top of page
  • Writer's pictureKathy Coudle-King

Part IV: The journey from page to stage: I can see clearly now the fog has gone

Empire Arts Center marquee with Theatre without Walls presents Retail Therapy May 11 to 14 & 17-19, 21
Empire Arts Center - Downtown Grand Forks, ND

Opening night and week have come and gone. I feel . . . ? Emptied out. But I think I need another week to process it. What I can give you now is a recap based on the blur that was last week:

Final Days Leading up to Opening Night

A cardboard box needed to be painted to look like wood. Eric Castle was on it.

There was one elusive costume piece to figure out. Eric Castle, a man of many talents, came through for me, whipping out his sewing machine.

Things were still a little rough line-wise for some in the cast. Lines were not always flowing “like butta,” but it wasn’t keeping me awake at night. I know these actors care about their performance. So, I knew they’d deliver.

Everything was scratched off my very long “to do” lists. The only thing left was . . .

Final Dress Rehearsal

Wednesday night, three of the four actors moved upstairs from the basement’s black box to start the show in the gallery. My stage manager called places. As everyone got in position, a series of short “beeps” sounded. I looked at someone working on a different project at the theater. “Should we be concerned?”

Nah. Probably nothing.

I shrugged. The executive director was upstairs. She’d take care of it.

We proceeded with our final dress rehearsal. We got through the first scene. It was tight.

We proceeded to the basement. The hallway was foggy. Foggier than it had ever been. The effect was supposed to be just for the room when we burn Joan of Arc at the stake. We’d never planned for the fog in the hallway. But Owen, my sound designer who was watching the rehearsal, and I looked at each other, and I believe my exact works were, “Cool. It really feels like we’re entering the 15th century.” Owen smiled and started to say something when ---


The fire alarms pierced the air.

What was going on? Oh, no! The fog! I knew fog machines could trigger smoke alarms. I’d done a show at the University of North Dakota, and we had to get special permission from the fire department to turn off the alarms. And the executive director at the Empire had said we would need to shut off the alarms, but that had slipped my mind since we’d rehearsed several times with the fog machine on and it had not triggered the alarm. But that night – that night I was reminded. Loudly.

Marco! Owen and I arrived in the black box. It had been transformed into London, England!

The fog machine had run amuck.

Did I mention I bought a fog machine for this show? I splurged and got the most professional one I could afford. No Party City, cheap fog machine for my show. No, I was making an investment. Uh-huh.

fog surrounds the tech booth and script
Fog at the tech booth

We couldn’t see our hands in front of our face. I called out to David, our tech guy. “Dave! Are you in there?” I shouted into the pea soup that was our set.

“Marco! Yeah, I’m here,” he called from somewhere on the other side of the space.


“What the hell happened down here?”

“It just kept puffing out fog!” he said.


“And you didn’t turn it off?”

“I thought you wanted it that way.”


No, I prefer the audience see my show, Dave. Oy.

Everyone started flapping whatever we could flap – the script, a costume – our arms – in an attempt to clear the room of fog. We opened the doors. Maybe not the smartest thing to do, in retrospect.

I ran to the office on the top floor to see if we could turn off the alarms now that we’d determined there was no actual fire. The theater’s executive director was still in the building and was busy trying to get someone on the phone at the fire alarm control office. She was giving passwords and info, but still –


I went down to the gallery where the fog had now creeped. That is about when we heard the fire truck. Yep. The big, red truck was pulling up out front. Three handsome (they’re always handsome) firefighters jumped off and out of the truck with equipment. I met them.

“False alarm! I am so sorry!”

“We still need to check it out,” they said.

We took them down to what now looked like the 3 witches scene from Macbeth.

"Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble."

Yep. Just a bunch of theatre people making trouble.


The firefighters opened all the doors of the theatre, but by this point the fog had risen from the basement to the lobby to the auditorium to the balcony to the office. Every smoke detector was going off in the building.


I sent the actors outside. The noise was loud enough to trigger a migraine, and the fog smell was so thick, it couldn’t be good to breathe too much in.

The executive director was still on the phone with the alarm system people answering security questions: “What was your great grandmother’s middle name? Can you spell that?”

Neither she nor the fire fighters could override the alarms to turn them off since the fog was still in the building.


Now I understood why the theatre required I have insurance. Dear God, please do not let the sprinklers go off.

An hour ticked by, and they finally got the alarms shut off when the fog cleared. It was just an hour, but I could feel myself aging.

The rest of rehearsal went smoothly. My cast really are troupers. They used the time we had and when I went to bed that night, it wasn’t lines I was worried about. Should we, could we use the fog machine at all? Did we dare? It really is a pretty cool effect, but was it worth risking setting off the alarms? The fire fighters cautioned that if we turned them off, someone would need to stand “Fire Watch.”

Insomnia visited.

Opening Day

After the night before, opening day was a piece of cake. I put the finishing touches on the program, printed it on paper I’d scored for free – it’s yellow, tying in nicely with the Yellow Wallpaper theme.

All I needed to do was take a shower and get dressed. We were ready to share the efforts of two and a half years of research, writing, and rehearsing.

Audience in Joan of Arc Room, May 12

The Show

Retail Therapy: 700 years of mental health care looks like I imagined. This incredible cast and crew manifested what was in my brain and made it so much better. The set (Eric Castle, Caiden Kirby-Gable, Hannah Lindstrom, Heidi Lamb-Castle), the lights and video (David Kuznicki), and copious sound effects (Owen Skroch) beautifully support the story we are telling.

I hit the casting jackpot with my cast of 4 (Ashley Fredricksen, Walter Criswell, Hannah Diers, and Nicole Quam) playing more than 20 roles. Everyone brought their “A” game, and I couldn’t be more pleased with them.

And then there is my amazing stage manager, Jace Erickson, who keeps everything running smoothly. Originally, I'd hoped he’d be in the show, but he has been invaluable in his role as stage manager. This show would not be what it is without him.


No show is complete until you have an audience, and our numbers have been up and down. We’re averaging around 20 and can squeeze in 30, so that’s not so bad. The producer in me doesn’t love that. But some of the people who have attended seem moved by the story and responsive. There was some beautiful post-show sharing on Friday that I will never forget. I’ll take that. I’ll take all of it.

So, to completely exhaust the metaphor – did we serve up a tasty meal?

Well, the answer to that is subjective, of course, but my response is – YES! Will I continue to adjust the recipe? Most definitely.

Developing a new play has many steps. From first draft to second and third to table read to rehearsals to premiere – it changes. Having an audience see the play reveals things to me, as the playwright, that I could not have known any other way. I plan to keep noodling around the ending, the flow of the scenes, seeing where I can tighten, considering if there’s anything I need to add.

It’s a journey, and that journey includes unforeseen curves and glorious discoveries, and sometimes – fog. Copious amounts of fog.

Final shows on Wednesday through Friday (no show Saturday) and closing on Sunday. Please reserve:

Writing prompt: I forgot about turning off the alarms for the fog. Do you recall a time when you were minding so many moving parts of a project but you forgot the one detail that derailed everything, if only briefly?


bottom of page