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Ashley Hanson: Standing up for small towns

First an Obama Foundation Fellow and now a Bush Fellow, Hanson produces plays in rural communities; she is currently working with Granite Falls to find an artist in residence.

Ashley Hanson
Ashley Hanson, shown in Granite Falls, grew up in Aitkin and Farmington.
Courtesy of Ashley Hanson

By spring 2020, if all goes according to plan, Granite Falls, Minnesota, pop. 2,800, will have something no other city its size can boast of: an artist-in-residence, embedded within local government.

The program will be supported in part by a $50,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The artist will live in a newly renovated apartment in a donated building on Main Street called YES! House. The apartment will be big enough for a small family. The rest of the building will be a community art space.

Theater and social practice artist Ashley Hanson, who applied for the NEA grant with the city of Granite Falls, has a “dream version” of what this will mean: “The artist is either somebody who lives in Minnesota, or somebody nationally who comes and participates in this. Someone who falls so in love with the city of Granite Falls, and their family falls in love with the city of Granite Falls, that they decide to move there. That would be the ideal version.”

Grew up in Aitkin and Farmington

Hanson knows small towns. She grew up in Aitkin and Farmington. At first, she fled, going to the University of Minnesota to study theater. “At the time, I was like, I’m going to be an actress! Early on, I realized I didn’t want to be an actress. I wasn’t seeing stories I was connecting with on stage. I wasn’t feeling the parts.

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“I was starting to think more about the role of theater. What are we even doing here? Why are we regurgitating these old stories? I took a class in Performance and Social Change. It totally changed my life. I started working with zAmya Theater Project. I did a devised play with them, based on stories people shared. I was like – this is the work I want to do forever.” Hanson graduated in 2006 with a B.A. in performance and social change, a degree she created.

Ashley Hanson
Courtesy of Ashley Hanson
Ashley Hanson
Then she went to London. “There was an organization called Cardboard Citizens that works with people facing homelessness. I showed up and said, ‘I’ll do anything. I just want to learn from you.’” After working in north London for a year, she heard about a master’s degree program in applied theater at the University of Manchester. She went there next.

“In writing the application, one of the questions was, ‘Why do you really want to do this, and what do you want to apply your practice to?’ That’s when I started reconnecting back to my rural roots. I love telling stories. What about my story? My people, my family, my community?

“I decided to study the role of theater in rural and regional areas and community development work. I didn’t know that terminology at the time, but that’s what I was saying.” Hanson did her thesis in Scotland, working in rural towns of 1,000 or fewer people where theater was the economic driver. She saw how important theater could be in the sustainable development of communities.

Returning to Minnesota, Hanson was dying to apply what she had learned and try out her own ideas. But she needed a job. She became program director for Public Art Saint Paul, where she managed several programs, including Wing Young Huie’s massive University Avenue Project in 2010.

“This turned out to be a great thing. I learned how to work for a nonprofit, how to raise money, how to write grants and how to manage large-scale public arts projects. Meanwhile, I was continuously saying, ‘What I do is rural community-based theater.’

A call from Granite Falls

“Finally, four years later, I got a call from Patrick Moore, a community organizer in southwestern Minnesota, asking, ‘Do you want to come and do a play in Granite Falls? I hear you’re the person to talk to about this.’ I was like – ‘Yes! I’ve never done it before, but I’m the person to talk to!’ I drove out in a blizzard and we dreamed up this big idea.”

Based on interviews with residents, featuring a large cast of community members (everyone who showed up to audition got in), “Granite Falls: A Meandering River Walk” was written by Andrew Gaylord, a playwright from the Twin Cities. Presented just once, on Oct. 5, 2012, the 45-minute production spanned 11,000 years of the city’s history.

Hanson and Gaylord formed a production company called PlaceBase Productions.

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A second Granite Falls play followed on May 18, 2013. For “Paddling Theatre,” 200 audience members traveled six miles down the Minnesota River in canoes and kayaks. Large-scale plays with music have been created for Fergus Falls, New London, Appleton, and Milan (pronounced MY-lan, hence the title, “This Land Is Milan”) and Ottertail County. Milan is a town with a large immigrant population.

Currently in the works with Willmar, Marshall and Worthington, all communities with housing instability: “A Prairie Homeless Companion.” The cast will include members of zAmya Theater Project, which Hanson first encountered in her U of M days.

