After spending four years on a secluded farm in rural Massachusetts planning, writing, and composing a new musical, Walken Schweigert and Gus Ganley are finally coming home.
The Twin Cities natives, most well-known for their bohemian and environmentally-conscious documentary Twilight of the Mississippi, are back with a new theater ensemble for their latest play, The Wastelands, a modern retelling of Dante’s Purgatory.
The group, Children of the Wild, has been touring the play across the country for the last six months, from New York to Michigan along the Great Lakes. They’re making their final stop this weekend in Minneapolis.
“We’ve performed it 16 times before now,” Ganley says. “This is kind of a homecoming.”
The piece, which the two describe as a dark, folksy opera with circus-esque theatrics, will run all weekend and takes place just across Theodore Wirth Park in north Minneapolis at the Fruen Mill ruins -- a site well-known for its trespassing problems and urban exploring. But the troupe has gotten permission to use the site all weekend for their play, and starting this Friday they’ll lead audience members through a series of scenes plotted out in different areas of the ruin.
The century-old food mill has been inoperative since the early ‘70s, and has since become a crumbling legacy of an industrial era long past in Minnesota. But that’s the point of using it, Schweigert says. The Wastelands depicts a post-apocalyptic, post-industrial dystopian world, and what better setting is there than an actual crumbling industrial infrastructure?
The play explores themes like protecting our natural water resources in post-industrial America through the lens of Dante’s Purgatory. But instead of seven layers of hell, it’s seven stages of grief over what’s been lost in the world due to things like global warming, pollution, and even the loss of indigenous cultures to colonization.
Throughout the performance, cast members will lead the audience through seven scenes all exploring different aspects of the world affected by industrialization. It’s not all negative, however, as the majority of the play actually focuses on how to find hope within the despair.
“When people look at the future there’s a lot of dystopias, and when we think about the environment we think about it all going to hell,” Ganley says. “But we’re offering another way to see it. That we’re not actually going to hell but climbing out of it.”
The performances are also part of a larger documentary project, Ganley says, much like their last documentary Twilight of the Mississippi, which followed them on their trip down the Mississippi River in a raft, performing impromptu plays along the way while touching on modern environmental dangers the river faces.
So far, the troupe has performed their opera in seven different cities in five different states, including Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Michigan. And while each location has been different, they’re all centered around industry.
“We performed in the silos in Cleveland,” Ganley says. “We were in an abandoned parking garage of Lorain. We were in the streets of Detroit. We were at a pipeline pump station on the streets of Mackinaw. And we were in a lumberyard in Duluth.”
The unconventional settings have at times been problematic, like when they performed at an arts festival in Detroit. “We moved from scene two to scene three, and there’s this big hip-hop show and it’s not done yet,” Ganley says, laughing. “They’re on our stage, and we’re halfway through our show.”
But Schweigert says for the most part the unconventional and somewhat unpredictable nature of the play has been a welcomed surprise for both the actors and the audience. “We had very little idea about how this performance was going to be received,” he says, “and I have really been struck again and again by how moved people are by the performances.”
For those planning to attend this weekend, Schweigert recommends wearing good shoes, since the audience will have to walk through the somewhat shaky conditions of the old mill yard (although they ensure it will be wheelchair accessible). “It’s not at the park,” he says. “These won’t be park conditions.”
Besides being a perfect backdrop for their play, this may also be the last time people get to see the Fruen Mill before its torn down and replaced with condos and storefronts. “This is probably one of the last chances for anybody to experience Fruen Mill as it is now,” Ganley says. “A ruin.”
IF YOU GO:
5 to 6:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday, October 9
301 Thomas Ave. N., Minneapolis