Traveling Theater Helps Communities Revisit Their Histories

In partnership with a theater company, Minnesota towns are staging on-the-go plays to tell their history.
by | April 2015
In this PlaceBase play from last fall, Fergus Falls, Minn., resident Rod Spidahl portrayed a prominent figure from the town’s past.
In this PlaceBase play from last fall, Fergus Falls, Minn., resident Rod Spidahl portrayed a prominent figure from the town’s past. (Robert Gaylord/PlaceBase Productions)

Last September, some 600 people from the city of Fergus Falls, Minn., trekked up to the old state mental hospital to watch a play. Dozens of actors from town, clad in 19th-century costumes, played out scenes from the 115-year history of Fergus Falls State Hospital, which closed in 2005. The cast would enact a vignette telling the story of patients and staff, who in many cases were the actors’ own ancestors. And then everyone -- audience and actors alike -- would hop on their bikes and pedal a few yards away to the next scene.

The project was part of PlaceBase Productions, a Minneapolis-based traveling theater company that works with Minnesota communities to create site-specific plays. Its goal is to help a town chart its history as well as its future -- and to establish what gives a particular community its identity. “We believe everyone has a story and a story connected to place,” PlaceBase co-founder Ashley Hanson recently told a local reporter. “We want to find the sentiments behind the place.”

When PlaceBase is hired by a town, or by an arts organization, Hanson and her co-founder Andrew Gaylord spend several months collecting history and stories, researching in local public libraries and archives and then writing a script based on what they’ve learned. Locals are then cast in the production. Since 2012, the company has staged five plays in three towns around the state.

Because the performances are site-based -- they occur outside, in the location where the historical events occurred -- they’re usually mobile productions, with the audience and the actors moving significant distances over the course of a show. One production in 2013 covered an eight-mile stretch of the Minnesota River; the audience watched from canoes.

The experience can help a town reconnect with its history, says Gaylord. And sometimes it can help prepare a community for the future, he says: “Where do we want to go from here? What is this town about?”

In Fergus Falls, PlaceBase was hired by a local nonprofit group devoted to preserving the town’s historic psychiatric hospital from demolition, using funds from the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Our Town” program. The group wanted to emphasize the hospital’s role in establishing Fergus Falls as a regional hub for mental health services, a distinction that’s still true today.

In addition to galvanizing the town around the issue of preserving the hospital, the Fergus Falls play even inspired one local man to seek public office. Rod Spidahl was cast as town father James Fergus, who had given the initial money to open the hospital in 1890. Spidahl says that being in a play had always been “on my bucket list,” but participating in the play turned out to be an inspiration. Spidahl’s own council representative favored demolishing the structure; Spidahl decided to run against him and won.

Now settling into his new role on the city council, Spidahl says more public figures should consider the kinds of issues raised by PlaceBase. “Your constituents are not just the people who live in your district; it’s also those who’ve come before and have left things behind,” he says. What it really comes down to, he says, and what PlaceBase can help answer, is, “What is this community really for?”