Currently in the works with Willmar, Marshall and Worthington, all communities with housing instability: “A Prairie Homeless Companion.”
Courtesy of Ashley Hanson
Currently in the works with Willmar, Marshall and Worthington, all communities with housing instability: “A Prairie Homeless Companion.”
Every PlaceBase show is created with the community, using stories the community shares. “That’s how we find common ground. That’s how we overcome this fear of the unknown that’s causing a lot of the backlash around immigration in small towns.” Quoting her friend Diana Oestreich, she talks about “leaning in, not leaning left to right.” Her “leaning in” isn’t the same as Sheryl Sandburg’s. It’s about listening, learning and extending invitations.

Road trip to visit 127 artists

After the 2016 presidential election exposed the deep disconnect between urban and rural areas, Hanson formed a nonprofit called the Department of Public Transformation. In Gus the Bus, a small yellow school bus (and later Dan the Van), she took a six-week, cross-country road trip. With a small and changing group of Mobile Artists-in-Residence, she visited 127 artists in communities with populations of under 10,000, traveling to 24 towns in 20 states, covering 6,200 miles.

Hanson wanted to know how to do her own work better, and how to better connect individuals and communities with each other. Presentations and exhibitions followed at the University of Minnesota’s Rural Arts and Culture Summit; in Winona and Des Moines; and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

In April 2018, Hanson was selected for the inaugural class of Obama Foundation fellows. Just 20 individuals were chosen from among more than 20,000 applicants from 191 countries. There’s no cash prize or stipend, but the two-year program brings enormous benefits. “Meeting these 19 other global change makers, developing very deep friendships, having people we can call and ask questions that we can’t call and ask anybody else, helping me think about scale differently, and leadership differently – it’s huge.”

The fellows meet twice a year. They also have access to an executive leadership coach, a storytelling coach (for shaping speeches and presentations), a PR agency and a fundraising development coach.

Did Hanson meet the Obamas? “Yes! I have a picture of me standing between Barack and Michelle, and it’s amazing because they’re twice my height. I’m, like, 5 feet tall, and they’re both over 6 feet tall.”

Bush Foundation Fellowship

In March of this year, the Bush Foundation named Hanson a 2019 Bush Fellow. Fellows receive $100,000 over 12 to 24 months to pursue learning experiences that help them develop as leaders. “It’s really important to say that I’ve applied five times over the past seven years. I never made it past the gate. The years I took off were because I was so disheartened, I had to take a break. This is the little plug for persistence.”

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Hanson already has some plans for the Bush. “I’m looking at a couple of things. One is increasing my facilitation skills, specifically around conversations about race, equity, and environmental justice in rural communities. There aren’t a lot of folks who are working with rural communities in our state on those three topics. But there are some, and I want to work deeply with them and learn from them.

“The second element is around the contextualization of the work. I’ve been invited into a lot of rooms where it was important to have a rural voice, but why is there only one rural voice in the room? People are talking about advocating on behalf of rural broadband. But I’m a theater artist. I don’t know that much about rural broadband. I want to feel more confident and ready to advocate for more than just arts in rural spaces.”

In Gus the Bus, shown above, Hanson took a six-week, cross-country road trip.
Courtesy of Ashley Hanson
In Gus the Bus, shown above, Hanson took a six-week, cross-country road trip.
The NEA grants were announced on May 15. To find Granite Falls’ artist in residence, Hanson, her Department of Public Transformation and the city – whose mayor, Dave Smiglewski, was a 2016 Bush Fellow – will work with key members of local community groups and an artist advisory committee to develop an RFP. “We want this to be a really collaborative process from the ground up. My whole methodology and the core of my process is collaboration. I really love getting people in a room together.”

Springboard for the Arts will also be involved. Springboard runs an arts residency in Fergus Falls. And Hanson counts Springboard’s executive director, Laura Zabel, among her heroes.

To briefly review what’s on Hanson’s plate: the Obama, the Bush, the NEA, plays in process for PlaceBase and the nonprofit, the Department of Public Transformation, which is growing. Plus she sings and plays in a few bands. And she serves on the board for Wonderlust Productions, whose co-artistic directors, Alan Berks and Leah Cooper, make plays from the stories of community members.

It’s a lot.

“I know! It feels like I’m in a Ph.D. program or something – like this is the time to put my head down and learn as much as I can and run as fast as I can to set myself up for success in the future. That’s how I’ve been thinking about it and talking about it with my friends and family.”

Oh, and Hanson is engaged. “We’ll be getting married in the fall of 2020, after I wrap up the Obama Fellowship.” In other words, her partner has to wait? “That’s basically what I said. I can’t think about that right now.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.