Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

When the audience paddles up to the play

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 11:09 AM EDT, Sun June 2, 2013
"With the Future on the Line" plays out for an audience in canoes, which paddles from scene to scene on the Minnesota River.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: A theater troupe put on a play at various spots along 8 miles of Minnesota River
  • He says audience travels to scenes by canoe, pulls up to bank to watch from the river
  • He says creators of play want to deliver a sense of place to audiences
  • Greene: Like "Waiting for Guffman," play celebrates community sweetly, sincerely

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "He Was a Midwestern Boy on His Own"; and "And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship."

(CNN) -- Now, this just may be the best entertainment news of the summer.

It has nothing to do with movie blockbusters. They're coming, as they always do when the weather gets warm: the mass-produced, mind-deadening barrage of predictable sequels, computer-generated explosions and space battles, dreary comedies about groups of wacky buddies, and high-decibel car chase after high-decibel car chase.

Which is what makes what happened on a recent Saturday afternoon in Granite Falls, Minnesota, population 2,897, so delightful.

A one-day musical theater production was presented that had taken three months to write, rehearse and produce.

It took place along an eight-mile stretch of the Minnesota River.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

More than 200 people attended.

And that entire audience was in canoes.

For three hours, they paddled from scene to scene.

"The river was the real star of the show," said Andrew Gaylord, 33, of St. Paul, Minnesota, who wrote the play and the music for it, and who co-directed it with his producing partner, Ashley Hanson, 29. He said that their intention was to honor and salute the concept of community and place: to provide for their audience an afternoon of entertainment that they couldn't possibly find anywhere else.

In dreaming up the idea and getting it done -- putting the audience in those canoes, and having them paddle to each of the six scenes in the play along the eight miles of water -- Gaylord and Hanson may have displayed more sheer ingenuity and grin-inducing creativity than you'll find in any dozen movie-multiplex blockbusters in the months ahead.

The play was called "With the Future on the Line," and it told the story of how three Western Minnesota River Valley communities, in the late 1800s, competed to become the county seat. The Minnesota River, though, was without question the leading character, "with its slow meanders and brutally carved banks, with its fish jumping, turtles sunbathing, eagles soaring, and pelicans taxiing," in Gaylord's words.

There was a cast of 34, all volunteer amateur actors, and a crew of nearly 100. The scenes took place in six locales along the river ranging from an island to a small bluff overlooking the water; from a campground on the water's edge to a beautiful meadow. The audience would paddle up in their canoes (there were 18 10-person canoes, plus smaller canoes that just sort of tagged along); the audience would sit right there in those canoes and watch the actors play the scene on the shore. Then some of the actors would race ahead in cars to the next location so that they would arrive before the canoes did.

"For me, this was 100% about the celebration of community," Ashley Hanson told me. "We keep being told that, all over the country, the traditional sense of community is being fragmented, is disappearing. That's why it felt so good to put such a tremendous amount of work into something so ephemeral. Something magical that is there for one day only."

She and Gaylord are new at this; they have formed a theater company in St. Paul they call PlaceBase Productions, in the hopes of presenting community-specific shows like this around the nation. They received some financial underwriting for the Granite Falls endeavor from Minnesota organizations devoted to the betterment of life along the river, but on the subject of making enough money doing this to support themselves, "we're still kind of trying to figure that out," Gaylord said with a laugh.

Like the rest of us, Gaylord has sat in movie theaters and witnessed that annoying glow as people in row after row check their cellphone screens for messages even while the film is playing. He said one of the nicest parts of the Paddling Theatre (that's what he and Hanson called it) afternoon was that "I didn't see anyone yakking in their canoes -- I didn't see them on the phone. They seemed like they didn't want to be anywhere else in the world than where they were at that moment."

No professional theater critics attended the production, but outdoors writer Tom Cherveny of the West Central Tribune in nearby Willmar, Minnesota, watched the entire show from a canoe. I asked him what he thought, both of the day and of the performance. "It was great," he said. "It really did work."

There was something I kept thinking about as I spoke with Gaylord and Hanson, and I hoped they wouldn't be offended if I brought it up, because I meant it as a compliment.

One of my favorite movies is "Waiting for Guffman," Christopher Guest's sardonic yet ultimately hopeful 1997 comedy about the fictional small town of Blaine, Missouri, and its against-all-odds attempt to put on a one-day musical for the town's 150th birthday. What happened in Granite Falls felt a little like Guffman-with-paddles, and I wanted to know if that had occurred to Gaylord and Hanson.

"'Guffman' is my battle cry," Ashley Hanson said. "Not the comical elements in it, but the sweetness.

"The importance of making the effort. The sense of sincerity, of caring for a community.

"That's what fuels me. Getting people excited about where they're from. Reminding them of why it matters. Because it does."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
updated 11:12 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
updated 9:20 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
updated 2:28 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
updated 2:41 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
updated 8:08 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
updated 3:03 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
updated 6:37 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT