During a research trip to Appleton, Minnesota, to collect stories to weave into a theater production about the town’s history, I facilitated an exercise with local residents in which I asked them to imagine this scenario: If you had a magic wand and could make anything happen in Appleton, what would it be?

I’m not quite sure what I expected. Make the river clean again? Open a world-class restaurant on Main Street? Get a herd of unicorns to gallop around the town at sunset every evening, kicking up clouds of fairy dust that taste like cinnamon sugar and cure the common cold?

I was shocked that the majority of the participants had the same answer: Reopen the prison.

Modern-day Appleton, in the view of many of its residents, is struggling. They said the population is in decline, jobs are scarce, young families are moving away, and civic pride and participation are low. By contrast, Appleton’s glory days of the 1950s were marked by a comfortable prosperity. And although it has been some time since Appleton has had a booming economy, at the turn of this century it was still maintaining a number of Main Street businesses, gas stations, a TV station, and a grocery store, all of which some attributed, at least in part, to the Prairie Correctional Facility, which the city built in 1992 and which was taken over by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in 1997. Not only did the institution provide hundreds of stable, well-paid jobs, it also guaranteed a steady stream of “tourists” coming to visit their friends and family members in the prison. This in turn supported hotels, restaurants, and other businesses in the area. When CCA closed the prison in 2010, it marked, in some of the locals’ minds, the end of a boom and the dawn of a bust.

In a 2010 Minnesota Public Radio news article, the then mayor of Appleton, Ron Ronning, stated, “The $1.1 million that this facility brings forth to this community each year makes up approximately 60 percent of our budget in the city of Appleton.” With that kind of annual price tag, the closing of the prison was a tough economic blow for this town of about 1,300 residents.

Ethical and moral questions, when I asked them, seemed a secondary concern; the inherent injustice of America’s system of mass incarceration fell much lower on the priority list than providing a livelihood for many of the town’s residents. And although their view ran counter to my own beliefs, I had to admit that I understood where the residents were coming from: morality is an abstract worry, while rent and groceries are concrete and immediate ones.


—Ashley Hanson

Clinging to the Known

The experience with the hypothetical magic wand was just one of many instances, in my decade-long practice as a rural artist and advocate, that reminded me of the importance of imagination. And not merely in a touchy-feely, head-in-the-clouds-artist kind of way; I came to see that many of Appleton’s economic and social woes stemmed from an inability to imagine any version of prosperity other than the one previously known.

As a result, most of the town’s economic initiatives, aspirations, and dreams were centered around bringing the prison back into operation. But during all that time, the fact of the matter has been this: the prison simply wasn’t going to reopen. The state of Minnesota had expanded its own correctional capacity and didn’t need the CCA facility any more, and no amount of lobbying or praying was going to change the fact that Prairie Correctional Facility could no longer be operated at a profit.

I’ve seen a similar situation in the Iron Range, farther north in Minnesota near where my family is from. There, mining technologies have developed to the point that formerly lucrative mines simply cannot make money anymore. Some Iron Rangers wait with bated breath for these mines to reopen and still vote for the politicians who promise to get them running again. But as long as ore can be extracted and processed at a lower cost elsewhere, those promises are not going to be fulfilled. (Of course, as soon as it does become profitable again, the doors will swing open and the jobs will return—until the ore runs out.) Similar scenarios play out in oil country, in coal country: the image of prosperity becomes inextricably linked with a particular industry, shutting down the possibility of imagining alternatives.

Toward a New Mind-set

This is where I see my work fitting in. Theater and storytelling provide frameworks for exploring possible futures; they encourage participants to ask the question What if? at every juncture. What if the protagonist in one of our scenes stayed in town and started a new business instead of moving to the Big City? What if we met our new neighbors with respect and excitement rather than apprehension and disdain? What if the vacant prison or industrial building or school were turned into an artist retreat, a gallery, a climbing wall, a co-working space, a laser-tag facility?

Undoubtedly the most powerful experience in Appleton—and one of my most memorable experiences in a decade of this work—took place when I and my longtime collaborator, playwright and director Andrew Gaylord, asked our 40-plus local cast members to envision a “Main Street of our dreams.” What would Main Street look like if it were thriving once again? It’s currently a two-block string of mostly deserted storefronts, but our cast came up with a wonderful range of businesses that could occupy these buildings: ice cream parlor, flower shop, chocolatier, movie theater, mini-golf course, café, candy shop, music venue, farmers’ market, youth center, and bowling alley.

Then, during the resulting theater production, The Spirit of Appleton, we included a scene in which the audience walked down a re-created Main Street, with cast members bringing to life each of these establishments, each of these possibilities. They handed out chocolate, flowers, and ice cream and invited folks to sit at outdoor café tables, to play mini-golf, or to watch an outdoor movie. The faces of the audience members lit up as they experienced the wild, even revolutionary illumination of their imaginings.

Of course, it will take a great deal of hard work to bring this vision into reality; and this is not to discount the many individuals in Appleton who are already running businesses and contributing to the health and well-being of their community. I am the first to admit that it’s easier to do a play about starting a new small business than to actually start one. But the value of the exercise is that now, instead of waiting for the prison to reopen, more residents of Appleton have practiced imagining opening a café, a music venue, a gift shop. More residents have experienced taking the initial steps to start a social dance class or organize a concert series.

Simply by imagining alternate engines of economic development, it’s possible to be released from an unproductive way of thinking, a cyclical rut. And theater is not only a way for us to ask what if?, but to rehearse and perform—even if only for one day—the actions it might take to make the “Main Street of our Dreams” into a reality, together.

It’s not as quick as a magic wand, but it’s a start.

An ICE Proposal

This story, unfortunately, has a troubling coda. As I was working on this piece, I got word from friends in Appleton that there is a proposal to reopen and rededicate the prison as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center. Many residents are excited by this proposal; it seems to them that their prayers to reopen the facility have been answered. In August, at one of the bars in town, there was a gathering of organizers who got together to strategize how to prevent this ignominious institution from coming to town. Their case may be strengthened by their ability to offer alternative ways for the town to thrive, rather than by continuing to rely on a culture of incarceration to keep the lights on.

Ashley Hanson, a 2018 Obama Foundation fellow, is the founder of PlaceBase Productions, which creates site-specific musicals celebrating small-town life, and the Department of Public Transformation, which collaborates with rural leaders on creative strategies for community connection and civic participation.

Public Art Review issue 59Featured in the On Location section of Public Art Review #59.