Grand Forks playwright ready to debut immersive, theater installation at Empire Arts Center

Kathleen Coudle King wrote 'Retail Therapy', a play tackling 700 years of mental health and mental health history.

Ashley Fredricksen (center) plays Joan of Arc in 'Retail Therapy.'
Michael McGurran // WDAY News

The cast of "Retail Therapy" is getting ready to put on a different kind of show than most theater lovers might be used too, in a different kind of environment.

"It's about 700 years of mental health care," said playwright and director Kathleen Coudle KingWe put the word care in quotation marks because it has a pretty dark history.

Playwright and Director Kathy Coudle King took inspiration from historical events, with cast members playing real life figures like Joan of Arc, Virginia Wolff, and many more.

"Lots of people were labeled mentally ill, who were not, and were locked away for various reasons," King said. "They might be too political, actually, or too religious, or too loud."

But that's not all. King describes the play as an immersive theater installation. It actually starts in the lobby of the Empire Arts center, before the actors themselves escort the audience into the basement where the play continues.


It also incorporates sound effects and an interactive component to the play, where the audience explores the set to find little pieces of mental health history, like pictures from North Dakota mental asylums in the 1930's.

It's been a unique experience for the seasoned actors in the cast.

"I am playing people who existed and who were wronged by mental health care, and wronged by men or family members in their lives, who didn't want to try and help them," explained cast member Ashley Fredricksen. "So they've shut them away and locked them up. There is a truth to all of these women that is very important."

Even though it might be a little unsettling, King says it's important to start a conversation about the tough subject of mental health and its history, and theater's her way to be part of that conversation.

"Any playwright wants to talk about the stuff that people don't talk about, we want to talk about the taboo," King said. "Theater is a great way to do that, because we can do it in a public forum."

Retail Therapy runs May 11 through May 21 at the Empire Arts Center.

Mike McGurran has been a reporter and anchor at WDAY-TV since 2021.
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