A Look at the Farmscape

12:24PM Jan 10, 2009
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Iowa State University professor Mary Swander directed students to write a docudrama on the diversity of rural life.
The student-written play gives a realistic view of rural Iowa, says Mike Hansen, a Bouton, Iowa, farmer portrayed in it.

All too often, writers attempting to capture the essence of rural America miss the mark, causing real rural folks to either shudder or howl with derisive laughter.

That's what makes the Farmscape drama written by an Iowa State University English creative writing class so intriguing. It presents 10 wide-ranging viewpoints of rural life. The result: something that approaches the real diversity found in rural America, with impact far beyond the student playwrights' wildest dreams.

Mary Swander, a rural resident herself, directed the students to fan out across central Iowa and interview real rural people. Their comments were used in the one-act play the students wrote after quite a bit of research.

The interview subjects included an independent hog operator, the owners of a small organic vegetable farm, a corn/soybean farm couple, a winery owner, a failed farmer, a Monsanto employee, a retired couple, a hog slaughterhouse worker, bed-and-breakfast owners and an older farmer who failed in the business and reminisces about farming with horses.

The objective was to write a docudrama, Swander says.

"The students shaped it. I sent them back two or three times to reinterview some people. Interestingly, even though we're at a college in Ames, Iowa, none of the students had an agricultural background, so they had to study agriculture some. We stopped everything for a couple of weeks and just read about agriculture. I filled in some background. They came back then and developed a lot more awareness of rural life," Swander says.

The play opened in February 2007, with the student playwrights playing the parts. Large photos of the people they interviewed were placed on stage, however. After that first performance, the Leopold Center, also located in Ames, awarded a grant to the play. Since then, it has been performed around Iowa, as well as Chicago and Omaha and is beginning to tour nationally. A show is scheduled in Charleston, S.C., with others pending.

Rural's long reach. Swander now uses local actors and a minimal stage set for the performances.

"It's a dramatic reading, and actors read from the script. The set is just three benches. Projections flash up on the screen, some of them pictures of the interviewees themselves. We have shots of hogs, chickens, a lot of rural things," Swander says.

"This has been a really fun project. The students were as much editors as I was, and that allowed them to see the process of creation all the way along."

Mike and Stephanie Hansen, who grow corn and soybeans near Bouton, Iowa, and were interviewed for the play, say it turned out well.

"We were presented as a family farm. The student came out with a recorder and interviewed us, then visited again, and then we talked on the phone every once in a while. When he interviewed us, we didn't know if they'd ever do the play," Mike says.

"When they did perform it, we went to see it. They portrayed us so well. They did it just the way we said it. Even our dog Sidney was in it. It's a realistic view of rural life. They weren't teasing or making fun. It was serious, not like we were a bunch of hokey farmers. It got across pretty good the points of what rural America was all about," Stephanie says.

Swander, author of 11 books, has written poetry, fiction, nonfiction and drama based on rural life. She is proud that Farmscape has an Ames legacy in Agart, a group that was inspired to form by the play. Agart meets every other month for programs of rural
music, painting and literature.

"People really came out of the woodwork. These are people from all over campus, not just the ag school, people you sort of knew about but never had a chance to sit down and talk to, who now interact in a social community context that didn't exist before Farmscape. It's great that they now have this interest in the art of rural America," Swander says.

You can e-mail Charles Johnson at [email protected].