In Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, playwright Rebecca Gilman depicts a family in a small Wisconsin town who, along with their surrounding community, are forever altered when a food conglomerate buys their local cheese factory. A few weeks before rehearsals began for Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, Gilman spoke with the production’s dramaturg, Neena Arndt, about labor unions, small towns and America’s bicentennial, which serves as a backdrop for the play.

NEENA ARNDT: What spurred you to write a play about the changing economics of the 1970s?

REBECCA GILMAN: I’m very disturbed by what has happened in Wisconsin in recent years with [Governor] Scott Walker and the public employees’ unions, and I had been thinking a lot about the attack on unions in the United States. I read a book by Jefferson Cowie called Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class that traces the beginning of the end of the working class and the politics of the ‘70s.  So I started thinking about that time from my own childhood and what felt different then from the present. Cowie wrote about the rise of the self-help movement and self-empowerment movement and how they seemed to come at the expense of community. I thought that that was very interesting.

Playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Robert Falls share a laugh in rehearsal for Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Robert Falls share a laugh in rehearsal for Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976. Photo by Liz Lauren.

NA: And you have a personal connection to Green County, Wisconsin, correct?

RG: Yes, I love that area and I wanted to write about that as well. There is such a sense of history in the area. People are very proud of where they come from. There are Scandinavian, German and Swiss heritages present that I think inform how people treat problems. They are very pragmatic in their approach to things, which I appreciate. I was at a garage sale for the volunteer fire department in this little town in Wisconsin and found a cookbook called Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976. While I was reading it and looking at all the recipes that the ladies had submitted, I started to think about how small town communities really come together to help each other in ways that reminded me of how unions can have a really strong community connection as well. I wanted to write about the whole town, not just about the workplace, and how everyone is affected when people are pitted against each other. The cheese factory is still taking cheese from the local farmers. They’re sort of on the cusp between supporting the local farmers and turning into processed food conglomerates. So for me, it’s like moving away from knowing who made things, to the food just becoming a commodity. It’s not a source of nourishment anymore, it’s just a commodity.

I feel like we’ve stopped even considering ways that people might have a meaningful and secure work life…. Problematic as unions can be, they are the only weapon we have.

NA: What was your personal experience of the ‘70s?

RG: It was a bright spot for me as a kid and I don’t even know why exactly. It seemed like a time when people started to express themselves in a freer way. There was the women’s liberation movement and gay rights activists, and race relations seemed to be starting to change in a good way. It was this little halcyon period when it seemed like we might, as a country, get our shit together. Then came the ‘80s, and, from my perspective, a terrible backlash. In the ‘70s we were more open to different ideas about fair ways of working that weren’t totally motivated by profit, but then it just all kind of got shut down. I guess that’s part of what makes me nostalgic for that time period. The bicentennial element of the play is this mixed bag of ridiculous nationalism that we were all caught up in, but for me personally, it was also really fun. I was the head of the bicentennial committee at my school in Jefferson, Alabama, where I grew up. I was in charge of a project for which all the school kids tried to collect quarters to help build a monument to Thomas Jefferson in front of the city hall. I collected quarters, kept track of them and then eventually gave them all to somebody. I don’t even know if the statue ever went up or not; maybe somebody just put [the money] in their pocket.

Inspiration and references for Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Inspiration and references for Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976. Photo by Liz Lauren.

NA: What are some specific things that you think have changed in the past 40 years?

RG: I hope people will look at the play and ask themselves what we’ve lost by abandoning our working class and protection for peoples’ rights as workers, which I think we’ve done. I keep thinking about Uber, and all this gig economy that we’re in now. There’s a new term that economists have started using, “precariat,” meaning the ‘precarious proletariat.’  I feel like we’ve stopped even considering ways that people might have a meaningful and secure work life that can afford them a decent standard of living. We’ve done that because we’ve abandoned unions. Problematic as unions can be, they are the only weapon we have. I hope people will realize that there’s an alternative to the way we are running things now.