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Willmar focus of New York theater company that wants to tell town's story

WILLMAR — You may have seen them around Willmar this week — a group of four people from New York City asking lots of questions.

The Neighborhood Theatre Project has spent the week working on the first project in "The America Series," a collection of documentary theater productions about communities across the country that will explore people's similarities and differences through their stories.

The group arrived in the area Friday and will be staying until Monday. Along with founder Julia Schonberg, co-founder Eleanore Jackson, project director Andrew Garrett and videographer Adam Schonberg made the trip to Willmar.

The four of them have met lots of people from the community and attended all kinds of events. They went to a Presbyterian church service, a prayer vigil for an undocumented immigrant who had been arrested, and the Rockin' Robbins concert. They were at a Willmar City Council meeting Monday and toured DREAM Technical Academy Wednesday morning.

The charter school's social worker, Tammie Knick, gave Julia Schonberg, Jackson and Garrett a tour of the building on the MinnWest Technology Campus, and they interviewed Evie Bartlett of Kandiyohi, a 2017 graduate of the school, and Doug Knick, a teacher and one of the founders at the school.

During the tour, the visitors were full of questions about the school and how it works. Tammie Knick explained how the public charter school is funded and talked about its founding three years ago.

Doug Knick, Tammie's husband, talked about the school's organization. It is a teacher-led school with 15 staff members, he said.

As they followed the Knicks from one floor to another, Jackson made the comment, "This is the kind of school I wish I'd gone to." The others agreed.

During the interviews, Garrett spoke with Doug Knick, talking about the different careers he'd had and places he'd lived. They also talked about his views of Willmar and what "community" means to him.

With Bartlett, who has an interest in theater arts, Schonberg and Jackson asked about her history and her family, but they wanted to hear about her impressions of Willmar; they talked, too, about the productions she's worked on at The Barn Theatre.

Garrett said the group has been pleasantly surprised by the number of people willing to be interviewed and their openness.

The product of this 10-day visit will be hours and hours of interviews which will be transcribed and used to develop an original theater production using images and conversations from Willmar.

Why did they come to Willmar? The group brainstormed a list of potential communities, and Willmar ended up on the list as the hometown of Kathryn "Kay" Lehn, Jackson's mother.

The more they have learned about Willmar, the more they were intrigued by a small rural city home to a diverse population, Julia Schonberg said at the beginning of their week, during a break at The Goodness coffee shop. The promise of a vehicle and a free place to stay from Jackson's relatives was an added bonus for the small startup company.

The project started as a dream four or five years ago, Julia Schonberg said, when she and a friend had an idea to travel around the world developing plays about communities they visited.

She developed a business plan two years ago at an artist retreat where she met Jackson, who wanted to be a part of it, too.

Their dream is to go to areas around the world that need assistance and use theater to spread the message to the world, but they knew they needed to start out a bit smaller and came up with The America Series.

The project is intended to "give voice to a population that haven't told their stories," Julia Schonberg said.

Jackson said they hope the series will help people learn about the communities in the plays and about their own communities. "We hope to help people recognize the value of their own stories," she added.

Adam Schonberg, Julia's brother, is a videographer who now lives in Los Angeles. He is filming behind-the-scenes videos which will be used to develop a promotional video and to do fundraising. The Schonbergs grew up in Cleveland, Ohio.

Garrett said the look of the final production is "very much up in the air" and will depend on the material they gather.

His hope is to be an "outside eye" and let the stories and words of people in Willmar tell the community's story, said Garrett, who is originally from Seattle. The play they develop will be produced for audiences in New York, and the company plans to bring the production to Willmar, too, as a sort of thank-you to the town.

Obviously, in a little more than a week the group won't be able to meet as many people as they might like. Anyone who wants to add their two cents may fill out an online survey at

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group can be reached by email at and on facebook,

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340