The Emigrant Project

by Rebecca Gilman

in Global Connections

Post image for The Emigrant Project

(Photo: Sven Benediktusson. Pictured: Rebecca Gilman and Mayor Keith Carlson of Lindstrom, MN)
Sven Benediktusson and I received a Global Connections grant to conduct research for The Emigrant Project, a documentary play we are creating together. The play is inspired by Wilhelm Moberg’s novel, The Emigrants. The novel tells the story of Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson, who flee the poverty and religious oppression of nineteenth-century Sweden and come to the United States to live in the “promised land.”

Our play will examine whether or not the idea of the American Dream still holds. We also want to examine political trends in Sweden, where a new conservatism (both political and economic) is on the rise, and the country is beginning to question how much they are willing to pay for their welfare state.

Every year, the city of Lindstrom, MN hosts a festival called “Karl Oskar Days” to celebrate the fictional characters who made their home there. And every year, the city of Växjö, Sweden hosts its own “Karl Oskar Days” to celebrate the Swedes who left the country to find their fortunes in the United States. Our grant provided funds so that Sven could travel with me to Lindstrom, and I could go with him to Växjö, to conduct interviews for the The Emigrant Project. We wanted to know from people in both countries, “what do we expect from the country we live in? What does our country demand of us in return?”

A highlight of our interviews in Lindstrom was the long conversation we had with Lindstrom’s mayor, Keith Carlson. Mayor Carlson is a third-generation mayor and a direct descendant of the first settlers of Lindstrom. Both Sven and I were struck by Mayor Carlson’s reaction to the growing anti-government sentiment in the United States. He spoke with great conviction and emotion of his bafflement at the angry rhetoric directed toward government. His reflections on government and its responsibilities will be a central theme in our play.

Photo: Joen Benediktusson. Pictured: Sven Benediktusson

The benefits of the Global Connections grant are almost indescribable. It is difficult to convey how inspiring it was to spend meaningful time in both the United States and Sweden with Sven. The travelling we did generated discussion, fierce arguments and a good deal of laughter. As we create our play, we’ll draw from our research and our interviews, but we’ll also draw from our separate impressions of place, and of each other. I began to see us both as emissaries from our own cultural point of view, so that even the most banal exchanges started to seem loaded with potential meaning. Neither of us is representative of our entire country, of course, but as artists we have to make abstract ideas human, and spending time traveling with Sven was an essential way of beginning that process.

We plan to meet again in Sweden in the spring of 2012 to continue our work on the play. None of this could have happened without our being on the road together. I think this is a terrific way to work!

Global Connections is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. To learn more about the Global Connections program, click here.

Rebecca Gilman is a Chicago-based playwright whose work includes Dollhouse, Spinning Into Butter, Boy Gets Girl, Blue Surge (all of which premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre), and The Glory of Living.