PlaceBase Productions builds rural communities through participatory theatre

Ashley Hanson grew up spending much of her childhood in Aitkin, a small town of fewer than 2,000 people in northern Minnesota. Like many young people who grow up in small towns, she was dying to get out.

While studying theatre as an undergraduate, she realized that the traditional theatre “box” didn’t fit her. After learning about alternative theatre methods like Theatre of the Oppressed, she found she really latched on to the concept of theatre as social practice. After that she went abroad to earn her Masters of Arts in Applied Theatre at the University of Manchester, focusing on the participatory role of theatre in the sustainable development of communities, particularly rural communities.

Finding inspiration in her own personal experience, Hanson knew that she felt disconnected from her hometown and didn’t feel proud of it. She was driven to examine how to better foster that community pride and sense of place through theatre, so during her studies in the UK she researched and worked with theater companies in five rural communities with populations of 1,000 or fewer people.

This kind of social activist street theatre really has its roots in the UK, she says. “They’re way ahead of us. When I moved back I thought, ‘I’m going to start a theatre company and change the world,'” she laughs. “I had this image, like being in a movie [where the main character is] walking down a small town street being cheered on because [they] saved the town.”

As Hanson would quickly discover, if it were that easy, everyone would do it.

“I was shouting into space, ‘What I really want to do is rural community development through theatre!’ but I wasn’t sure how to get started,” she says.

Eventually the right people heard her call. She got connected to Andrew Gaylord, a playwright (which she describes as her weak area), and he jumped on board. And so, in 2012, Minnesota’s PlaceBase Productions was born.

The focus of PlaceBase Productions is primarily on rural areas, as well as areas that are really neither urban nor rural but have lost their sense of cultural identity.

Hanson and Gaylord started collecting stories for their first project in Granite Falls, MN, titled, Granite Falls: A Meandering River Walk. “We had this idea of what a process like this would look like,” Hanson says. “We started with individual interviews and historical research. We do a lot of reading and gathering of textbook history.”

But there is also a very human element to their research, and they work closely with partner organizations within the community to show people that they can be trusted, that they’re not there to exploit the people’s stories. They slowly get to know people in the community through events like story circles, open to the general public, then do specific story swaps at places like high schools and senior centers where a small group of people get together to recount the history and their private experiences of the town. “Visioning” is a huge part of the process, Hanson says.

“We begin with the history of the place but we are really interested in the future of the place,” she explains. “What are the cultural gold nuggets we can pull to move into the next phase of community? A lot of times the towns we’re working in are really in need of something to jumpstart their economy and population growth.”

In Granite Falls they found a beautiful river that the much of the community had seemingly forgotten about and used that as the basis of their production, highlighting it as a resource for the community and using it as a launching point to connect people through their shared histories.

All of their productions follow the same planning pattern. After the story gathering, they then write a site-specific musical script.

Hanson is very careful to note that what they do is not historical reenactment. “We really base our story on the history of the place, and use a lot of modern language and metaphor,” she says. “We always tie it to the history and the future of the place. This is not history theatre – it’s all community actors, it takes place in a liminal space, we might move from 1850 to present day by moving from one scene to the next. Historians who come to our show might say, ‘Wait, that’s not how people would speak in 1850,’ but for us period costumes and dialect is not what it’s about. Our barometer of quality is more about participant experience and the aftermath of the show in terms of the experience and connections that were made. This is about community development theater.”

The script is written with the intention of appealing to a wider audience, connecting the art to experiences that people enjoy and are familiar with; so not just theatre-goers, but also paddling groups connected to the Department of Natural Resources who are excited for a reason to be on the river, or cycling enthusiasts in support of an active living initiative that calls for construction of a bike path through town. The performance is always mobile so the audience is moving through the space and the experience together, whether walking, paddling, or cycling.

After creating a “big, crazy script” calling for a 40-60-person cast, they hold auditions, relying heavily on the people who participated in the interviews and story swaps. Hanson says these auditions attract people who are excited about change and about the history of the town; the storytellers. “They are untapped resources in terms of the creative economy,” she says. “We have a ton of fun playing and being silly together and imagining together.”

The performance will usually be held over one or two days on a weekend, and they try to piggyback on other events happening in the area so people can come in and find multiple different ways to connect to the area.

The work of PlaceBase Productions isn’t over when the proverbial curtain drops. Hanson and Gaylord come back one month after the show to hold a half-day brainstorming evaluation session and watch a video of the performance at a big screening event. At the brainstorming session they ask, “What happens now?,” encouraging audience members and participants to reflect on some of the things they’ve heard and felt since the show. They urge participants to consider, “What can we do with the people in this room to move forward? Who here is willing to take on the next step of what this project might be?” Artistic leadership teams are formed to take the lead on passing the torch.

“That has been phenomenal, witnessing the energy in that room,” Hanson says. After all of the participants witnessed that something like this can be “gigantic and crazy,” yet can look back later and say that they did it and hundreds of people from the region saw it, it gives them confidence and a renewed enthusiasm – something that might have made them shake their heads and say that it wouldn’t work, well, they’ve already done something like it and it worked.

Since PlaceBase Productions launched in 2012, they have already seen some real-life projects happening, including a revitalization of community theatre, and even businesses launching by people who were connected through the performance. “We are part of the movement that’s happening and connecting these people to each other,” Hanson says. “They might have met otherwise and might be [starting a business together] anyway, but we might have helped excel that process.”

Now that they are three years into the process they have seen how it has worked in multiple communities and are ready to start experimenting with other ideas of how to connect people on a smaller scale, perhaps with a two-day visioning workshop instead of a full-scale production so that they can touch more communities.

They are currently connected to five communities, each of which they continue to visit regularly. Their goal is to produce four productions per year. Hanson says with the research phase and the trust-building period, that’s usually a commitment of six months to a year for each production, which will eventually create a capacity issue for this two-person team.

“I wonder when other artists go into communities that are not their own, what is their exit strategy? When are you done? Because we’re never done; we go back all the time,” she says. “When we get to 20 or 25 communities, how do you share your heart and passion with so many places? What does your exit strategy look like when you’re working in communities that are not your own in a way that is impactful and doesn’t’ look like you’re parachuting in and out? You don’t want to be seen as this artist who pops in, does their thing, and pops out. We’re very sensitive to that.”

Hanson sees the work of PlaceBase being able to bridge that gap between “insider” and “outsider,” “local” and “visitor.” She sees PlaceBase as an entry point for new residents in a community to get involved.

“When people move in, it takes a long time to get over that hump and feel like a part of the community,” she says. “One of the great things about these shows is [that they are] a great entry point for new people. They get invested and create something together, meet other people and learn about the city. In terms of retention of new residents, this can really connect them with [a place] and get people excited about it – [they] want to become the stewards of the place, the next generation of caretakers.”

As initial outsiders seeking to understand and meaningfully contribute to a community, Hanson feels PlaceBase Productions is uniquely positioned to look at a community with outsiders’ eyes to see resources that the community itself might no longer see.

“The outsider coming in, if you do it right it can be a huge asset. If you do it right,” she cautions. “If you don’t, it can be terrible. Sometimes you just need someone [simply] pointing out the assets that you live in every day. We actively build the trust; we don’t just come in, [point] and say, ‘This is great; this is great.'”

This kind of participatory theatre particularly appeals to people who look at their communities and say, “Something needs to change if this is going to be a vital place for me to live.” It can also help small towns overcome one of their biggest social hurdles: attracting and retaining young people and emerging leaders, the kind of people who will also come into the town, see areas of potential and ask, “What if?”