Adaptation: Playwright Jim Stowell turns Tim O’Brien book into play
A number of years ago, Jim Stowell attended a book reading-signing event with author Tim O’Brien in the Twin Cities. When it was his turn to talk to the author, Stowell said he hoped to adapt O’Brien’s most well-known work, “The Things They Carried,” into a stage play. O’Brien didn’t seem overly intrigued by the prospect.
“He just said, ‘Sure. Fine. Thank you. I don’t have anything to do with that,’” related Stowell about the encounter.
But then Stowell’s wife, Jessica Zuehlke, stepped forward and introduced herself. O’Brien immediately perked up at her name.
“He said, ‘How are Cal and Nancy?’” recalled Stowell.
O’Brien referred to Jessica’s parents, Cal and Nancy Zuehlke of Worthington. Having grown up in Worthington, the son of William and Ava O’Brien, O’Brien knew the Zuehlkes and had Cal as a teacher before heading off to Macalaster College, Vietnam War service and eventual acclaim as a writer.
Next month, Stowell’s adaptation of “The Things They Carried” will debut at the History Theatre in Minneapolis. His familiarity with O’Brien’s hometown was incidental in the process.
“I don’t think that had a lick to do with me getting the rights or anything,” Stowell said. “But it’s nice for me to have that connection.”
Book to stage
For more than 40 years, Stowell has written, acted, directed and produced theater in the Twin Cities area.
“Pretty much my entire adult life — over 45 years, something like that,” he said. “I founded two theater companies many years ago. That’s where I met Jessica, in the 1970s.”
The O’Brien project was something Stowell had contemplated for a few years — although he’d given up hope of it ever coming to fruition.
“Like everyone else, so it seems, I just loved the book, read it many times,” explained Stowell. “I’m one of those people who rereads books. Four or five years ago now, I was in a play in St. Paul, and there was a guy in the play I’ve known for many years as an actor. I turned to him one day and said, ‘You know, Steve, I’d love to adapt this book and have you do this role.’”
When he contacted his agent, however, Stowell was informed that somebody else already owned the rights to the project.
“Then one day after a couple of years, she emails me back: ‘Well, they dropped out. You’re first in line. What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want it.’ She worked out the deal, all the financial and legal blah blah blah on their end — that never goes fast — and one day she got back to me and said, ‘Write the check.’ I paid the fee, and for a length of time I have the option to produce it. If you don’t make the option, you’re out, and there’s the next guy waiting in line.”
“The Things They Carried” is a collection of short stories that follows a platoon of soldiers during the Vietnam War. The work is semi-autobiographical, based on O’Brien’s own war experiences. Despite his former playwriting experiences, Stowell found adapting the work to be a “real learning experience.”
“I had done a biographical play before, and that helped a lot,” he explained. “But when you go into a project like that, you know that 98 percent of the guy’s life is not going to make it onstage. It helped that the book was not linear, but was more episodic. … It was easier for me to make choices to sort of restructure it, to put it into a play structure. I could take that theme from the beginning, move it here — on and on like that.”
For Stowell, delving fully into the work was a joyous undertaking.
“I got to spend all of my time — over a year, year and a half — with Tim’s book, reading Tim O’Brien every day, learning about writing every day just by reading that book,” reflected Stowell. “It was an incredible master class from one of America’s greatest novelists. It was just a gift to have that opportunity, to spend that kind of time.”
In November, Stowell and Zuehlke connected with O’Brien once again, traveling to Chicago where O’Brien was presented the 2013 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing.
“I was very nervous. He was the star of the weekend, of course, and I thought, ‘He won’t read it,’ but I couldn’t show up and not give it to him,” related Stowell. “So I gave it to him. ‘I’m going to read it tonight,’ he said. He got right back to me when he got back to Texas. There was not a bit of ‘You should do this, you should do that. It was more like, ‘Good luck. Godspeed. Off you go.’ But it was exciting to give him the script.”
