When the audience paddles up to the play

"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

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.

More than 200 people attended.

Bob Greene

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."

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