"Stayin' Alive" in St. Louis

Cowie book comes to life in a play about the labor movement
"Stayin’ Alive" in St. Louis
Monday, March 10, 2014

It isn't often that academics see the words of their books brought to life.

However, that's exactly what is happening for ILR Professor Jeff Cowie with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis's production of "Soup, Stews and Casseroles: 1976," inspired by his book "Stayin' Alive."

As a prize-winning historian, Cowie's expertise in the labor history of the United States is made clear in "Stayin' Alive," which covers the cultural and political implications of the economic upheavals of the 1970s. He chronicles America's path from optimism and rising wealth after the New Deal to the disheartening economic inequalities that followed.

Rebecca Gilman, a playwright and associate professor at Northwestern University, said she struggled to find inspiration for her commissioned work until reading Cowie's book.

Describing Cowie's writing as "smart and compelling," Gilman said it helped focus her ideas; the play is now a theatrical narrative about "the beginning of the end of the labor movement."

The play's title is "Soups, Stews and Casseroles," referencing charity fundraiser cookbooks created in small towns such as Monroe, Wis., where the play is set.

The production premieres Wednesday. There will be 22 performances, which continue until March 30.

The play is a study of how the past helped create the political, social and economic trends of today, said Gilman, who sets the play in.

When its main employer – a cheese factory – is bought by a big manufacturer, the peaceful small town turns into a battleground as families struggle to retain their independence, identity and livelihoods.

New opportunities develop for some employees, but not their neighbors. Difficult choices must be made, putting loyalties and relationships to the test.

By setting the play in the 1970s, Gilman hopes she can engage the audience emotionally, while also challenging them intellectually by asking them to consider this country's "present-day war on organized labor."

Cowie says, "When you are toiling away at research, you just hope someone will read your work. But to help inspire a play is thrilling. I love the idea of bridging scholarship and the arts and flattered that a playwright like Rebecca Gilman might find some inspiration in my work."

The theater and Webster University will host a visit by Cowie to see the play, speak about his Cornell work and do media appearances in support of the production.