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Perham: The Musical

Ashley Hanson (left) shares about herself in an opening exercise Saturday in the Perham Library as part of Story Swaps, a production taking place in Otter Tail County communities, including Perham in September. Beside Hanson is Sara Canada and producer Andrew Gaylord. Michael Johnson/Focus

A musical production group venturing through Otter Tail County made a stop in Perham Saturday to hear stories near and dear to the area residents. They hope to turn those stories into a theatrical show like none other.

About 16 locals came out to the event known as "Story Swaps" with producers from PlaceBase Productions, Ashley Hanson and Andrew Gaylord. PlaceBase Productions works with local communities and commissioning partners, including Otter Tail County Historical Society to create site-specific theater around Minnesota. Their work begins with the history and stories of a significant place. From there they develop an original script to tell those stories. Using that script they collaborate with the community to make a play.

This production will be the 10th one in this project that the two have embarked on. The two said the other nine had gone very well.

"We're confident that this is going to turn into something amazing," Gaylord said.

Several members of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County were present, along with a variety of residents all eager to share their stories.

Stories ranged from the humorous including the infamous manure cart that someone (who is still not known for sure) placed on the roof of the Perham High School in the 1930s. To the bizarre, including the legend of the Hairy Man of Vergas. To the great Ojibwe history of this region. And the many Perham residents that have played a part in American history were discussed as well.

After hearing many stories, Hanson asked the group what they thought about this process. Joan Happel commented that she was excited to see history come alive.

"I look forward to the young people learning about the community," she said.

One thing the producers noted was that the history of Perham includes people that didn't let things stand in their way of their goals. An example was a couple young men who dug out a path by hand to reroute the river into a nearby lake.

Hanson and Gaylord noted that the next step in the process is to bring together these stories and begin writing them into a play. The original musical will be performed in Pelican Rapids, Perham, Parkers Prairie and Battle Lake this September to celebrate 150 Years of Otter Tail County — highlighting the rich history, culture, and local talent of the area by turning Otter Tail County into a stage. Open auditions for this production will be held in July. PlaceBase will be looking for 50-100 local performers, musicians, singers, dancers, artists, volunteers and Otter Tail County enthusiasts to be a part of the production. Auditions will be open to all ages and abilities; no previous experience or preparation necessary.

Everyone not involved in the production will get their first taste of the musical when it starts showing in September.

As if this whole process isn't unique enough, each scene of the performance will likely be shown in a different location in Perham, indoors and outdoors. So with five to seven scenes, prepare to visit that many sites around the area, bringing attention not only to the history itself, but the historic sites too. Hanson told the group they even had a past performance where the audience watched the performance from the water on kayaks and canoes.

And while each production will have the same core actors, there will be a different local cast for each town.

After leaving Perham, the group still needed to venture to Pelican Rapids and Parkers Prairie and planned to reach Battle Lake Sunday.

Michael Johnson

Johnson is a graduate of Verndale Public School. He earned his associate's degree from Central Lakes College with an emphasis in English and natural resources. He earned his bachelor's degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead, where he graduated cum laude in 2008. While there, he double-majored in English and Print Journalism. He's reported for The Advocate, student newspaper of MSUM; The Barnesville Record Review in Barnesville, Minn.; Clay County Historical Society in Moorhead, Minn.; Gillette News Record in Gillette Wyo.; Underwood News in Underwood, N.D.; and The Leader-News in Washburn, N.D. and the Brainerd Dispatch in Brainerd, Minn. Johnson has worked as a reporter for the Pioneer Journal and Perham Focus since Nov. 2017.

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