Traveling theater project helps Otter Tail County tell its own story

Residents of Battle Lake, Minn., (from left) Deb Bruns, Roxanne Swisher, Tamara Lei, Rick Schara, Annie Wrigg in rehearsal for "Otter Tales: The Musical!" on Wednesday. Dan Koeck for MPR News
Local residents at a dress rehearsal for "Otter Tales: The Musical!" Dan Koeck for MPR News
Local resident Rick Schara is center stage during a dress rehearsal. Dan Koeck for MPR News
Local resident Rachel Denny in rehearsal for "Otter Tales: The Musical!" Dan Koeck for MPR News
Annie Wrigg awaits her cue during a dress rehearsal. Dan Koeck for MPR News
(From left) Rachel Denny, Chris Schuelke, Annie Wrigg, Madilyn Michael rehearse for "Otter Tales: The Musical!" Dan Koeck for MPR News
Rick Schara gets help with tying his bow tie from Roxanne Swisher before rehearsal. Dan Koeck for MPR News
Annie Wrigg (right) and Madilyn Michael of Battle Lake, Minn., discuss their costumes before rehearsal. Dan Koeck for MPR News

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"Otter Tales: The Musical" isn't your typical small-town theater production.

It's a traveling show about Otter Tail County, based on the stories of the people who live there. It will be staged in four towns across the county over a single weekend. And for each performance, the audience travels through town alongside the cast, all of whom are local residents.

On Friday night, the town of Battle Lake — from the shadow of an abandoned grain elevator to a quiet street corner — will be the ambitious project's first stage. It's an effort to connect the past to the present, and to elevate the stories of life in small towns.

• 'Otter Tales: The Musical': Where and when

A dress rehearsal for "Otter Tales: The Musical!" taking place in Railroad Park in Battle Lake, Minn. Dan Koeck for MPR News

"The current dominant narrative has a lot of words like 'dying' or 'struggling' small towns," said Ashley Hanson, the show's producer and director, "and we just try to flip that on its head and show the vibrancy and uniqueness."

Hanson and playwright Andrew Gaylord together make up PlaceBase Productions, an organization that has produced more than a dozen shows in towns of less than 15,000 people over the past eight years.

History, Hanson said, is a good frame for looking at the present and the future. She and Gaylord spent several weeks in Otter Tail County, gathering residents, asking questions and — most importantly, she said — listening to understand what makes this part of western Minnesota unique. The play that debuts this week has been a year in the making.

The goal of all that listening, Hanson said, is to honor a distinct sense of place.

PlaceBase Productions is a small theater company that travels around Minnesota immersing itself in a community to create theater about that community with a cast of local actors. Dan Koeck for MPR News

"I think one of our downfalls is that we really lump ruralness into one kind of monolith," she said. "What my favorite thing is about this work is [that] we get to really find the nuances and the uniqueness of place and find what connects people to their place."

The production tells the story of an entire county in a single show. It covers fights over the county seat, land scams, the first woman elected to the state Legislature and the women's movement to shut down saloons. But it's not all weighty issues. Otter Tail boasts of having more lakes than any other county in the country.

And, of course, there's mention of the county's famous fish: A 102-pound sturgeon now memorialized in Pelican Rapids.

Local youth act out a scene with a puppet representing Minnesota Woman, the name given to the skeletal remains, thought to be 8,000 years old, of a young woman discovered near Pelican Rapids in 1931. Dan Koeck for MPR News

The Otter Tail County Historical Society, marking the county's 150th anniversary, is sponsoring the production, and executive director Chris Schuelke has several roles in the show.

This kind of production, he said, helps keep the county's history alive but it also connects that history, which is so deeply rooted in its lakes and rivers and natural resources, with the county's future.

"The clean air, the lakes the rivers, the prairie, the woodland, that's why people come here. That's why people visit Otter Tail County," he said. "I think as long as we stay true to ourselves, we can sustain our our way of life in this area for generations to come."

Local resident Tarmara Lei said she's wearing her mother's outfit for the scene depicting life in the 1970s. Dan Koeck for MPR News

'Otter Tales: The Musical!' The musical will be performed in four different towns across Otter Tail County this weekend. The event is free, and attendees are encouraged to bring a chair and wear comfortable shoes, as each performance moves through town.

• Battle Lake: Friday, Sept. 14 at 6:30 p.m. in Railroad Park • Perham: Saturday, Sept. 15 at noon in City Hall Park • Pelican Rapids: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 6:30 p.m. in Sherin Park • Parkers Prairie: Sunday, Sept. 16 at noon in City Park

More information at PlaceBaseProductions.com and OtterTail150.com.

Correction (Sept. 6, 2018): An earlier version of this article mispelled Rick Schara's last name in photo captions.

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