Skip to main content

#TVFH | Ashley Hanson | Small Town Artistic Infusion

Ashley Hanson talks about using the arts to revitalize small town, by celebrating rural culture, rural people and rural places.

She founded the Department of Public Transformation and has launched the City Artist-in-Residence program in Granite Falls, the first of its kind of a town the size of Granite Falls.

Read more about the program and apply to be Granite Falls' first City Artist-in-Residence at


I discovered theater when I was in high school. And it allowed me to kind of step into other roles and other lifestyles. As somebody studying theater, I didn't really see myself or my stories represented on stage in the way that I had experienced them.

With rural communities, the narrative is often one of either decline or despair. Or on the other side is like rural pastoral view of everyone knows each other and the farmlands and the rolling and the sunset, and neither one of those are true. It's much more complex than all of that. But those are the kinds of stories that I was interested in telling.

The kind of theater we do is really rehearsal for life. The hope with that is that the ways that we work in the rehearsal room, the ways that we work in performances then start to bleed into everyday life. So that people in community with each other have that capability of just stepping out of their comfort zone and being open to new ideas, open to new possibilities, and open to new connection, which I think is really at the heart of our work. It's really about connections.

We start with interviewing individuals and groups of people about the history and stories of the place. And then we do a ton of research on what are the common themes that we see coming up about where people feel like their community has been and where they would like to see their community go.

So our productions are usually pretty large scale and involve as many community members as possible. From the ages of five to 95 years old, and they're site-specific, outdoors, moving through the space in this kind of three-dimensional approach to storytelling. So not only our cast but also our audience gets to experience these places in their community that they've maybe known their entire lives in this whole new way.

We're not only connecting to these stories about place, but we're also connecting to the places themselves. It's an experience of celebration of rural culture and of rural places and of rural people. Artists around the nation in small towns are utilizing arts and culture to bring more vibrancy, welcoming, belonging, sense of place, community to their places.

And so after starting PlaceBase Productions, started the Department of Public Transformation. Our headquarters is a building that's been vacant for about 20 years. And now we have started a year-long community engagement process where we're bringing folks into the space to ask the question, what do you want to see here? If you could wave a magic wand and something would appear here, what would it be? So the building is called the YES House. It's a place to say yes to ideas, to connections, to your neighbors, to aspirational thinking. And really allow people the opportunity to watch and witness and experience and be a part of the renovation and redevelopment of the space that's been empty for many years, not unlike our theater productions.

That's why having artists kind of a part of, and sometimes even at the helm of, some of the economic development happening in rural spaces can be really fruitful.

The other piece of this is that there are apartments upstairs of the YES House that will house the City-Artist-in-Residence, which is a program embedding artists within the city of Granite Falls, to increase civic participation and civic pride.

A lot of the work that we're doing and other rural artists, rural changemakers, rural cultural workers across the country are doing, has to do with telling our own story in our own way.