Although those who attend “Spamtown USA” will not see factual characters onstage, there is a documentary element to the play about deep divisions in Austin, Minn., during the 1985-86 Hormel strike by 1,500 workers.
Once Children’s Theatre Company hired “Sneetches” playwright Philip Dawkins for the project, he headed to Austin — i.e., Spamtown — to interview people who were kids at the time of the strike, the result of a proposed wage cut that came on top of previous concessions by Hormel workers.
“Out of that came three composite characters who are deeply, deeply informed by the people he [Dawkins] met,” said the theater’s artistic director, Peter Brosius, adding that the show grew from the organization’s desire to show the resilience and complexity of young people’s lives. “We just thought: How do you look at the world through the lens of young people when there’s a deep divide like this moment in our history?”
Answer: Through drama.
“Spamtown” focuses on five young people who, as the labor action drags on for 10 months, find their families on different sides of an increasingly complicated strike, which would eventually divide not just management from employees but factions within the union that represented the employees. When Hormel hired replacements for the striking workers, it ripped the town apart, permanently ending the employment of most of the company’s workforce.
“We’re looking at those complications: friends or cousins being on opposing sides,” Brosius said. “There’s no way one can do a complete history of these events. It’s a complicated, contested history. It would take three Ken Burns specials. But what we did think we could do, and do really well, is capture the reality of young people in this situation, trying to be a force of change and ask the tough questions.”
With the world premiere on Friday, here are eight things you may not know about Spam and the town where you can expect to be told, “Have a Spamtastic day!”:
1. What is Spam?
The children in “Spamtown USA” have some amusing conversations in which they speculate about the product’s ingredients but they’re not so mysterious. According to the brand’s website, there are just six (this varies for the more than a dozen flavors of Spam, of course): pork, salt (quite a bit), water, sugar, potato starch and sodium nitrate. Hormel says the pork comes from the shoulder.
2. Yes, there is a whole Spam Museum
It explores some of the pre-Spam history of Hormel but the downtown museum, once envisioned as a giant can of Spam you could walk into and explore but ultimately designed as a regular-old building, has exhibits about the flavors of Spam, its impact around the world and a Spam-loving couple who were married on the spot.
3. Austin is a very unusual place
Austin has a population of 25,000 and Hormel’s facility there employs 1,800 of them, which gives the company an outsized influence on the town. (Former leader Jay Hormel described it as a “benevolent dictatorship” in the 1930s.) The only Minnesota Fortune 500 company that is not located in the Twin Cities, Hormel’s influence is magnified by the Hormel Foundation, which handed out grants of $9.7 million this year and funds a program that makes it possible for huge numbers of locals to attend community college for free.
The diversity of Austin is evident as you drive through its downtown, noting that, for instance, you’ll pass a Sudanese Market right next door to a Vietnamese noodle shop on First Street, with the VFW Post a couple of blocks farther.
There’s also this: A brochure of local restaurants lists 38 eateries. Seventeen of them serve Spam-based dishes.
4. Children were “on strike,” too
The play does not focus on depicting “bad guys” or “good guys,” in part because the strike is seen through the eyes of young people who are just trying to keep on track while their parents are arrested or a rock is hurled through their living room window. Characters struggle with whether they can hang onto relationships with neighbors and family members as the strike places their economic needs at odds with each other and a boy named Jake says, “I never thought about my parents having friends until they started not having them.”
In an early workshop production in Washington, D.C., Brosius said they learned that the play’s biggest asset is its young characters.
“You’re watching a group of people try to make sense of something that is not their daily reality. Parents go off and do jobs and kids rarely know much about that, but here’s a place where that reality becomes much more complex for them,” Brosius said. “What I learned as I led that workshop was that the [strike] is so epic and complicated but what we could do brilliantly was show how it felt to children. The more we told the story through young people, the stronger the piece, the more tender, funnier and more real.”
5. Spam won an Oscar
“American Dream” earned director/co-producer Barbara Kopple the Academy Award for feature documentary in 1991. Kopple spent months in Austin, interviewing players on all sides of the 1985-86 Hormel strike, which gained national attention for its complexity and for the belief that if workers couldn’t come out on top in a strike at Hormel, a company that had consistently demonstrated it cared about workers, then they were doomed everywhere. In her acceptance speech, Kopple said, “I’d like to dedicate this film to the people of the Midwest and the families and meatpackers in Austin, Minnesota.”
6. It won a Tony, too
The Spam Museum in Austin ignores the strike and “American Dream,” but a small display is devoted to “Spamalot,” the Broadway show that won the 2005 best musical Tony Award. Based on “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “Spamalot” doesn’t have much to do with Spam, although one lyric goes, “We eat ham and jam and Spam a lot.” The musical also drew inspiration from the same 1970 Monty Python sketch that is said to have inspired use of the word to describe unwanted e-mail. In the sketch, which you can view as part of the museum’s “Spamalot” display, a woman who hates Spam visits a restaurant that serves nothing but Spam.
7. War has been very good to Hormel (and Austin)
Hormel was founded in 1891, but it really picked up steam when Jay Hormel, son of founder George, returned from World War I and helped uncover an embezzling scheme that was draining the company. The Hormels reached out to investors to help revitalize the company in the early 1920s, making it strong enough to withstand the Depression.
Even before the U.S. entered World War II, Hormel was a major player in it, feeding the Russian troops. Eventually, 100 million packs of Spam would be sent to Allied soldiers, who spread it throughout the areas where they fought, particularly in the Pacific.
Not coincidentally, the places American soldiers have visited remain some of the biggest consumers of Spam, with South Korea and the Philippines ranking second and third in the world in consumption, behind the U.S. Stateside, Hawaiians eat the most Spam, which may have had something to do with Brosius opting for a show about the product: “I moved from Hawaii, the largest consumer of Spam, to Minnesota, the maker of Spam, so it was fated this would be a part of my life.”
8. The children shall lead them?
Brosius met an Austinite who still refuses to buy Hormel products, as well as a woman who entered a healing/helping profession, perhaps in response to her father’s involvement in the divisive strike. He came away impressed by the resilience of the town.
“Is [the strike] still alive for some people? Yes. Yet everyone we talked to was so proud of this community and how it integrates new arrivals,” Brosius said.
That welcoming spirit may begin in the schools, where 46 different languages are spoken by students and where kids can be de facto leaders.
“The events in the play take kids apart but their care, their love, their will, their family bonds can help them find their way back to each other,” Brosius said.