On Sunday, Jan. 27, playwright Mike Cotter will be on a panel of writers at the next to last event on the Anthracite Mining Heritage Month calendar. Billed as “Writing Coal Country Literature: Commentaries on Fiction, Nonfiction and Drama,” the event is scheduled from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Catherine Evans McGowan Room at Misericordia University, Dallas. The program is free to the public.
Cotter, who grew up in West Pittston and lives in Wyoming, is the author of “Coaltown Breaker,” a play loosely based on the August 1963 Sheppton Mining Disaster when three miners were trapped 400 feet underground in a mine near Hazleton.
The play was selected as the official bicentennial play of Pennsylvania and toured the state in 1976 for 45 performances. It has been reprised hundreds of time since then, most recently in 2007. In the 1980s, it was co-directed by Jason Miller and Bob Shlesinger in a tent theater at Montage. “Coaltown” even had a short run at the Provincetown Theater in the mid 1980s.
Cotter, who was a 13-year-old paperboy in 1963, explained, “Sheppton was on the front page all over. I remember every day waiting to read about it. What were they thinking? How did they sleep? What did they eat? Then they got them out. It was rated the ninth biggest story of 1963. It fascinated me and it stayed with me.”
Cotter is also connected to the Knox Disaster. He was there briefly as an 8-year-old with his father, John, a doctor who was called to the scene.
In 1975, Theater Libre — a public theater group which was a precursor the the Scranton Public Theatre — asked Cotter to write the play for entry into the bicentennial contest, though they had passed on the idea of doing a coal disaster play when he had pitched it to them previously.
Cotter said before he put a word on paper, he knew the play had to have music to work. Having been a dorm student at the University of Scranton in the late 1960s, he knew folk singer Tim McGurl from the coffee houses around the campus. McGurl agreed to join the “Coaltown” troupe. Cotter had a collection of old coal mining songs to chose from. He and McGurl also rearranged an old whaling song into a coal mining song.
In three months Cotter, McGurl, stagehand Moe Mullarkey, actors Dan Moriarity and Joe Skorupa, and McGurl’s brother, Bernie, a carpenter who built the set pulled the play together.
“It was magical,” Cotter said. “Things fell together so quickly. The songs. The sets. Tim’s brother, Bernie, built the set out of styrofoam, painted to look like wood beams. Really well done.”
The play debuted in front of the bicentennial selection committee and invited friends and family in the Scranton Jewish Community Center.
“I was only 25 and I tried to hide,” Cotter said laughing. “It was nerve wracking. We had no idea we’d be selected.”
The troupe had some adventures touring the state, like the night a dog wondered on stage, or the day students changing classes walked through the set.
While the story of Sheppton, as followed in the newspaper as it happened, was all about the frantic rescue efforts above ground, Cotter’s play is set down in the mine. The only characters are two trapped miners. Cotter wrote his characters as a rank and file veteran juxtaposed against the young rebellious son of a mine boss who went to work in the mine without his father’s knowledge, allowing for a wealth of dialogue between the pair.
“In my first draft they were ‘OM’ and ‘YM.’ For old man and young man. I didn’t even have names for them,” Cotter said.
Cotter said while the play faced stiff competition from theater groups from major Pennsylvania cities, he thinks “Coaltown” won because it was inspired by a nationally historical event and because it embraced strong Pennsylvania themes — Sheppton, coal mining and worker exploitation.
Other presenters on the panel include Professor William Conlogue, Ph.D., Marywood University; Lucia Dailey, writer, teacher and performer; Tom Granahan, writer; Professor William Kashatus, Ph.D., Luzerne County Community College, and Rick Sedlisky, writer. Maureen Cech, archivist and special collections librarian at Misericordia University, will moderate the program.