A Little History

When I was a little girl, I roamed the wooded area by our house. I befriended the trees, the fields and the sky. Over the time that I lived in this place, I would spend most of my spare time roaming the woods. I became friends with the trees both living and ones that were fallen, melting into the earth. My head was filled with story most often in the form of plays. In my plays, I was the girl hero saving the trees and planet from evil and doom. The trees had names. They were actors in the drama. It would seem, these many years later the compass pointed early on to my “True North”- my purpose and gift. As it is in our human lives, discovering one’s gifts, one’s purpose is often found on the meandering path of experience over many, many years. This was my experience. I do know however, that every experience I have had over the years was critical to the work that I now do in the world. It is what I needed to do in order to write the plays I do and work as an ally in social justice theatre.

After moving away from the woods when I was about twelve years old, I forgot about writing plays. I spent a great deal of time in high school in the theatrical arena but moved on from this to study and develop a career in nursing- a 30 year career in nursing. For many years of my life, there was this feeling, sometimes this urgent feeling that I needed to do something different. It was as if the heart was knocking at the door of my true Self. It started softly at first then becoming more pronounced as the years went on. 25 years ago, while practicing nursing for a residential provider in New Ulm- MBW, Co., I began in ernest to listen to the call of the heart. It was during my time early on working at MBW, Co. that I discovered the Self-Advocacy Movement- a civil and human rights movement for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Who knew then that going to a meeting of a group called People First at the New Ulm Public Library would be a turning point towards rediscovering my love of theatre and writing plays as well as my passion for social justice. I am happy I listened when Sue, a colleague at MBW told me to go to a meeting of People First because she thought I would like this group.

2019 marks 25 years since beginning my work in Inclusive Theatre, which started with the groups that taught me so much over the years- The United We Stand Players of New Ulm and People First of New Ulm. In the beginning, People First members asked me to help them build a scarecrow for a contest on Broadway in New Ulm. I agreed reluctantly mainly because I had never built a scarecrow before. One evening, several people gathered at a house on Broadway to build a scarecrow. It was 10 feet tall when we were done. It didn’t stand for long and fell into a heap by the street. I did a “dance of embarrassment” after it fell. The group members told me that I certainly wasn’t great at building scarecrows but I was dramatic. It was then that a small group of people asked me to help them tell their stories to Minnesota Legislators. I loved hearing stories and I knew this was something that I could do. It started out as a small presentation group that shared stories with Legislators eventually growing into a social justice theatre group. The first play I ever wrote was co-written with my friend Becky. It was “Rodonna’s Story”. This play told the story of a member of People First who lived in a state institution but eventually went on to purchase a home of her own. We performed this play all over Minnesota. After a year or so, the group wanted to do another play. I wrote the next play based on their stories and input. What message did they want to give? What story did we want to tell? Today, the tradition of inclusive theatre continues on in this way through the work of now four groups in SW Minnesota.

It has been a journey of learning and experience and one I am overjoyed to continue. I don’t know what the future holds but I do know the joy and sense of purpose I feel each and every time I work with the theatre groups. It is not easy at times and the issues are tough but I know together we can make a difference in the world. Creating Open Arts Minnesota is a dream come true. I am grateful for all of the support I have received to continue on in this work offering greater opportunity for people to discover and share their gifts and talents.

The United We Stand Players in “Hopesville, Minnesota” 2006

The United We Stand Players in “Hopesville, Minnesota” 2006

Wilbur Neushwander-Frink