Walking theater event offers a look at the stories that shaped Appleton

The "Spirit of Appleton'' is filled with song, dance, humor and lots of drama.A cast of nearly 50 community and area residents will perform the unique, walking theater production along the Pomme de Terre River in Appleton at 4 p.m. Saturday. The ...

Hope, left, and Andrew Schmidt play the central roles of Damon and Pythias, heroine and hero, of “The Spirit of Appleton: In Search of the Stories that Shape Us.’’ (PHOTOS BY TOM CHERVENY | TRIBUNE)

The “Spirit of Appleton’’ is filled with song, dance, humor and lots of drama.
A cast of nearly 50 community and area residents will perform the unique, walking theater production along the Pomme de Terre River in Appleton at 4 p.m. Saturday.
The community of Appleton certainly knows its own share of real-life drama, and that’s part of what makes “The Spirit of Appleton: In Search of the Stories that Shape Us’’ so timely.

“It brings some positive news,’’ said Andrew Schmidt, who plays the lead role of Pythias Lathrop. A banker by profession, Schmidt said the play has been a community builder. “It brings together people who who wouldn’t normally have an interaction hardly, (now) sitting around, talking and laughing,’’ he said.
“Theater makes people more vulnerable,’’ said Hope Schmidt, Andrew’s spouse and, in this play, the heroine, Damon. “People support each other and it bonds you,’’ she said.
All good stuff for any community, and this one was certainly ready for it.
“Amazing,’’ said Andrew Gaylord, of the response he and Ashley Hanson found when they issued a casting call for the production. “The highest amount for any of our shows,’’ he added.
Gaylord and Hanson are PlaceBased Productions.
They focus on building community by producing original theater that speaks to a community’s history and aspirations. The two have won rave reviews - and even the attention of CNN - for their unique productions in which audience members either paddle canoes, ride bicycles, or walk from scene-to-scene. Previous productions included a paddle theater along the Minnesota River near Granite Falls; a paddle and walking theater story along the Mill Pond in New London, and a bicycle-focused production in Fergus Falls.

A walking path along the Pomme de Terre River will lead audience members to much of the drama of Appleton’s story. Described as a “wild western Minnesota musical theater adventure,’’ it is the tale of a young Appletonian racing against the clock on a journey through time to save his love and his town from a scheming villain, in the words of the two playwrights. 

Gaylord and Hanson began meeting with residents of Appleton one and a half years ago to collect their stories and learn about the town’s history. They discovered stories both rich and quirky. There was the pioneer farmer who wryly commented after a dry, windy year: “Things were so bad I planted my crops on one side of town and harvested them on the other.’’ And there were the exploits of a Dr. Fountain, who once sponsored a beauty contest for babies.
Gaylord and Hanson crafted the script and the original music based entirely on what they discovered. They are often asked how they make this stuff up. The answer is they do not: The dialogue and the names of the play’s characters are all taken from the town’s true history as recorded in books, promotional pieces and the stories of those who knew the town’s early day characters.
“How they all fit together is where the art comes in,’’ said Gaylord.

They use fun, playful scenes to explore the themes that resonate in the lives of those who make this their home, including difficult subjects like what it means to be a part of the community to what it’s like to be on the fringe. 


The song and humor are all very deliberate, according to Gaylord. “That’s always our way into people’s hearts.’’

“Then we bring in the history, the moving stories about the heart of the community and symbols,’’ he explained.
Their hopes is the production will spur the conversations and create the personal relationships that help build a community and shape its spirit and future.
Their cast includes a mix of people from pre-school age to 90, with men and women from a broad array of backgrounds.
Lee Kanten of Ortonville, who made his career as a musician in Minneapolis but returned to his hometown to retire, is among the cast members who tip their hats to the play’s directors and playwrights. Kanten said he cannot say enough about how much the two get out of their amateur talent by encouraging and inspiring them. “They are so joyful about what they are doing,’’ said Kanten.

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