The Obama Fellow Who Wants to Transform Rural America Through Theater

Her theory: Highly creative small-town plays can make a big difference.
Ashley Hanson, an Obama Foundation Fellow who stages plays in small towns in Minnesota.

On a crisp October evening during the pre-pandemic fall of 2019, Ashley Hanson bursts through the door of a former retail storefront on the main street of Granite Falls, Minn. It’s now the headquarters of her unique theater company, PlaceBase Productions, which she co-founded and brought to this town of 2,700 that sits on the Minnesota River in the southwestern part of the state.

“Hi, hi, hi,” she calls out to about a dozen actors — all women — who are getting ready to warm up for tonight’s performance.

The space will host part of PlaceBase’s latest play, “Over the Barrel: A Prohibition Musical,” and also houses the production’s costumes, props and set pieces. The cast members are already dressed in character. Women in bowler hats and suspenders reach into a bag filled with fake mustaches while others arrange chairs around the room where the second act will take place.

The play, which has been performed eight times over the past few months, has its final performance tonight. Hanson, now 37, believes that letting rural people tell their stories can change their communities for the better. Her work here in Minnesota and elsewhere has gained notice. In 2018, Hanson was one of 20 inaugural Obama Foundation Fellows, chosen from a pool of more than 20,000 applicants from more than 190 countries.

In the past year former president Barack Obama has been notably vocal, actively defending his administration’s policies and campaigning for Joe Biden — all of which has arguably overshadowed some of his other initiatives, such as the Obama Foundation Fellowship. But the latter promises to have a lasting impact on the communities where its fellows work.

The goal of the two-year, nonresidential fellowship is to select “leaders who are working with their communities to create transformational change and addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems.” It gives the recipients opportunities for networking, executive coaching and training and assistance in things like writing op-eds and public speaking — but no cash, aside from a travel stipend to attend four mandatory gatherings at the foundation in Chicago. (In an email, a representative from the foundation told me that during the pandemic, all of its programming has been virtual.) The work of the 2018 fellows and the subsequent class has varied widely, from improving substance abuse treatment to documenting corruption in Hungary. What they have in common, says David Simas, a former Obama White House adviser and now chief executive of the foundation, is “each of them is, in our assessment, a civic innovator. [They] are doing very different work but have a very community-centered focus to what they do.”

Former president Barack Obama with Obama Foundation Fellows in 2018. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)

Of the 10 fellows for 2018 from the United States, Hanson is the only one whose focus is specifically rural community building. After the 2016 presidential election, she says, she felt that a huge rift between urban and rural was exposed; people weren’t listening to one another, and the stories coming out about rural America were too simple, lacking context and nuance. So, she set off on a six-week journey across the country. She talked with 127 artists in rural areas, learning about their lives and how they were dealing with challenges in their communities. She held public listening sessions and exhibitions, partnering with the artists she met in what she called “mobile artist-in-residences.” This is what got the attention of the Obama Foundation.

Hanson sees artists as “cultural translators”; she firmly believes that art can instill civic pride and a sense of hope, as well as fuel economic growth. For the past nine years, while cobbling together small budgets, she has put together more than two dozen community theater productions, the majority in rural Minnesota.

Hanson and her colleagues — including her partner and PlaceBase Productions co-founder Andrew Gaylord — go only into communities where they have been invited, then embed themselves. “For the first six months, we’re just getting to know people,” Hanson says. “We go to community events and talk to people, and we hear about what’s important to them. There needs to be an element of trust.”

She and her team then spend about a month developing a script, incorporating ideas from residents about what kind of play they’d like to see and what kind of story they’d like to tell. “A lot of times, people are interested in telling a story about the town’s history or playing a character that’s a member of their own family,” she says. To encourage participation, Hanson will ask people to audition, and for shows with larger casts, performers will frequently prerecord the dialogue so they don’t need to be nervous about memorizing their lines. For the first show that she ever did in Granite Falls, which celebrated the river and a regional art crawl known as the Meander, she cast anyone who was interested. For another, in the neighboring town of Milan (pronounced MY-lun), she told me that she, her partner and a handful of volunteers knocked on every door in town, asking people to audition. Milan’s population is about 360, “and ultimately we had about 40 people,” Hanson told me. “That’s a lot.”

Many of the plays celebrate a town’s history. But because of the trust she has built in Granite Falls, Hanson felt “Over the Barrel” could be riskier. The cast is purposefully all-female, and the content asks audience members to ponder topics that can be uncomfortable: sexism, domestic violence, female sexuality, racist policies against the United States’ Indigenous people, and the dangers of being politically passive.

Hanson’s plays are also often staged unconventionally: She’s done “paddling theater,” where the audience members were in boats on the river, and has done a lot of “walking theater,” where audience members walk to each act, and scenes take place in spaces that might not normally host a play. “Over the Barrel” is walking theater: The first act is in a new cooperatively owned bar (the Bluenose Gopher Public House) that’s just down the street from the gathering space where the production company is based (called the Yes! House). The second act is at the Yes! House itself, and the third is at the historic Volstead house nearby; it was once the residence of Rep. Andrew J. Volstead, who championed Prohibition 100 years ago. (The Volstead Act was passed to enforce Prohibition.)

The creative staging has a purpose, Hanson tells me. “I want to work within the spaces that are there, that mean something to people,” she says.

Theatrical portraits of Hanson in Granite Falls, Minn. Her PlaceBase Productions company works with residents in small towns to create plays about their community. (Caroline Yang)

Each act of “Over the Barrel” looks at things that are, in some manner, prohibited. The first is a sendup of Prohibition; the characters sing and jig about the dangers of alcohol and alcoholism. The second features 1950s housewives opening up about sexual satisfaction, as well as a Dakota woman confronting a government official about plans to abolish reservations in an attempt to “assimilate” native people. The third act is set in the future, when people have allowed their First Amendment rights to be taken away.

Andrew Schmidt, now 33, was in the Milan play — his second performance with Hanson. Schmidt, who lives in another nearby community, works at a bank owned by his and another family. “I’m a type A,” he says. “I’m not an artist ... not a bit.” But Schmidt ended up with his first role — the lead, as it turns out — in the play that PlaceBase produced in his hometown of Appleton, Minn. “The play was about how my character comes to realize all of the good that we have here, that it’s not just a dying town.”

People were talking about the play for a year afterward, Schmidt says. It even helped motivate him to run for city council, a race he won. “There were some things I wanted to see changed for the better. And I figured, I just did this play. I’d never done that before, so why don’t I try something else? See if I can make a difference.”

In Granite Falls, after the final performance of “Over the Barrel,” members of the cast and their friends have found their way back to the Bluenose pub. The place is packed, and a guy is hammering out blues on a guitar. Cast members laugh and talk. The town’s mayor is there. Hanson is hugging friends. Although the play is done, she has more work to do, such as establishing an artist-in-residence and trying to set up a musician-in-residence program. She’s also raising money to renovate the Yes! House. But right this second, this Obama Fellow and font of ideas has other plans: “I’m going to go get some pizza,” she says, and bops away.

Lia Kvatum is a journalist in the D.C. area.

Design by Clare Ramirez. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

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