Bird-watching theatre – which took place right on a trail -- came to Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge during the Twin Cities Urban Bird Festival in early June. Tickets were free and four shows were nearly filled to capacity -- including one for people who could not hike the trails. About 400 visitors came to the refuge.
“I’ve lived in Bloomington for 20 years and never knew the refuge was here,” said more than one guest. That was exactly what visitor services specialist Mara Koenig suspected when she first heard about “creative placemaking,” a concept to use the arts to revitalize Bloomington’s South Loop neighborhood.
The city of Bloomington, using an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, invited the refuge and other venues like the Mall of America and Ikea to a “meet and greet” with area artists. The city ultimately matched the refuge with PlaceBase Productions, a Minnesota company that uses art and story to connect people to their common places. Koenig thought it would be a “great way for us to tie deeper into the community and highlight the Urban Wildlife Refuge Program.”
In anticipation of the play/trail walk, the small PlaceBase staff held “story swaps” at the refuge so South Loop residents, refuge staff and Refuge Friends, Inc. could share their connections to Bloomington and their experiences on the refuge. A script grew out of the story swaps, and revolved around a little girl who wants to learn to fly as she walks through the refuge talking to bald eagles, bees, waterbirds and songbirds.
Auditions were open to the public; Friends member Chris MacKenzie was selected to play Lois the Local Towhee: “It was much more of a production than I anticipated. The audience moves down the trail and the cast comes out of the woods to join them. At the end, all the actors playing birds and bees are dancing with the audience.”
The producers used topography to their advantage, with actors often on an overlook or a boardwalk so the large audience could see them. Friends staffed the visitor center and provided directions during each performance. Refuge rangers guided the audience along the trails to each stop. Generators powered amplifiers so voices were audible to the 120 in the audience. For Koenig, the challenge was coordinating rehearsals, accommodating changes in the script, and working lots of extra hours.
Koenig was pleased to work with a company that knew nature and the refuge as well as theatre, since one of the PlaceBase founders had been a teacher who brought students to the refuge. “This approach brought audiences who aren’t our typical visitors.”