GRAND FORKS Kathy Coudle-King went to Ruso to look for a ghost town and found a growing community.
The Grand Forks playwright embraced the good, the bad and the surprising in her effort to uncover the stories of more than 50 small towns across North Dakota. Her one-act play and 47-minute documentary, both titled "Off the Map," recount her experiences in meeting inspiring entrepreneurs, talking oil with residents of western North Dakota and hearing tales of real ghost towns like Lostwood in Mountrail County and Tarsus in Bottineau County.
The productions have had a few showings, with the next engagements coming up this weekend in Stanley and Crosby.
The old bank building in Granville has been remodeled into a lodge and business space. Granville’s entrepreneurs are featured in “Off the Map,” a play and documentary about small towns.
Signs of life persist next to evidence of decline in Ruso, the smallest North Dakota town counted in the 2010 Census.
"When I was doing the project, I started with this idea of looking at towns that had been wiped off the map. I found that North Dakotans are very optimistic and they don't want to talk about the negative. They want to talk about the positive. They wanted to talk about towns that were doing something innovative," said Coudle-King, who is executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre.
She found innovation in a bank restoration project in Granville, the nonprofit-run grocery in Tuttle and other initiatives that are helping keep towns on the map. In chatting with residents in Ruso, the state's least populated city with four residents in the 2010 Census, Coudle-King learned that population had swelled to 11.
A more poignant moment came in watching a Tuttle resident point out empty lots while describing a town that only exists in his memories, she said.
Coudle-King made many trips across the state, visiting bigger small towns such as Ashley, Beach and Ray and towns that are just stops in the road, such as Blaisdell, near Stanley, and Olga, near Cavalier.
"I was also tasting pie as I traveled around," she said. "I have awarded my blue ribbon to Hazelton. I had a stop there Saturday night and I stand by that."
A Bush Foundation grant in 2009 provided impetus for the research, giving Coudle-King an opportunity to expand on a short play she had written called "Ghost Town." The project eventually took on a life that was much different from the earlier play, though.
Rather than look at how towns are dying, her visits in the communities started her thinking about what towns are doing to stay alive. She said she had no agenda as she traveled west, but people opened up with stories about how oil was affecting their small towns.
"You might want to be careful what you wish for," Coudle-King said of the message. "It will change what you love about small-town living if you get too many people."
Coudle-King found that some oil workers would welcome becoming part of communities if the towns would open their arms to them.
"Maybe we need to think about things we have done forever a certain way, and think how we can integrate people so they do feel they are part of the community because if they feel like they are, they will care about the community," she said.
One of the highlights of her research came in sitting down together with an oil worker, the mayor and a state senator in Stanley.
"It was a wonderful conversation," she said.
Oil makes up only about a third of the story line in the western communities, though.
"They get really excited here about the oil, but there's a lot of really wonderful stories out there about North Dakota. We don't want them to get buried as we focus on oil," Coudle-King said.
The 65-minute play opens with Coudle-King in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere, haunted by memories of the communities where she has been. The play has no traditional plot, she said, but recounts her experiences in various communities. Eight actors play 22 characters who represent real people.
The documentary features music from Chuck Suchy of Mandan, Jesse Veeder Scofield of Watford City, Dan Jerome of Belcourt, who plays flute, and Robert Sackman of Tuttle, who collects folk songs of the Germans of Russia.
Performances are scheduled Saturday at the Sibyl Center in Stanley at 7 p.m. and Sunday at the Dakota Theatre in Crosby at 1:30 p.m. There is no admission but donations will be accepted to support the local arts venues. Other performances are scheduled for July 12 and 13 in Grand Forks.
Coudle-King, who has a degree in script writing, has been writing for 25 years and has taught at the University of North Dakota. The North Dakota Humanities Council funded a professional editor, Mary Lizakowski, of Grand Forks, to assist with "Off the Map," and UND is helping to fund presentations.
Coudle-King said the ability to get the play out to more communities will depend on availability of the actors, but people can arrange documentary showings by contacting her at email@example.com. The documentary also is available on DVD for $25.
Coudle-King said she may enter the documentary in small film festivals but believes the best audience might be economic development directors.
"There's a lot of really good suggestions," she said. "It would be a good conversation starter."