"Otter Tales: The Musical" isn't your typical small-town theater production.
It's a traveling show about Otter Tail County, based on the stories of the people who live there. It will be staged in four towns across the county over a single weekend. And for each performance, the audience travels through town alongside the cast, all of whom are local residents.
On Friday night, the town of Battle Lake — from the shadow of an abandoned grain elevator to a quiet street corner — will be the ambitious project's first stage. It's an effort to connect the past to the present, and to elevate the stories of life in small towns.
"The current dominant narrative has a lot of words like 'dying' or 'struggling' small towns," said Ashley Hanson, the show's producer and director, "and we just try to flip that on its head and show the vibrancy and uniqueness."
Hanson and playwright Andrew Gaylord together make up PlaceBase Productions, an organization that has produced more than a dozen shows in towns of less than 15,000 people over the past eight years.
History, Hanson said, is a good frame for looking at the present and the future. She and Gaylord spent several weeks in Otter Tail County, gathering residents, asking questions and — most importantly, she said — listening to understand what makes this part of western Minnesota unique. The play that debuts this week has been a year in the making.
MPR News is Reader Funded
Before you keep reading, take a moment to donate to MPR News. Your financial support ensures that factual and trusted news and context remain accessible to all.
The goal of all that listening, Hanson said, is to honor a distinct sense of place.
"I think one of our downfalls is that we really lump ruralness into one kind of monolith," she said. "What my favorite thing is about this work is [that] we get to really find the nuances and the uniqueness of place and find what connects people to their place."
The production tells the story of an entire county in a single show. It covers fights over the county seat, land scams, the first woman elected to the state Legislature and the women's movement to shut down saloons. But it's not all weighty issues. Otter Tail boasts of having more lakes than any other county in the country.
And, of course, there's mention of the county's famous fish: A 102-pound sturgeon now memorialized in Pelican Rapids.
The Otter Tail County Historical Society, marking the county's 150th anniversary, is sponsoring the production, and executive director Chris Schuelke has several roles in the show.
This kind of production, he said, helps keep the county's history alive but it also connects that history, which is so deeply rooted in its lakes and rivers and natural resources, with the county's future.
"The clean air, the lakes the rivers, the prairie, the woodland, that's why people come here. That's why people visit Otter Tail County," he said. "I think as long as we stay true to ourselves, we can sustain our our way of life in this area for generations to come."
'Otter Tales: The Musical!'
The musical will be performed in four different towns across Otter Tail County this weekend. The event is free, and attendees are encouraged to bring a chair and wear comfortable shoes, as each performance moves through town.
• Battle Lake: Friday, Sept. 14 at 6:30 p.m. in Railroad Park
• Perham: Saturday, Sept. 15 at noon in City Hall Park
• Pelican Rapids: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 6:30 p.m. in Sherin Park
• Parkers Prairie: Sunday, Sept. 16 at noon in City Park
Correction (Sept. 6, 2018): An earlier version of this article mispelled Rick Schara's last name in photo captions.