A lighter look at rural development

Theater of Public Policy performance mixes political discussion, improv comedy

Photo by Deb Gau Tane Danger of the Theater of Public Policy, at right, asked Minnesota state representative candidate Tom Wyatt-Yerka questions about economic development in southwest Minnesota. The interview was part of a program that also included group discussions, and improv comedy.

MARSHALL — It wasn’t the first time people had gathered in Marshall to talk about rural development. But chances are it was the first time they also sang an improvised musical number about small business loans.

Bringing a lighter approach to serious political topics was the name of the game Thursday evening, as the Theater of Public Policy performed at the Marshall-Lyon County Library. The group’s cast members not only led talks on area development needs and interviewed Minnesota state representative candidate Tom Wyatt-Yerka, but also added comedy to the mix.

The Theater of Public Policy (or T2P2 for short) was founded in 2011 by Gustavus Adolphus College alumni Tane Danger and Brandon Boat. T2P2 formed out of their interests in both performing and “doing civic good,” Danger said.

“We thought, ‘Isn’t there a way to merge those two things, improv and doing civic good?’ “ he said. Using comedy was a way engage people about public policy issues, and to help people think about those topics in different ways.

“I think people do resonate with it,” Danger said. “I sometimes think, because it’s comedy, and because it’s humor, people are willing to lower their defenses.”

Thursday’s event was sponsored by the Southwest Minnesota State University Forensics Team. SMSU Forensics Director Ben Walker said after learning about T2P2’s work, “I said, ‘This is amazing, we should do this.'”

Thursday’s event drew an audience of Marshall residents of different ages and backgrounds. T2P2 cast members mingled with small groups of audience members, asking them about both the positives and challenges of living in southwest Minnesota, as well as how some of those local needs could be met. Later, some of that material got turned into comedy sketches about everything from the frustration of rural Internet speeds, to getting information from the small-town “rumor patrol.”

For part of the program, Danger interviewed Wyatt-Yerka, who is running for Minnesota House District 16A. The event’s original interview lineup also included Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes, but Byrnes had to cancel his appearance, Walker said.

Wyatt-Yerka said, after listening to the small-group part of the program, that audience members had some of the same concerns as many people in the region. Getting more reliable broadband Internet access was one of those concerns. Wyatt-Yerka said some of the problems in getting broadband in the region had to do with cost, and while there were state broadband grant programs, the fees to apply could be a deterrent. He suggested decreasing the application fees.

Reliable transportation for people who live outside Marshall was another concern, Wyatt-Yerka said. If Minnesota is willing to invest state money in public transit projects, it would make sense to look at spending some of that money to support public transportation in rural Minnesota, he said.

Danger asked how southwest Minnesota could encourage economic growth and development.

Wyatt-Yerka acknowledged that it was a complex task to get more businesses into the area.

“You need to get the people here to start the business, but you need to have the business to attract people in the first place,” he said. It’s something that will take support from multiple areas, including the state, local communities and private businesses and citizens. Making more resources available to small businesspeople could help — one example Wyatt-Yerka talked about was business “incubators,” which give startups access to work spaces and other services.

Later, during an audience question-and-answer session, Wyatt-Yerka mentioned other aspects to the issue, like the need for better transportation infrastructure.

For businesses and industries that move products by truck, “We need to realize that crappy roads mean dollars lost,” he said.

Wyatt-Yerka said working to expand the industries southwest Minnesota is already doing well, like health and animal science, could also be helpful for the region’s growth.

Audience members also asked how the region could meet its needs for health care, especially children’s services. Wyatt-Yerka said southwest Minnesota needed to be developing a “pipeline” to train doctors and bring them back to the region — but that was a long-term plan. “We need to be recruiting” doctors right now, he said.