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Paddle Theatre will take its audience on a river ride (video)

Actor Doug Bengtson (left) makes a point to fellow actor Scott Tedrick during a recent rehearsal. The two are among a cast of local residents who took on roles in the upcoming production. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny2 / 2

GRANITE FALLS - Ashley Hanson and Andrew Gaylord are not the first playwrights to take advantage of the beauty of Minnesota's outdoors and make it their stage for a play.

They are among the first to put their audience in the seats of canoes and allow them to paddle the Minnesota River south of Granite Falls to enjoy the play written, directed and produced by the two. The water-borne audience will watch the play unfold at points along the river banks and an island. The paddlers will engage with the actors, and meet historical characters exploring the same waters.

"With the Future on the Line: Paddling Theater from Granite Falls to Yellow Medicine" will be presented this Saturday as a live-action radio drama in the tradition of vaudeville.

"A whole new genre,'' said Hanson of their mix of live theater as radio drama with a floating audience. "It will be fun to see how that shakes out,'' said Gaylord.

Fun it will be. A cast of amateur actors -- some coming from New Ulm to Marshall for the chance -- will tell the drama of how Granite Falls, Minnesota Falls and Yellow Medicine City competed with one another to be the county seat as the area was re-settled in the late 1860s.

A total of 18 voyageur canoes, each holding nine audience members and guided by a captain from the Twin Cities-based Wilderness Inquiry, will paddle the nearly 13-mile route. The first canoes will be launched following a 11:30 a.m. brouhaha being staged as part of the play in downtown Granite Falls.

At noon, self-supported paddlers in their own canoes will follow from Memorial Park in Granite Falls to enjoy the show.

All 180 of the Wilderness Inquiry canoe seats are already reserved, but don't worry. Anyone willing to paddle their own canoe is invited to follow and enjoy the presentation.

The canoe rides will follow the river from Granite Falls to the confluence of the Yellow Medicine River in the Upper Sioux Agency State Park. Audience members can expect to be on the water for just over three hours.

Actors will sing the "theme'' songs that Gaylord created for each of the communities vying to be county seat, and another similarly humorous song that is a take on the odd names of the mussels that thrive in the river.

The song is an ode to the area's former clamming industry. What we know as clam shells were once harvested by the train car load and shipped to Iowa to be made into buttons. It is just one of the historical nuggets that are to be discovered in this play.

There are plenty of others. Joseph Nicolet, the French cartographer who mapped the area and recorded the Indian names; George Featherstonhaugh, America's first official geologist who visited the region; and the famous American author Henry Thoreau will be found paddling the river.

Each of the historic figures made their way on the Minnesota River through what is now Granite Falls in the 1800s, part of a historical treasure trove Gaylord pieced together by talking to locals and researching history books.

There's history, drama, and plenty of laughs. Audience members are sure to laugh at the characters battling to make their towns the county seat. But like the river the audience members will ride, they will discover that there are lots of undercurrents along with the flow of shenanigans and drama portrayed in the play.

Hanson and Gaylord created PlaceBase Productions to bring community theater to rural communities. This production follows their highly successful play staged along the river in Granite Falls last October in conjunction with the Meander, the annual arts event conducted each fall in western Minnesota.

Gaylord, who grew up in St. Paul, said the questions and issues explored in the play are as timely today as they were in the late 1860s when the play is set. The area was in the process of being re-settled, and the new arrivals were leaving behind civilization to live on what was very much still the frontier.

"Why would people in the Cities move out to a small town on the edge of Minnesota?" said Gaylord. "Figure that out. It was that (which) really fascinated me,'' he said,

As he researched his subject, he became impressed by the passion, intelligence and creativity he discovered in the pioneer settlers.

"What fascinates me, what I love about Andrew's script writing, is the subtle but clear connection between the past and present and the future, and how rural communities are asking the same questions that they were asking,'' said Hanson, a native of Aitkin.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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