In my family, instead of gifting Christmas presents, we have what we call “Traditions” - each of us invents a new game or activity. We all play; whoever wins receives a gift given from whomever invented the game. In the summer, my mom hosts elaborate obstacle courses on my great grandmother’s land, where we compete using old yard and barn materials, car parts, tree branches and acorns - battling for bragging rights. We have countless late night game nights, where we rewrite the rules to make them better. And, our house was always the gathering place for “Ghost in the Graveyard.” The list goes on and on…
My family did not have a lot of resources, but we did have generous spirits of wild playfulness. And, I learned the most valuable lessons of trust, bravery, creativity, teamwork and celebrating victories from my family providing us with un-ending permission to play. It was that playfulness that shifted the view of my upbringing from one of lacking to one of plenty. And, it was the power of that playfulness that led me to start PlaceBase Productions, a theater company that works with small towns to tell their stories through original, site-specific musicals.
Our process involves my colleague, Andrew Gaylord, and I spending about a year working closely with a community - asking questions, listening deeply and falling in love with people and places. We take what we learn and write an original musical. Our casts of 50-100 local actors sing and dance their stories through the streets, parks, and prairie lands, while audiences in the hundreds follow along on foot, bicycle, hay-wagon, and kayaks. Our actors range from 5-95 years old. They are artists, historians, farmers, teachers; most have never acted or sang in public in their lives. And, the fact I am most proud of, we have 100% participation of Mayors from each community that we have worked with in our plays. And, we have found that it is a powerful thing to be in a musical kickline number with your Mayor.
The very first community that we worked with was the town of Granite Falls. The Mayor, Dave Smiglewski, played a former Mayor, Andrew Volstead, in a musical number about turn of the century businessmen. In addition to sharing the title of Granite Falls Mayor, the character he played also shared the same moustache! I asked Dave why he decided to participate in that very first show, which set us on our journey of involving Mayors in every future production, and he shared:
“It was a chance to do something I hadn’t done in many years and helped demonstrate to our community that theater is something that any of us can participate in and learn from.”
One of my favorite parts of our process is warm-ups. There is something very democratizing and equalizing about playing silly theatre games, reciting ridiculous tongue twisters, shaking your body, and yelling “trust me” to the person standing next to you in the circle. If that person happens to be your Mayor, these playful acts can change the way you interact with each other outside of the rehearsal room. Because once we have been playful with each other, we can be vulnerable with each other, we can have compassion for each other, we become friends - it is then that we can really start to address any challenges our community is facing, together.
Another part of our process is making links between stories of the past and hopes for the future. This can come in the form of creating the “Main Street of our Dreams” or traveling through time to visit the future, or including a young character who decides to stay and help their community instead of leave. As Dave put it,
“I jumped at the opportunity to participate as a resource for material and as a cast member and it proved to be wonderfully fulfilling in both a civic and personal way. Those productions drew on our interesting local history and were a chance to not only embrace our past but also helped to sketch a link to the possibilities our community has going forward.”
Many of the communities that we work with are caught in the spiraling national narrative of rural deficit. With our process of play, we disrupt this damaging tape loop by imagining, rehearsing and (in some cases) creating an alternative story for the future; beginning the process of - what my psychologist friend Dr. Nav Kang refers to as - community narrative therapy.
As I experienced in my upbringing, these acts of play have helped shift the narrative from disconnected or struggling rural communities, to communities that dance in the streets, that take risks, that bravely commit to overcoming fear, together. In multiple cases, these acts of play have inspired cast members to run for City Council, write a play, or start a theatre camp. It allows us to break away from the notion of “nothing ever happens here” to “something is happening here.” As Dave commented:
“The entire experience seemed to launch our community toward a greater appreciation for the arts. As a result, we are embracing the significant upside of having the arts as a component in our community life and look forward to more opportunities that the arts can bring in community renewal.”
Although the weight of community work, especially in rural areas, can be heavy, under-resourced, isolating and challenging work, it is also powerful work that is taking amazing strides in connecting people to each other and to their places. As the field of rural creative placemaking continues to expand and more artists are engaged in community work, it is vital that we do not lose sight of the playfulness art brings with it. This is not to make light of the serious challenges our communities are facing, but it is an invitation to find moments where play can be a part of our collective community narrative therapy practices because of its power to level the playing field and make space for connection and vulnerability. My challenge to our field is that, as we continue to navigate the systems of community development, foundations, local city governments, and neighborhood politics, we continue to give ourselves and each other radical permission to play.
*Essay adapted and expanded from a Firestarter Talk given by Ashley Hanson at the National Rural Assembly in Durham, NC in May, 2018.