The stage version of “The Things They Carried” is a one-man show, featuring Stephen D’Ambrose, the actor to whom Stowell initially broached the project.
“I’ve always seen it as a one-person play,” explained Stowell. “It’s the language. It’s his language that does it — through the magic of storytelling. Storytelling is a version of a movie that the audience makes in their heads. The words only paint a tiny bit of what people think and feel and do. It’s because of the ability to do that, and it’s his language — that gorgeous language, that courageous language.”
Currently acting in another History Theatre production, “The Incredible Season of Ronnie Rabinowitz,” which ends on Feb. 23, Stowell’s involvement in the O’Brien play will be limited to the writing credit.
“I’ve never done this before,” he said. “Usually I write and I perform, but this time I’m not directing, not performing. It’s been generally agreed that at some point they would ban me from rehearsals.
“The very first time I ever wrote a play — a billion years ago — I acted it all out at home so I could work on the lines — do they sound true? In the process, I’m creating all these voices, all these characters, and then I took it in and handed it to the actors, and it was a total nightmare. None of them sounded like I imagined. I learned a long time ago, as soon as you put the script into the actors’ hands, it’s not the same play.”
To distance himself from the upcoming production, Stowell said he may head to Wisconsin. He and Jessica live in Red Wing during the colder months, but spend summers in Bayfield, Wis. Jessica runs a lodging inn there, while Jim is employed as a lighthouse keeper/guide by the National Park Service.
“I live on the island for five days and four nights,” he detailed about his ranger job. “I’m there Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, get off on Tuesday and go back again on Friday. The lighthouse is divided in two — part of it is
public, and the other part is where the ranger lives. So I actually live in the lighthouse. My main job is to take people on tours of the lighthouse, talk about the history.”
At the Raspberry Island lighthouse — which is part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore — Stowell’s “audience” varies in numbers. Some days he may present to a crowd of 30 people, and then the next day have only two visitors.
“It’s a form of theater, but it’s different,” he said. “You can go up to the top of the lighthouse, go on the catwalk around the lighthouse, and it can be quite spectacular. You can see three states — Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan — on a clear day.”
The job, Stowell notes, is not for everyone.
“You have to not be married or have a home life that makes it possible,” he said. “Jessica knows everybody in Bayfield, so she has a very active life when I’m out on the island. So that works. But out on the island, you have to be able to deal with solitude. I do love it. I love the solitude. It’s an astonishing thing. How much time do any of us truly spend alone? Not just in a room by ourselves, but with nowhere to go, no TV, no radio, no computer, no nothing? But I have a wilderness right out my back door. In 10 minutes, I’m in a forest where nobody has been since the glaciers.
“If you can put up with the bugs and the heat — if you can’t do that, it’s going to be a bad time for you,” he added.
In addition to summers spent at the lighthouse and his Twin Cities theater gigs, Jim has also garnered a reputation as a storyteller.
“I didn’t leave theater to do that,” he noted. “But I just started getting more work, and in 2011 I was at the International Storytelling Center, which sounds pretty impressive until you realize it’s in Jonesboro, Tenn. But it’s really an amazing thing, with thousands of people there over this one weekend. They shut the city down, put up roadblocks, put up tents, and there are thousands of people there watching people tell stories. I’m having a lot of fun doing it. It’s a different kind of writing. Right now I’m doing a lot of different things with writing.”
Another one of those “different things” is co-writing a play with Jessica based on the beginnings of Worthington’s partnership with its sister city, Crailsheim, Germany. Titled “A Wagon Load of Shoes,” the play is a musical, still very much in the pre-production stages.
Stowell and Zuehlke’s most renowned collaboration is the first “Church Basement Ladies” play.
“You have to keep everything in the air in hopes that one of them works,” Stowell said. “When you’re an independent out there, you have 10 things going, and maybe one of them will work.”
“Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried” will be produced March 15 through April 6 at the History Theatre. For ticket information, phone (651) 292-4323; or go to www.historytheatre.com.
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth
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