The late Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, have long been inspiring figures for liberal political activists, and their life together has been chronicled in several books and films. And now the Wellstone story is coming to the stage, with the help of local singer/songwriter Larry Long.
Wellstone!, a powerful new play depicting the politics and lives of Paul and Sheila Wellstone, premieres at the History Theatre in St. Paul October 7 and runs through November 5. Written by Mark Rosenwinkel with music and lyrics by Larry Long, Wellstone! portrays how Paul’s personal life informed his political life, because, as Rosenwinkel puts it, “politics were personal” to Wellstone.
Rosenwinkel was inspired about six years ago to write a play about the Central Minnesota powerline protests in the 1970s, in which Wellstone was a key figure. But the History Theatre’s artistic director, Ron Peluso, rejected it. After Wellstone’s death, Rosenwinkel revised the original script into its current approach and Peluso expressed more interest—especially after Rosenwinkel agreed to write the play for three actors, After a successful reading at History Theatre’s “Raw Stages,” Wellstone! got the green light.
Rosenwinkel, who never met Wellstone, was inspired to write the play as a way to assuage his own grief after the 2002 plane crash that killed Paul and Sheila. “I, like so many, felt grief,” he said. “To me, there’s a personal tragedy; there’s a bigger picture for those of us who took him for granted as I did. I didn’t realize until he was gone, his uniqueness. When the plane went down, there was this lingering grief that remains.”
To help inform the play, Rosenwinkel and Long talked to Green Bus driver Paul Scott, Wellstone campaign strategist Jeff Blodgett, and others who knew Wellstone. Rosenwinkel harkens to Paul’s memoirs as well. The play features conversations between Paul and his father, a Russian Jewish immigrant who didn’t trust politics. As his father died before Paul became senator, he converses with his father’s spirit in the play.
As inspiring as Wellstone’s life may have been, Rosenwinkel and Long wanted the play to be more than a Wellstone tribute. It needed to be a taut and interesting story. So the play addresses the tensions Wellstone faced by being an insider and outsider in politics. “Where does the agitator end and the leader begin?” Rosenwinkel asked. “Toward the end of his campaign he had to vote on Iraq—he voted on principle, and on conscience. That was viewed as a suicide vote, but his numbers shot up instead.”
And because he was able to maintain his focus on populist issues like farm relief and corporate corruption, he explained, Wellstone could play both the outsider and the insider in Washington. “Politics was not a dirty word for Paul. He liked politics. He defined it as an outgrowth of compassion.”
Music for the people—and the play
Long’s music is the glue that holds the play together, Rosenwinkel said. And though it’s not a musical—Paul and Sheila didn’t sing songs together—the songs are central to the play because they’re historic and authentic. Long wrote them for Wellstone during their 30-year friendship, not just for the play.
Long, a Smithsonian Folkways recording artist honored with a Bush Artists Fellowship, the Pope John XXIII Award, and The Spirit of Crazy Horse Award for his work among disenfranchised communities, serves as songwriter, musical director, and music coach for Wellstone! Long is excited about this, his first time working with a theatrical production, which he called “a living process.”
One night when he was watching the actors rehearse, Long said he realized that the story of Paul and Sheila fits the theater very well. “Paul was a very theatrical, passionate person,” he said. “They were almost like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, always together. There was inseparability between those two. The fact they lost their life in the same flight—they were always together, so that was right.”
But there’s little that’s maudlin about the production, Long noted. “There is a lot of humor in this play, as there was in their lives; there were very touching moments between Paul and Sheila. In this play there are a lot of personal moments. It’s about their life, not their death. Their spirit is still here in politics today.”
During his years as a Carleton College professor, Wellstone hired Long on several occasions to teach political history and social activism through song. He was around when college administrators tried to fire Paul, one of the play’s most humorous moments. “Carleton was a gas!” Long recalled. “It was there I met Jeff Blodgett. It was a groundswell of youth movement. Those were very exciting times.”
And he hopes that Wellstone! will inspire more activism in the future from people willing to chase their dreams. “Paul shot for the moon and then he made it! I never thought he would, but he did,” Long said. “Don’t be afraid to aim high and go for it! Paul did, so why not you? Go for it!”
Oct. 7–Nov. 5
30 E. 10th St.