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Black and white photo of North Dakota State Insane Hospital in Jamestown, 1900; Memories Collection, ND State Library
     North Dakota State Insane Hospital in Jamestown, 1900; Memories Collection, ND State Library


NDCA’s FY24 Individual Artist Fellow Kathleen "Kathy" Coulde-King is nearing the end of her project to create a play titled, "Whispers in the Wind: North Dakota's Disappeared Speak." During her one-year fellowship, Coudle-King is attempting to discover the life stories of those buried in the cemetery at the ND State Hospital in the late 1890s and early 1900s. She explained, "The disappeared are those who were erased from family history or only whispered about to the closest of relatives and friends. They are the ones who stand nameless in the family photos. They are the (almost) forgotten."

Four actors on a stage performing in Retail Therapy, a play about mental health hospitals by Kathleen Coudle-King; photo by Michael Bogert
Retail Therapy; photo by Michael Bogert

This project is somewhat of a continuation of a play she wrote in 2022 titled, "Retail Therapy: 700 years of mental health 'care'.” Coulde-King stated, “Retail Therapy focused primarily on famous women in history who were afflicted by mental health issues: Joan of Arc, Virginia Woolf, Zelda Fitzgerald, Rosemary Kennedy, and Zelda Fitzgerald. However, Whispers in the Wind is allowing me to zoom in on the lives of ‘ordinary’ people living in North Dakota. Their stories are just as important as those of celebrities.”

When asked for an update on her project, Coulde-King said, “I have completed four trips to the Jamestown State Hospital Museum to do research for my new play inspired by the first hospital in ND [then Dakota Territory] for mentally ill patients. I am working on the first draft now and discovering surprises along the way. For instance, I was able to find a family whose great-grandparent was a patient in the late 19th century. I am meeting with her and her family and they will share information about their great-grandmother's story.”

North Dakota State Hospital Cemetery showing green grass and a manicured, decorative area with bricks, rocks and a metal sign that arches over the top saying NDSH CemeteryAfter reading through biennial reports from the Jamestown State Hospital, Coulde-King discovered that the North Dakota State Hospital was fairly progressive in its early years but struggled when patient numbers started to climb. She said, “Particularly laudable was the first superintendent who recognized that recreation, fresh air, [etc.] were preferable to locking people up in an asylum. However, research reveals that the hospital was soon overwhelmed and underfunded; overcrowding led to inferior care at various points in its history.”

While research has been going well, her luck being drawn to perform the play at various fringe festivals has not been successful thus far. Coulde-King said, “This is disappointing because I had a cast ready to go, but I will try again when the lotteries open in fall of 2025.” However, she continues to be optimistic saying, “Because the public is more open to discussing mental health issues, I anticipate that the finished play will [eventually] find its audience in state and out.”

Coulde-King expressed gratitude for the funding and support from NDCA received through the Individual Artist Fellowship program. “Having NDCA endorse this project provides a level of credibility that has and will continue to serve in opening doors. I look forward to sharing an early draft of ‘Whispers in the Wind’ in Jamestown on May 16 and at the Spirit Room in Fargo on May 22. I especially look forward to the post-presentation discussions.”


Brightly smiling playwright Kathleen Coudle-King, with shoulder-length dark grey hair, dark clothing, a thickly-designed bronze necklace and thin, dark-rimmed glassesKathleen Coudle-King is the Managing Artistic Director at Empire Theatre Company and an Associate Teaching Professor in English at the University of North Dakota. Follow her on her Theatre without Walls website, and on social media, Facebook and Instagram, where she will promote the opening of her play, "Whispers in the Wind: North Dakota's Disappeared Speak."

Funding for Coudle-King's project was made possible with an Individual Artist Fellowship grant from North Dakota Council on the Arts, which receives funding from the state legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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