Artistic Transformation in Small Towns

Ashley Hansen (Courtesy Photo)

I fell in love with theater when I was a high school student in Farmington, MN. I was relatively shy, I am small, and my confidence wasn’t strong. Theater gave me the opportunity to be big, boisterous, and confident. It allowed me to try on different realities, understand other perspectives, and envision an alternative future for myself. I had a big dream to start a theater company that tells stories about small towns — one that gives opportunities for young women who live in those small towns to shine. 

I moved to the “big city” to attend the University of Minnesota. As I began studying traditional theater, however, I knew it wasn’t the right fit. I didn’t see myself in the plays that we were reading or performing. I didn’t see accurate representations of small town life. Frankly, I also didn’t see a lot of roles for young women. 

I started working with zAmya theater company, which tells stories with, by, and for people who experience urban homelessness. Although the stories themselves didn’t reflect my background, the storytelling we did was closer to my vision. I worked with my adviser to create my own undergraduate degree in the field of Performance and Social Change. 

After graduating, I moved to London and showed up at the door of another theater company called Cardboard Citizens. I asked if I could volunteer. They offered me a paid job as a project manager working with young people experiencing homelessness. I felt under-qualified, but I said “Yes!” and worked there through the following year. 

I learned about a Masters of Arts degree program at the University of Manchester called Applied Theater. Yes! I enrolled with the intent to study the application of theater to rural community development. They offered me a spot, I said “Yes!,” and jumped on a train to Manchester. The two-year program was intense and eye-opening. 

After I finished the program, I moved back to Minnesota with a head full of visions. My plan: move to a small town, start a non-profit arts organization, and live my life like I was in a musical walking up and down Main Street scattering butterflies and sunshine. 

Learning at a Non-Profit

I didn’t know anything about starting an organization, however. I went to the library, checked out the equivalent of “Non-Profits for Dummies,” and sat down with a pen, paper, and highlighters. The first page of the book said: “If you have never worked at a non-profit, close this book, go get a job working for a non-profit, and come back to this book after one year.”

I paid attention to the advice. I got a job with Public Art Saint Paul, managed education programs, and eventually moved up to producing large-scale public art projects throughout the city. I continued to tell everyone I met about my vision for a rural community-based theater company. 

Collaborating on My Vision

In 2011, I received a phone call from an environmental activist and community organizer based in Southwestern Minnesota who had heard about my vision and wanted to collaborate on a project. It was happening. My vision was coming into focus. Although I had never produced a rural community-based play, I said “Yes!” I jumped in my car and drove to Granite Falls.

We formed PlaceBase Productions, and have produced a dozen original, large-scale, site-specific musical theater productions with communities around the state. Our casts of actors have ranged in age from 5 to 95. Most of them have never performed in their lives. Our plays cover histories and stories from the ice age to the far future. Our casts dream together, hope together, overcome fears together, dance, sing, and play together. 

Most importantly, together we come to care about the places they call home. These actors become more involved in civic life — some even running for office — after participation in our productions. 

Although PlaceBase Productions has remained mobile, and our work is becoming more national, I have continued to work with the community of Granite Falls. 

Earlier this year, I started the non-profit Department of Public Transformation, a grassroots non-profit committed to supporting and connecting rural-based artists and changemakers across the country. We were gifted a Main Street storefront building in Granite Falls that we are renovating into a creative, community-gathering event space called The YES! House. It will be home to the first small town City Artist in Residence in the country.

Grateful for Tenacity

There are times when I think back on the girl with a vision to start a theater company, or the young woman learning how to start her own non-profit, and I feel grateful for the tenacity, dedication, and vision of my younger self. 

Although this work can be isolating, challenging, and underfunded, rural arts is producing powerful work that is getting more recognition for the impact we are having in our communities. 

Earlier this year, I was awarded an Obama Foundation Fellowship for the national, organizing rural work of PlaceBase Productions as well as the development of Department of Public Transformation. I am thrilled that our national headquarters is based in Southwestern Minnesota. 

People ask me, “why Granite Falls?” My answer: Granite Falls was the first place that said “Yes!” to my vision, so I want to say “Yes!” to Granite Falls. 

During the walking theater adventure “This Land is Milan,” residents fly kites in a dream-like scene, imagining the future of Milan, MN. (photo by Kristi Fernholz)

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