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Sam Hathaway, from left, Andrew Hodny and Taylor Jarman, as town elders, offer some advice to Grant Elliot as Willard in the street theater play to be performed Friday in Granite Falls, Minn., downtown during this year’s Meander. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

Saturday Nights! Meander’s opening act is live, outdoor theater in Granite Falls, Minn., with message for rural communities

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GRANITE FALLS — Having already told the history of the Upper Minnesota River Valley from the ice age to the era of pioneer settlement, what more can playwrights Ashley Hanson and Andrew Gaylord teach us?
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What our future can be like.That is an underlying theme in their next, unique live theater production, “Granite Falls: Saturday Nights!”Audience members will stroll the modern day Main Street of Granite Falls as more than 40 local actors bring back what it was like in the heyday of rural, small-town life in the 1940s and 1950s.The free production will be presented at 7 p.m. Friday in downtown Granite Falls. It is the opening act for the 2013 Upper Minnesota River Meander Arts Crawl.Hanson and Gaylord created PlaceBased Productions with the goal of revitalizing rural communities through live theater. Granite Falls has been the scene of two, widely-acclaimed productions by the duo. Last autumn’s production of “Granite Falls: A Meandering River Walk” focused on the Minnesota River and its role in the region, literally from the ice age to today. In May of this year, they presented the nationally-acclaimed “Paddle Theatre.” Audience members paddled an eight-mile segment of the Minnesota River in canoes to go from scene to scene and watch a pioneer era, county seat battle unfold.This upcoming “walking theater’’ production requires only a two-block stroll down Main Street, but it is no less entertaining. No matter where you grew up, Hanson said audience members will recognize the archetypal small town characters to be portrayed in this production. They range from the loud-spoken lady who runs the café to the old man standing on the street corner and flinging zingers at those who wander by.   The entire production is loaded with all the dressings of the 1940s and 1950s, from poodle skirts to vintage cars. Live jazz music, humor and what they promise is the “best pie in the world’’ are to be enjoyed as well. Don’t mistake this production for nostalgia, although it is sure to trigger lots of memories.“We’re very careful not to just glorify the good old days,’’ said Hanson.She and Gaylord want instead to inspire a new generation by showing what it was like in rural communities, and can be again. “To say we did it before we can do it again. It’s very clear that we can look back to look forward,’’ she explained. The idea for this play took hold a few years ago when she and Gaylord interviewed local residents to research the area’s history for their first production. “When we asked anybody about what they remembered about Granite Falls, it always came back to Saturday nights,’’ said Hanson. “People would get really emotional and nostalgic for this time period.’’And no wonder. Rural communities in Minnesota were at their best, with vibrant retail centers and households packed with children.“Granite Falls: Saturday Nights!” tells the story of an imaginary young couple who fall in love and decide they want to make the small town their future.They learn that the future is what they make it, and that’s the message for rural communities too, said Hanson. “It is what we make it and what we imagine it,’’ she said.There was certainly some imagination at play on the part of Hanson and Gaylord in putting this all together, but they had lots of help too. With the exception of the central characters, all of the townsfolk depicted in the scenes are based on real people.Hanson said they enjoyed hearing all kinds of stories from locals about the characters who once populated the town’s Main Street. There were more than 90 different stores that came and went on the town’s Main Street during the two decades.The two playwrights were fortunate.  Gene Flaten, now of Rochester, had so enjoyed the characters and stories from his years living in Granite Falls during this time that he put them down to paper. He shared his rich collection of stories and memories with Hanson and Gaylord.The production is co-sponsored and supported by the Granite Falls Historical Society and Granite Falls Riverfront Revitalization. A grant that was to have helped finance a large portion of the production fell through at the last moment. Hanson said a wide variety of Granite Falls businesses and individuals, and lots of alumna, rose to the occasion and contributed funds.Following the play, the 21-piece big band “The Echo’s” will perform live 1940s and 1950s music. The performance is free. Come dressed for the ’40’s and ’50s (and the weather).
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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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