Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

When the audience paddles up to the play

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
June 2, 2013 -- Updated 1509 GMT (2309 HKT)
"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
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT