tickets: Call (218) 726-8561 or go to www.tickets.umn.edu

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