University of Minnesota Alumni Association


All the World's a Stage

Through hyperlocal plays, Obama Fellow Ashley Hanson helps small-town residents think differently about their futures.

Local residents perform in a play in Battle Lake, Minnesota. Photo by Dan Koeck

A year ago at tax time, Ashley Hanson (B.A. ‘06) sat at her kitchen table surrounded by receipts. Dressed in pajama bottoms, her hair pulled into a messy bun, the self-employed artist calculated the income from the three companies she’d founded to bring place-based theater to rural communities. The financial picture wasn’t encouraging. 

“I’d made less than $10,000 in 2017,” Hanson says. “I was in that desperate downward spiral. How would I be able to have a family with that kind of income?” Hanson, then 34, thought she’d have to quit and forge a new course.

In that dark moment, the phone rang—a call from California. Though she was in no mood to talk, Hanson picked up. 

The call was from the director of the Obama Foundation Fellowship, a two-year leadership program for up-and-coming civic leaders. Hanson’s nonprofit, the Department of Public Transformation, was using the arts to spur creative thinking and economic development in rural communities across the country, focusing on Granite Falls in western Minnesota, where she was the artist in residence. She’d applied for the fellowship on a mentor’s advice, but considered it a long shot.

Ashley Hanson
Photo by Dan Koeck

So when the voice on the line informed Hanson that she’d been chosen to be part of the fellowship’s inaugural class of 20 people from around the world—the only artist representing rural America, chosen from over 20,000 applicants in 191 countries—she dropped to her knees. While there is no direct financial support, fellows receive world-class training and leadership development; they collaborate with and support each other. 

“Because I was in that place of despair, it felt like a sign,” says Hanson, who grew up in Aitkin, in central Minnesota. “It was an amazing, life changing moment and validation that people care about rural communities.”

Walking with Hanson along Granite Falls’s charming Prentice Street on the edge of the Minnesota River, it’s hard to imagine that a person who seems so preternaturally hardwired with passion and optimism could ever have doubted herself. She is eager to point out the town’s many attributes, from the red-and-white-striped Kiwanis Popcorn Stand to the K.K. Berge Building, a mosaic-covered former mercantile that now houses a gallery and the Granite Area Arts Council.

"There is a history of extraction and oppression that has been placed on these small towns that has led to what I think of as creative muscle atrophy."
Ashley Hanson

“There is a history of extraction and oppression that has been placed on these small towns that has led to what I think of as creative muscle atrophy,” says Hanson. She believes the arts can help revive rural America, which has seen decades of population decline and corporate disinvestment. “Part of our work is about exercising that creativity muscle and thinking about what else is possible.” Art and theater, she says, can “make magical things happen through moments of daily wonder. The bigger hope is that these experiences permeate people’s psyches so they can start thinking about new ideas, learn to trust each other, and stop infighting.”

Hanson’s visionary approach is rooted in the fact that as a kid she felt no sense of place shuttling between her parents’ homes in Aitkin and Farmington. “I didn’t have an appreciation for where I grew up,” she says.

That changed when Hanson arrived at the University of Minnesota, where she took theater and English classes with the intention of becoming a drama teacher. One course in particular resonated with Hanson: Performance and Social Change with Professor Sonja Kuftinec. As part of the course, Hanson worked with Minneapolis-based zAmya Theater Project, which creates authentic plays about homelessness. She fell in love with the idea that theater could give voice to the disadvantaged and designed her own major in theater and society, combining stagecraft with sociology. 

After graduation, Hanson moved to England and earned a master’s in applied theater from the University of Manchester. While researching her thesis on how theater supported economic development in rural Scottish communities, she realized that place-based storytelling was something she’d missed growing up in small-town Minnesota. She’d found her calling. 

The opportunity to get “hyperlocal” in Granite Falls came in 2011, when Hanson, now back in Minnesota, met Patrick Moore (B.A. ’82-Morris), a community organizer who was executive director of the nonprofit Clean Up the River Environment. Moore wanted to create a spectacle on the highly polluted Minnesota River. He’d heard that Hanson was the person to bring the idea to life. 

The result was Paddling Theatre: From Granite Falls to Yellow Medicine. A live-action radio drama and play, the May 2013 performance took place on an eight-mile stretch of the river where actors—playing roles that included geologist G.W. Featherstonhaugh and Jacques the Voyageur—and audience members were in canoes. 

The project was a hit with the community and led to more plays, in Granite Falls and beyond, including one set in the vacant Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center and another called Otter Tales: The Musical!, celebrating Otter Tail County’s sesquicentennial. “Ashley’s work unites generations,” says Moore. “She uses history as a point of departure and brings it to a new place. And she gets people to find their inner power and unleash their creativity and realize it’s OK to be fun and silly and sing your heart out and dance.”

These plays can lead to measurable change. After witnessing one of Hanson’s productions, Granite Falls resident Verona Dalin donated a vacant building her family had owned for over 50 years to the Department of Public Transformation. Called YES! House, Hanson, together with the Granite Falls community and Homeboat, a nonprofit collective of planners and architects, is in the process of imagining how the tin-ceilinged space—currently warmed with space heaters—will provide the kinds of events and opportunities that spark the city’s creative impulse.

“It’s not just about art; it’s about life here and enhancing our experiences as residents and citizens,” says Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski. He thinks the arts foster an attractive civic environment. “This is a fun place to be and things can happen here. We don’t have to look to other locations for entertainment and quality of life.”

Hanson agrees. “There is a buzz about Granite Falls. It’s because the artists and creative [people] are coming together to make shit happen,” she says. “I’m excited to see what’s happening here five years from now.”

Elizabeth Foy Larsen (M.F.A. '02) writes for many local and national publications. She is Minnesota Alumni's senior editor.

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