Teens tell seniors' stories on stage
Most young people do not take a week of summer vacation to learn more history. But for a handful of young writers in the Wadena Teen Playwright Project, it was a chance to connect with the "Greatest Generation" who had lived through some of the most harrowing events of their school textbooks.
Yalonda Nelson, Taryn Stromberg, Hope Dumpprope and Angie Lorentz read the stage play based on the lives of local seniors. Another writer, Avery Jackson, was not able to participate in the stage performance due to a scheduling conflict.
The young writers had a week to collect first-hand accounts from local seniors on the theme "Overcoming Hard Times and Adversity" and organize their findings into a short stage play format under the guidance of Minneapolis playwright Nelson Inz and director Amy Hunter.
Inz said the teens had to condense 15 hours of interviews down to approximately 40 minutes for the Saturday, July 24 presentation at the Wadena Memorial Auditorium.
Even then, the stories covered a wide variety of themes around working hard and playing hard as children, the 1936 drought and Great Depression. Those were the days when neighbors helped each other before there was welfare, unemployed hobos camped out near rail stations while poking around for odd jobs, and "eating out" meant going to a church supper. People grew their own food, spent very little on groceries and bartered for goods in town. Conventional employment was a relative luxury for extra money.
Wadena County saw more hard times when the United States entered World War II. Men entered the military while women worked in riveting and other jobs traditionally held by men. The 1940s, both during and after the war, saw some rural areas getting electricity for the first time.
Postwar life was not without its own struggles, as the new generation of young parents lost children to illness or accidents and adults found tuberculosis to be as dangerous as cancer. Those were the days before big box stores, and people could find everything they needed in Wadena's downtown shopping area.
The play ended with storm accounts, and nothing in Wadena County was as bad as the June 17 tornado which, among other things, overturned the headstones of Marian Derby's mother, father and great uncle.
A question-and-answer session followed the dramatic reading. Nelson told the audience how the interview project got her more interested in history, which was not her favorite school subject.
"I really like history, hearing it in a story form, because you get to hear someone speak it," she said. "It's so full of emotion."
Inz also talked about getting a feel for Wadena in the week of oral history immersion.
"Hearing stories about people that have lived in places is for me the best way to learn about that place," he said.
He told the audience about getting a flat tire while biking in the country. A man riding a tractor gave him a ride to town after Inz was unable to repair the bicycle.
Derby, Roger Folkestad, and Jerome Schermerhorn were among the participating seniors. They watched from the audience as their stories were retold on stage.
Derby recalled being in the same art deco auditorium when the President declared war in 1941 and even remembered her assigned seat in one of the middle aisles.
"It was so quiet in this auditorium," she said. "It was a sad day."
The script mentioned she had lost nine family members during World War II.
Other community members who participated in the week-long project were John Crandall, Jack Graba, Lorraine Jacob, Ruby Lynk, Jerry Miller, Robert and Cecilia Sommars, Joseph Spangler and Bob Zosel.
Maren Levad from the Minnesota Historical Society said the project will be ongoing. She said she plans for teens to collect storm stories and tornado stories from Wadena County residents to add to the performance next year. People who are interested in sharing their June 17 tornado accounts can pick up a form at the Wadena City Library or the Wadena County Historical Society.
Inz and Hunter plan to start a similar project in Staples during August. This upcoming presentation will concentrate on railroad stories.
The Wadena Teen Playwright Project was organized by a partnership of the library, the county historical society, and the Minnesota Historical Society.