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Costumes created for the play represented the wildlife that call Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge home. Photo courtesy of Bruce Silcox.

Costumes created for the play represented the wildlife that call Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge home. Photo courtesy of Bruce Silcox.

Fostering Flight in the Valley

A production company stepped onto the “stage” of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge on a weekend in June to boost the refuge’s connection to the City of Bloomington’s South Loop neighborhood. This project, called Cross-Pollination, is in partnership with The City of Bloomington and Artistry, formerly the Bloomington Theatre and Art Center, as a demonstration project for Creative Placemaking in the South Loop.

We started to envision this project back in June of 2014, with Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Manager Tim Bodeen, Visitor Services Specialist Sarah Inouye-Leas and myself meeting with PlaceBase Productions team members to learn about their project proposal. After listening to their presentation, all three of us were ready for the bright lights to shine down on the refuge, they had our full support for adding a refuge-focused production to the wider initiative. The PlaceBase Productions proposal was among the five projects selected.

“It was immediately clear that their project responded to all our selection criteria. Our judges were especially impressed by the project’s potential to engage diverse South Loop stakeholder groups and to take inspiration from what is distinctive about the South Loop’s past, present and future,” stated Andrea Specht Executive Director for the Artistry.

PlaceBase created an original, site-specific musical theater to explore the resources and initiatives of the refuge that make it a rich common ground where the entire South Loop can pursue community engagement and connect to the surrounding Minnesota River Valley.

The selection was announced in November 2014, with performances planned for early June 2015. PlaceBase Directors Andrew Gaylord and Ashley Hanson started the project with story swap workshops at the refuge and other various Bloomington locations, including interviews with the Bloomington Geezer Squad at their clubhouse, a local McDonald’s. Story swaps are opportunities for people to share their connections to Bloomington and their experiences on the refuge. By attending several of the swaps, I was starting to discover the rich history of our city and begin to foster deeper relationships within our community.

The script, After the Birds Taught Me to Fly, that grew out of the story swaps had me laughing within a few minutes of reading. The audience follows a little girl who wants to learn to fly as she hikes throughout the refuge talking to bald eagles, waterbirds, bees and songbirds. Several characters made reference that refuge staff dress like UPS drivers and that juvenile birds beg, beg, beg from their parents, just like my children. It was amazing to witness this creative process and assist in guiding the overarching theme for the script.

Auditions were open to all ages, talents and abilities. These auditions were another chance for community involvement, no one was turned away if wanting to participate. The cast and crew, from toddlers to adults, was comprised of 50 community members who ultimately became a voice for the refuge.

One family member who auditioned said, “I was so thankful for the play. This was the first time my daughter and I were able to perform together.”

Rehearsals were amongst my biggest challenge for managing this project. They flew at me like a peregrine falcon diving for food. I learned that times and dates are fluid in order for the production to wrap up in a month. Bear in mind that it was spring; my busiest time of the year.

This year I was managing, supervising and teaching our environmental education programs, coordinating our annual Partner School Art Show and participating in our biggest annual special event, Youth Fish Day all within this same month. Yes, I am efficient in multi-tasking! Nevertheless, I had to make time for this unique chance for us to engage the community through an unconventional tool. I felt like we were making history for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service!

On the performance weekend, refuge staff and I monitored parking, directed visitors and audience movements from scene to scene along the trails - the play was mobile! This allowed us to interact with the audience; provide opportunities to learn more about the refuge. At all four performances, guests said that they had never been to the refuge before and wanted to come back. This is exactly what we suspected would happen when agreeing to host Bloomington’s Creative Placemaking South Loop initiative - hook a new audience.

Currently, we are awaiting the formal analysis of the audience’s reaction from the play. This feedback is another key component of the project and not one that is built in to traditional plays. I believe this project brought audiences from outside our typical visitors and offered them a place to find, appreciate and care for nature.

I believe that we benefited from this unorthodox play too. This project helped us make major strides in our Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, a national initiative focused on developing new and more collaborative ways to engage city dwellers in conservation, recreation and learning.

We hope to continue this flight as The City of Bloomington and Artistry is seeking capital funding to sustain the initiative. What will be our next adventure…maybe kite flying contests or skateboarding exhibitions?

By Mara Koenig
Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge


Last updated: June 8, 2020