‘Population 485’ tells story of local volunteer firefighters

Intersection of blue collar work ethic and the importance of art in a small town come together in local author’s bestselling story

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All members of the cast either have been students, are current students, or are a faculty member from UW-Eau Claire. ‘Population 485’ will be showing this weekend and also going on tour around the state.

Working day and night, in a small town just 40 miles north of Eau Claire, lies a community which, when danger strikes, must abandon their daily jobs and save their neighbors from danger.

A nonfiction story brought to life tells the tales of a farmer’s wife who carries a pistol and a bible on her at all times, a firefighting butcher with one kidney and one eye, a bartender, a logger and other local citizens who all work together in times of emergencies.

Local author and intermittent volunteer firefighter Michael Perry is part of the cast and is the creator of “Population 485” being performed this weekend. Perry adapted it from memoir form into a play last year. This is the second year it’s been performed.

“I’ve been making ambulance calls for years,” Perry said.

The writer calls New Auburn, Wisconsin home and has published six books, among articles in various publications including Esquire and Outside magazine.

Perry published “Population 485” in 2002 and decided last year to adapt it after Justin Vernon of Bon Iver suggested Perry modify the book for the stage. The play is meant to emphasize the intersection between the hard-working lifestyle of blue collar employees and the appreciation of art.

“Over the years I started revisiting the idea and then finally last year I just decided to try and do it,” Perry said. “Basically booked a theater so that I was forced to get the play going.”

When Perry told him about altering his book for the stage last year, director Jake Lindgren of Downstage Left said he felt ecstatic and curious to test the waters and see what happened with it.

After having two full houses last year, Perry and Lindgren decided to perform four times this year in Eau Claire and add on a tour in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states over the next year.

Lindgren said the play encapsulates the fears people may have to face on any given day, such as car wrecks, heart attacks and having to rely on your friends and neighbors when your or a loved one’s life is on the line.

“Firefighting is just a vehicle to tell these stories of these real people,” Lindgren said. “People will get that small-town humor, but really there’s a lot of heartache here … it all can happen and change drastically in a split second and that’s really what this piece is about.”

More music is also part of this year’s reproduction of the play. Sean Carey, a member of Bon Iver and S. Carey, was able to record original music along with  musician Molly O on violin and mandolin. Last year, he played the piano live but won’t be able to play for this year’s shows, so the music was recorded.

The majority of the eight-member cast will be performing, although one member is unable to return, due to scheduling conflicts and other circumstances. Therefore, Perry and Lindgren said a character was recast.

Lindgren said the cast is feeling the pressure because several people in the real story will be coming to see the performance.

“These are real people and the people they’re based on are coming to the show,” Lindgren said. “That’s super daunting and so we don’t take any of that lightly, in fact that is what we look at the most seriously is making sure that these people are portrayed honestly and realistically and are not made into caricatures or something that is not believable.”

Show times for “Population 485” will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 12 and 13, as well as 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May 13 and 14. All performances will be in Kjer Theater on campus. Tickets may be bought in advance at the service center and are $15 for students and $20 for adults.