Grand Forks playwright travels N.D., brings play 'Ghost Town' with her

For the better part of a year, Grand Forks playwright Kathy Coudle-King traveled North Dakota, visiting more than 50 small towns, some with populations in the single digits, to expand on a one-act play she'd written called "Ghost Town."...

Kathy Coudle-King
Kathy Coudle-King, right

For the better part of a year, Grand Forks playwright Kathy Coudle-King traveled North Dakota, visiting more than 50 small towns, some with populations in the single digits, to expand on a one-act play she'd written called "Ghost Town."

But a funny thing happened during those visits to Ashley and Olga, Manitou and Michigan, Stanley and Cavalier, trips that began as a way to collect video and photos of the North Dakota landscape during the four seasons.

"People didn't really want to talk about towns disappearing," Coudle-King said. "They wanted to talk about towns staying alive and doing things to draw people to them. That's typical of North Dakota. The glass is half full, I guess."

Out of those trips, those conversations with small-town mayors, tours of cemeteries, visits to historic buildings and new businesses, Coudle-King has written "Off The Map," a play and documentary film about small towns, what it means to be part of a community and how the oil boom is affecting the western part of the state.

Saturday, "Off The Map" will be shown in Hazelton, N.D., and Sunday at 3 p.m. it will be at the Hatton Community Center in Hatton, N.D. Performances also are scheduled in Stanley, N.D., June 9 and Crosby, N.D., June 10, and at 7:30 p.m. July 12-13 at Fire Hall Theatre in Grand Forks. Admission will be by freewill offering; $10 is the suggested donation.


The one-act play runs about 60 minutes with 22 characters -- including a Catholic nun, an oil worker, a taxidermist and some quilters -- portrayed by eight actors. The documentary, edited by Mary Lizakowski, follows and runs 48 minutes.

Musical contributors to the film were North Dakota singer/songwriters Chuck Suchy of Mandan, N.D., and Jesse Veeder Scofield of Watford City, N.D.; Dan Jerome of Belcourt, N.D., a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa who makes and plays flutes; and Robert Sackman of Tuttle, N.D., a collector and singer of folk songs of the Germans from Russia. The documentary also includes footage from Zip to Zap, a 1969 event in Zap, N.D., that started out as a college students' party and turned into a riot that the National Guard was called to disperse.

Coudle-King, who is the director of Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre and a lecturer in the UND English Department, used her friends and Facebook to make connections with the residents of the small towns she visited. Her travels took her to some towns that literally are no longer on the map.

"The smaller the town, the more excited I would get," she said. "Because they weren't dead and they didn't want to be called a ghost town."

Some of the towns she visited: Ashley, Beach, Buffalo, Cavalier, Crosby, Edinburg, Granville, Hazelton, Hebron, Lostwood, Manitou, Manvel, Michigan, Olga, Richardton, Ruso, Stanley, Tarsus, Tioga, Tuttle and Walhalla. At one point, she put 3,000 miles on her car in five days.

In Stanley and Crosby, she talked to people about the affects of the oil boom. At Tarsus, south of Bottineau, an 82-year-old woman showed her around the cemetery. At Buffalo, she learned about growing grapes and making wine and the annual Grape Harvest Festival & Grape Stomp, also known as the Buffalo Stomp.

In Hazelton, she met a woman who had relocated from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and opened a factory that makes bullet proof vests, Coudle-King said. Another woman published mathematics guides for home schools that she sold all over the world. A woman in Granville bought a historic (and empty) bank building, gutted it and rented space to businesses. Many of the movers and shakers in the small towns were women 60 and older who could have taught lessons on effective grassroots organizing, she said.

"These people are scrappy," she said. "They're just amazing."


One recent transplant to North Dakota told Coudle-King the key to making a successful transition to small town life was proving to your neighbors that you were invested in their community.

Ultimately, "Off The Map" is about the need for community, Coudle-King said.

"Everyone everywhere is seeking community," she said. "I think it's part of being human. If you're not seeking community, you're the guy living in that cabin in the mountains. But if you are from a small town, you value it."

The production had a "soft opening" April 28 at Buffalo, N.D., during the Community Connect Forum sponsored by the North Dakota Center for Community Engagement at UND.

"I was really pleased with the feedback we got,' Coudle-King said. "Initially, when we asked, 'Well, what value can this (play and documentary) have?," we thought, economic development." "Off The Map" certainly showed the vitality of North Dakota's rural communities, and informed viewers of things they probably didn't know about North Dakota -- such as the fact that it has grape growers, wine makers and a Buffalo Stomp. But there was another layer as well for the viewers at the premier.

"I think people responded more on an emotional level," Coudle-King said. "You could have heard a pin drop."

The playwright said the play and the documentary are still being tweaked. ("It's a work in progress.") Nor is she sure what will happen with the production after the July performances in Grand Forks.

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to .

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