When University of Minnesota alumna Ashley Hanson began to study theater in college, she struggled to see herself in the roles.
“I’m from a small town in northern Minnesota … and I’m a woman,” Hanson said. “There are not a lot of characters like that in the plays that we were studying.”
After taking a course called Performance and Social Change in her undergraduate studies, Hanson quickly became drawn to theater and “the integration of theater and social issues,” she said. She went on to get a Master of Arts in Applied Theater from the University of Manchester.
Today, Hanson is a community-based theater artist who works in rural communities, excavating local stories and uplifting local voices.
Hanson recently became a part of the inaugural class of Obama Foundation Fellows, a program that supports civic innovators from across the world — she was one of 20 fellows chosen from a pool of 20,000 applicants.
“I get a phone call while I’m doing my taxes … and it couldn’t have come at a better time, to be honest,” Hanson said. “This is hard work, and it’s not well-paid.”
Currently based in Granite Falls, Minnesota and Boulder, Colorado, Hanson divides her time across multiple artistic endeavors — her company PlaceBase Productions plans and stages site-specific theatrical productions in rural communities.
The production process is drawn out over the course of several months, from research to interviews with community members, to workshops to the final performance.
“I love to see and experience the power that art can have in people’s lives [and] the power art has to bring people together around their common stories,” said Andrew Gaylord, a playwright and director for PlaceBase Productions and one of Hanson's collaborators.
Hanson launched another initiative, the Department of Public Transformation, after the 2016 election because she was curious about the conversations around the rural-urban divide. Determined to understand how other rural artists across the country considered and addressed that divide, Hanson traveled across the country in a yellow school bus with a roving group of Mobile Artists-in-Residence.
“We interviewed over 120 artists in small towns across the country and asked them a lot … of questions … What I learned is that there isn’t a cookie cutter methodology, and the people doing the best work are so place-based,” Hanson said. “Of course this diverse landscape of what we call ‘rural America’ is not a monolith … but it often gets lumped in the same category.”
What began as a six-week journey is now the Department of Public Transformation, which is led by a group of all-female artist collaborators from across the country.
“At its core, the Department of Public Transformation is about relationship building,” said Mary Welcome, an artist who works with the Department of Public Transformation. “Because of the nature of the places that we work and the places that we live, we’re really familiar with how disconnected or stereotyped rural places can feel, and how it’s really important to highlight a rural-urban continuum.”
The Obama Foundation Fellowship offers Hanson and the class of fellows resources and support to boost their civic impact. Hanson is the only independent, rural-based artist in the group, and the two-year program will bring her work to the national level and call attention to civic engagement happening outside of major cities.
“Ashley’s practice is about creating dialogue and creating conversation, and her work and, more importantly, the communities that she works with will gain more exposure. … I think that’s the most powerful part of this,” Welcome said. “She’s taking these hyperlocal issues … and projects, and she’s now going to be able to talk about them with a national audience.”
For Hanson, the fellowship gives her a vital moment to reflect on her work in communities across the country.
“I want to take a moment to breathe and have some reflection time for my practice. I never take that time … to say, ‘wow, we’ve really come a long way. How do I want to talk about this? Where do I want to go from here?' And be more strategic about the things I’ve learned over the last ten years,” Hanson said.