Jim Stowell is no stranger to taking complex, beautifully written books and transforming them into plays. He was the man behind Tim O’Brien’s classic “The Things They Carried” jumping from the page to the stage. Now, Stowell is working with another book written by a Minnesota native, Atina Diffley: “Turn Here Sweet Corn.”
The book (and play) has two acts. The first follows the Diffleys as they lose their fifth-generation family farm in Rosemount. Stowell explained that in three years the family saw the surrounding acres go from open land to houses and a school.
“They didn’t stop bulldozers for lunch, just changed drivers,” Stowell emphasized.
The second act is about the Diffleys after they have moved to an organic farm in Eureka Township. Despite moving, the family still had to fight for their farm in an ever-changing world.
Koch Industries wanted to run a pipeline through their farm so Atina Diffley and a female lawyer took on the industry giant in court.
“The good guys win, at least in my perspective,” Stowell said with a smile.
Stowell knew the Diffleys before he began working on this play. He and his wife lived a couple of miles from them in Rosemount and would frequently walk to their farm. While Stowell knew about Atina Diffley's life and everything she did to save the farm, it was her writing that inspired him to transform her story into a play.
Stowell recalled that reading Diffley’s book is like “swimming in a wonderful, cool, clean pool.” He thought that “it would be so much fun to spend time with this writing.”
Many people were excited by and enjoyed Diffley's writing. The Star Tribune’s review stated: “‘Turn Here Sweet Corn’ is a great, absorbing read, even for those of us who cannot grow anything and do not worry about pesticides. It's a classic tale of the little guy fighting the big corporation”
While Stowell loved the book, he knew that trying to include every detail in the play would result in a production that ran for hours.
“The first thing you come to grips with is that 99% of the book is going to get cut,” he explained.
This is done by a slow process of cutting events and details, reworking and rewriting until the final play begins to take shape.
According to Stowell, previously adapting “The Things They Carried” helped him to create this play because he knew at the beginning that he would have to cut a lot out of the narrative.
Once the play was written, Stowell had some trouble finding a venue that would stage it. He explained that he has found that many people in the theater world are not interested in rural America topics.
Eventually Stowell connected with Saltbox Theatre Collective, a Chicago-based theater company. Currently, the play is running at the Edge of Broadway production house in Chicago.
Stowell’s journey into the theater world began when he was in Montana with the Air Force. He explained to a reporter that during that time he had two goals: “get off the base and away from the military, and meet girls.”
Stowell was taking classes at a local college, which allowed him time away from the base. When he discovered that the school was going to put on a play, he signed up and was cast as Happy in “Death of a Salesman.”
While recalling his time playing Hap, Stowell laughed. He was born in Texas and had a thick southern accent, meaning Hap in the local play also had a noticeably out-of-place southern accent.
Later, while working for the Children’s Theater in Minneapolis, a mentor helped Stowell to develop a Midwestern accent to use in plays. Today, it’s hard to believe that Stowell had a southern accent for the first part of his life. But he can still pull it out on demand.
After the Air Force and then living in Rosemount and Minneapolis, Stowell and his wife moved to Red Wing.
“We were going to be here two to three years,” Stowell explained. They been here for 20.
“Turn Here -- Sweet Corn” will run at the Edge of Broadway through Sunday, Jan. 26. Stowell doesn’t know where the show will run next, but he hopes to bring it home to Minnesota soon.