Ground Level Blog

Theater as small town therapy

Last October, residents of Granite Falls donned bonnets and shawls and put on a play about the history of their city. It covered 11,000 years in 45 minutes and included such figures as Henry Hill, the city's founder, and Andrew Volstead, the author of prohibition who once was the city's mayor.

While the costumes were simple and the acting uneven--the whole play was put on for $6,000--producing a play worthy of the Guthrie wasn't the point. The aim of the walking play, which drew 500 spectators in a town of 2,900, was to build a sense of community and stewardship and illuminate the city's relationship to the Minnesota River.

The play, part of a movement called "applied theater," or theater with a mission, served as a way for Granite Falls to burnish its collective story and even come up with a city song.

"My whole goal with what I'm trying to do is to unite communities over their shared narrative, to get them to care about where they are from," said Ashley Hanson, producer and director of "Granite Falls: A Meandering River Walk." The play was written by Twin Cities-based playwright Andrew Gaylord, based on interviews with local residents, and performed during a regional art crawl. Local environmental organization Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) helped pay for and pave the way for the production.


Hanson herself is from Aitkin, a city of 2,200 in central Minnesota, though she worked with Cardboard Citizens in London, a group that addresses homelessness through theater, and studied at the University of Manchester's applied theater program. "I didn't feel that sense of pride of being from a small town," she said of growing up. "It was just like, 'Get me the hell out of here.' You feel, 'I'm just from here, the middle of nowhere.'"

At the same time, Hanson, now 29, was always impressed by the willingness of people in Aitkin to come out and congregate, even in winter. "It was beautiful to me, how much attention these small arts events would get," she said. "People were crazy. Everybody would come to the school musical or the ice house parade. They brought everybody out, because there wasn't much else to do when I was a kid in Aitkin. With the fish house parade, 3,000 people would come just to stand there and watch trucks go by."

Today, she believes deeply that small town people "have an amazing history and have overcome amazing challenges. Be proud of that."

In Granite Falls, no community member who wanted to be in the play was turned away. "We cast everybody who showed up," Hanson said. She started out with 30 cast members, but by the time rehearsals were finished, she had 50. "We had these great moments in auditions," she said. "Someone comes in, a woman with a fiddle who says, 'I've never played in public.' Then she plays this beautiful classical piece and you're like, 'What? You've never played in public?'"

She cast several Native Americans, but would have liked greater participation. "We had a hard time engaging the native community," Hanson said. "We tried. We had two meetings with the tribal leader there. We ended up working with three people from the Dakota community who were involved in the production."

Patrick Moore, CURE's executive director, who himself acted in the play, counts the production a success. "People came out of the woodwork to talk about growing up along the river," he said. "It was transformational. It was so successful."

"This helps us address Native American issues," he said. "It's another way to talk about difficult issues."

Now Moore and Hanson, whom he describes as "charismatic," have a follow-up production planned for May in Granite Falls, which will be viewed from canoes floating in the river. The production will address deeper questions about farming and water quality.

Moore said she could "do this in towns all along the river."

When Hanson first came back to Minnesota, she thought she'd start a theater company in Aitkin. "I thought, it'll be like a movie and everybody will come together. Then I realized I was completely broke and had no idea how to start a non-profit." She gained experience as program director for Public Art Saint Paul and then realized what she really wanted was to put on these kinds of soul-searching plays in a variety of rural communities.

The play in Granite Falls was her first in Minnesota, but she's been talking with an arts organization in Fergus Falls about the possibility of staging a play in the enormous, empty state mental hospital there, often called "the Kirkbride." The city has been struggling to figure out what to do with the massive property and Hanson hopes she can help people sort that out.

And, at some point, she'd like to stage what she calls a "massive, Minnesota River theater experience," with more actors and covering more territory."

The goal, she said, "is to get people to care about each other."

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