SMAC Impact Stories

Supporting the Arts ... Enriching Lives

Arts in a Small Town - During a Pandemic

Looking back on the effects of a global pandemic sheds light on the resilience and tenacity of humanity.  Despite the difficulties, fear, and suffering, there are numerous bright spots.  One such bright light is a project that was undertaken in Milan during and after COVID-19 rocked the world. The “Defrost Project” was a FY20 Arts Project funded by the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council that had initially intended to bring artists from New York to work with the community. Because of travel restrictions and health concerns those artists did not travel to Milan in the summer of 2020 as originally planned.  Necessity is the mother of invention and the organizers set to work to alter course and co-create a meaningful experience given the new constraints on the project.  Instead of a three-week intensive in person workshop in the summer of 2020, the entire project was conducted remotely via video conferencing, social media, and traditional media outlets.  Given the nature of the changes, the project was extended over six months. 


“We engaged the residents of Milan from afar by developing a Question of the Month–later dubbed the ‘Milan Community Question’ in an attempt to fit a more flexible, ongoing timeframe and reach the widest possible sector of the community,” explained Defrost Artist and program director Amelia Hefferon “The prompt we worked with most frequently was: “Describe a moment when you gave, received, or saw an act of care in Milan over the past few months.”  The community questions were advertised in various ways- on local radio stations, social media, via flyers, etc. and respondents were able share their ideas via email, voicemail messages, social media or dropping off hard copy at various drop off locations. While the intention and spirit of the original plan remained intact, the project ended up looking substantially different than originally anticipated. 


Ann Thompson of the Greater Milan Initiative explained, “We were committed to using participatory applied theater as a tool for community building, celebrating Milan’s many strengths, and exploring and proposing solutions to local challenges. This was a time of disconnection, isolation, and loss for so many, and we knew that the arts could provide unique ways of connecting us to each other. We approached this project from a place of curiosity, eager to discover what that might look like in an unprecedented moment.”  To make this happen, creativity was key. So much of what people take for granted had to be reconsidered and new ways forward collectively developed. 


Several after-school Zoom sessions were held in October and November of 2020 with the young people involved with the Milan Youth Center (MYC). Various versions of the Community Questions were used to engage participants via discussion, writing, and making art.  Additionally, theater games adapted for the online platforms were played addressing various versions of the community questions to examine how students felt about themselves and others in Milan and surrounding communities.   


Really interesting conversations came out of this process, and it got people to consider what it was like to be in relationship with themselves and with their community. Ms. Thompson said, “This offered a safe space for the teenagers to unpack and discuss their experience of the past year.” With so many questions and concerns swirling around the evolving pandemic this project was a conduit for meaningful dialog. Project organizers made a point of attending the regularly held virtual MYC meetups to build community, get to know participants, and build up to the subsequent spring break camp. 


This work succeeded in providing a space for community members to gather and reflect on a difficult and unprecedented year, celebrate aspects of their community, and imagine the future(s) they want to see. They did so by participating in discussions, engaging in writing and image-making activities, identifying and articulating acts of care they gave and received in 2020, sharing their favorite places and memories in Milan via storytelling and photography and creating a film in which they articulated their hopes, concerns, and future plans.  


In December of 2020 a Winter Workshop was held on Zoom for adults in Milan and the surrounding area. During this workshop, participants created a list of “Unofficial Laws” for Milan and analyzed the impact of these implicit “laws” on their community. Participants also created some short image theater in which still-images created with the body were used as a catalyst to explore a concept or question. People then shared their creations with each other discussing what meanings these laws might have to different people and what affect it could potentially have on community members. 


Two workshops were held the following year in March with elementary school students involved in the Milan 4H Club. These were hybrid meetings with organizers connecting via Zoom while the students participated together in person with adult supervision and guidance. These workshops challenged the young people to imagine and articulate what “going on an adventure through Milan” would mean to them. Through this frame, the participants reflected on 

their community and their place in it through play, games, and visual art. 


The project culminated in April of 2021 with a camp held for the teenagers of the Milan Youth Center over their spring-break. Again, the event was hybrid in nature where theater, visual art, and writing was used to investigate the past, present, and future of Milan. Reflections on the past year continued and participants discussed their hopes and concerns for the future. “The MYC spring break camp was well-attended, well received by the young people, and laid the groundwork for relationships that were very important for us once we did eventually visit Milan in the summer of 2021,” noted project director Amelia Hefferon. “It also yielded powerful artistic results and meaningful reflection on community, identity, and change-making for the future through artistic forms of improvisation, poetry, drawing, photography, film, and more.”  


Amelia said, “We knew the participants were engaged and enjoying themselves by observing a wide range of qualitative reactions–smiling, laughing, engaged and focused work, supportive responses to peers, and verbal statements like “I don’t want to leave!” and “This was really fun!” Through these workshops, the artists and organizers were able to reach a substantial number of young people in the community.  The second session almost doubled in size following the first session, indicating the positive reception and response to the experience. “The workshops allowed us to get to know participants, build trust, explore community members’ interests, and evaluate which artistic forms and tools resonated with them most,” added Ms. Hefferon. 


One substantial outcome of the Defrost Project was that the young people created an original documentary film about Milan in 2021 where they articulated their predictions about what the next 100 years might bring for Milan, and reflecting on the roles they could play in shaping that future. Participants went out into the community and interviewed other Milan residents, asking “what will still be here in 100 years? What will be gone?” The film was screened for the young people via Zoom where they were solicited for their responses and feedback. Amelia stated, “This project served as a strong foundation for the in-person work we did in Milan in August 2021 with funding from a second SMAC grant.”  


“The artists from New York fell in love with Milan and wanted to continue the work and meet the community members face to face,” noted Ann Thompson and the community responded in kind.  “It really was a learning experience for all involved. The curiosity of having an outside perspective allowed the visiting artists to draw things out of you that you wouldn’t otherwise get talking only to local community members- their artistic work definitely had a positive impact of on the community and gave all involved a new sense of self awareness.” 


Participants also had fun together and enjoyed hearing each other’s stories and points of view. These conversations succeeded in building connections between participants and the visiting artists, which was crucial foundational relationship-building for the subsequent in-person iteration of the project. Participants practiced working collaboratively and creatively as well and succeeded in giving thoughtful and useful feedback to their fellow participants as well as the visiting artists.  


The Defrost Project succeeded in providing a space for community members to gather and reflect on a difficult and unprecedented year, celebrate aspects of their community, and imagine the future(s) they want to see. The project also introduced some new art forms to Milan community members, such as Story Circles, image theater, various drama games, creative writing exercises and filmmaking/photography activities. These art forms enabled the participants not only to express themselves but to build skills and find new, effective, and unique means of communicating their interests, desires, and perspectives. This work fostered building connections between participants and the visiting artists, which was crucial foundational relationship-building for the subsequent in-person iteration of the project. 


The experiences derived from the connections made during difficult times led to community members wanting to build on and expand this beneficial type of work. A second follow up grant allowed artists with expertise in applied theater and community artmaking to visit Milan and interface with the community in new and exciting ways. The Defrost Project provided enriching activities for young people and other community members during an extremely isolating time. They also provided programming for young people over the school spring break.  


This grant allowed the Defrost Project and the young people in Milan (particularly those involved with the Milan Youth Center) to connect over differences, share space and reflect on a tough year, learn new skills, and create a lasting artifact (the film) that captured the interests and perspectives of the MYC members. Participants also engaged and built skills in art forms such as poetry, image theater, role-playing work, and photography. Amelia Hefferon summed it up, “The fruitful workshops between the young people and these artists would not have been possible without this grant funding.” 


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