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Jim Stowell: Fringe Festival and beyond

Jim Stowell of Red Wing, who has been writing and telling stories for nearly five decades, will perform “The Things They Carried” at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, then take the one-man show to New York City and Chicago. Ruth Nerhaugen / Contributor

Jim Stowell of Red Wing has been sharing Tim O'Brien's stories about his Vietnam experience on stages — including Red Wing's Sheldon Theatre — since 2014.

Now "The Things They Carried," which was a best-selling, award-winning book before Stowell adapted it for the stage, is being performed again at three widely different venues.

The one-man production was chosen to be part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, which runs Aug. 2-12 in Minneapolis. In September it will be part of United Solo, a festival being held in New York City; and in October and November it will be performed at the Madison Street Theater in Oak Park, Ill.

"The Things They Carried" has been part of Stowell's life since he first read it and decided to seek the rights to adapt it as a play.

"I believed the words ... would fly off the stage and into the hearts of the audience," he told O'Brien.

Originally a collection of stories, "The Things They Carried" follows O'Brien's journey from his innocent youth in southwestern Minnesota to the jungles of Vietnam as a young soldier, and back home again.

Vietnam, 1968

O'Brien grew up in Worthington, got drafted in 1968 and was assigned as a foot soldier with the 3rd Platoon, A Company, 5th Battalion.

His writing is "so compelling" as he recalls that time, Stowell said. Publicity for past productions says "this story connects with Vietnam vets but it transcends Vietnam and speaks to the veterans and the families from today's wars."

It took Stowell about two years to acquire the rights and another two years to complete the adaptation and bring it to the stage of St. Paul's History Theater in spring of 2014. That fall the play, which the Minneapolis Star-Tribune labeled "Superb!", toured in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Audience reaction was just as he predicted. "The silences in this play are just beautiful," Stowell said. He watched people in the audience lean forward, not willing to miss a word.

The following year he directed a performance of the play in Lincoln, Neb. Earlier this year, it was staged in Sarasota, Fla.

For its upcoming incarnation in Minnesota and beyond, Stowell will add actor/storyteller to his existing roles as playwright and director of "The Things They Carried."

He has been writing and performing his own shows for decades. Stowell and his wife, Jessica Zuehlke, who taught theater and other subjects for Red Wing Schools, were responsible for the original "Church Basement Ladies" stage adaptation and a number of other local and Minnesota projects.

The Fringe Festival opportunity came as Stowell was completing an extended commitment with Cheap Theatre, which produces new plays and storytelling shows at the Black Forest Inn, Minneapolis.

He wrote a 10-chapter "spoken story book" and performed one chapter a month for Cheap Theatre. The stories, 10 to 15 minutes long, related to his experiences in the outdoors.

About half the stories stemmed from his summers as a park ranger. Stowell spent a year in California, a year at Voyageurs National Park near International Falls, then 14 seasons at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, headquartered in Bayfield, Wis.

He worked on the islands, giving tours of a historic lighthouse. For his role as interpreter, Stowell dressed like an old-time lighthouse keeper and told stories.

Prodded by a desire to perform "The Things They Carried," Stowell submitted it to the Fringe Festival lottery and won a spot. "This is cool," he thought, and began seeking other opportunities to stage the one-man play.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War.

"(O'Brien's) book and veteran's experiences are so profound," commented Zuehlke. "We are thrilled to help continue the dialogue about this time period in American history from a human standpoint."

Stowell submitted the manuscript to United Solo. The world's largest solo theater festival, it is a juried event held at Theatre Row on 42nd Street in New York City. He was chosen and scheduled to perform on Sept. 29.

Next, he contacted a Chicago area theater company director and was booked for a run at the Madison Street Theater in Oak Park, Ill., Oct. 25-28 and Nov. 2-4, 9-11 and 16-18.

Evolving story

The play is not exactly as it was at its premier. O'Brien's writing remains at the heart of the production, but the play has become "better, cleaner, more focused" through editing, Stowell explained.

The strength of the play comes from O'Brien's original language, Stowell stressed. He did not change it, but turned that writing into dialogue.

And he has read and re-read O'Brien's books for subtext. "Every time I read it, it makes me cry," admitted Stowell, who is also a veteran. "It breaks my heart."

He is rehearsing the Fringe Festival version now; it cannot exceed 60 minutes. For the other performances he will restore it to about 90 minutes. He's also commuting to St. Paul to work as dramaturg (literary adviser) for the play "Sisters of Peace," which will open next March at the History Theater.

It's a busy time, but Stowell clearly is enjoying himself.

"It's theater fun. It's work fun," he said.

People interested in seeing "The Things They Carried" at the Fringe Festival can order tickets online at minnesotafringe.org. Five performances will be at 10 p.m. Aug. 2, 8:30 p.m. Aug. 5, 7 p.m. Aug. 6, 8:30 p.m. Aug. 11, and 4 p.m. Aug. 12 at Ritz Theater Studio, 345 13th Ave. N.E., Minneapolis.

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