Arts and Culture

Honed on the Range: A Minneapolis theater director goes north for an Iron Range story

three people sit on a sofa
"Full Range" is a new play that explores Iron Range Culture, with a majority of the cast made up by Rangers.
Jacob Aloi | MPR News

A Minneapolis theater company is set to open a new play about the Iron Range on the Iron Range with a cast from the Iron Range.

“I’ve come to really appreciate this region. It’s beautiful,” Mark Valdez, artistic director of the Mixed Blood theater and director of the new project “Full Range: The Iron Range Project” which opens June 20 at Rock Ridge Performing Arts Center in Virginia, Minn.

“I love the pride that people have in this place,” Valdez said.

Valdez joined Mixed Blood from California in 2022 and commissioned “Full Range” soon after. He worked in the Twin Cities but never ventured out to the rest of the state.

“When I got here, one of the things that was important to me is that we get out of the Twin Cities,” Valdez said. “I thought I need to do more to get to know what all is happening here across the state.”

The play focuses on cultural and socio-economic struggles on the Iron Range, primarily through the tensions and dynamics of one family.

Playwright Alison Carey researched the work by talking with local residents. All but two cast members are from the area.

Hibbing high schooler Olivia Sallila plays Gina, a Twin Cities teen who falls in love with the Range and dreams of moving there after graduation. Sallila had never acted in an original play, let alone one about where she was born and raised.

“A lot of people my age are quick to escape,” Sallila said. “We’re trying to show people how great this place can be.”

Nathaniel Coward of Chisholm plays another transplant. Coward shares a lot of similarities with his character, Sterling — they both moved to the Range in their late teens.

“I’m really shocked at how well it worked out,” Coward said.

As they rehearsed, Valdez updated the show with input from the cast to make it more authentic to the culture.

For example, the playwright originally wrote Sterling as white and from the Range. Coward, who is Black and originally from Florida, helped adapt the role to resemble his own story more closely.

“The subtle change is like: It wouldn’t make sense for me to talk like a Ranger, because I can’t never do that,” Coward said.

The show includes several regional jokes, acknowledging the fact some people will drive an hour to Duluth to grocery shop away from prying eyes.

“They’re all represented in here,” Olivia said. “They’re just out for everybody to see the good and the bad and the ugly and the things we're proud of and the things we're not so proud of.” 

portrait of a man with glasses
Mark Valdez is the artistic director of Mixed Blood Theatre, and the director of "Full Range."
Jacob Aloi | MPR News

While the script explores the history of the Range including its ethnic groups and the mining industry, Valdez also was interested in the area’s future. The final scene shows what the characters can accomplish through community work and ingenuity.

“The future is a hard thing to imagine, and in a place like the Iron Range, the past occupies a big part of the identity,” Valdez said. “Because there’s so much pride in the past, I think sometimes it’s harder to see the future. That’s where it got really interesting.”

The decision for Mixed Blood to relocate for nearly two months carried some risk. Many theater companies are facing financial difficulties. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis announced a budget deficit of nearly $4 million in its last fiscal year. In Washington, the Seattle Rep is laying off most of its artistic staff.

“When you put it that way, like, what kind of an idiot would do that?” Valdez said, chuckling.

But the decision to take the commissioned piece up north is in line with Valdez’s guiding light: How can theater become central to our lives, and how can it be applied to civic life?

He views this project as an opportunity to continue the theater’s mission of examining social injustice and building community.

“People have full lives,” Valdez said. “But they choose to come and be in this play.”

Performances present a way to engage with issues that the Range faces, such as unemployment, housing and economic development, the director said.

“All of these things are in our play because these are the things that are people’s lives.”

“Full Range” runs through June 30.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.