Season 2 Episode 11
Hannah Shultz: Welcome to Share Public Health, the Midwestern Public Health Training Center’s podcast connecting you to public health topics, issues, and colleagues throughout our region and the country highlighting that we all share in public health. Thank you for tuning in to this series which focuses on rural health in the Midwest. Over 10 episodes, we talk with people in a variety of communities about their experiences and perspectives on rural life, employment, and health. Our aim is to deepen understanding of the complexity of rural life and celebrate rural areas. We’re so happy you’re listening and learning along with us.
In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about cultural identities and the arts. I’m really excited for you to hear from our guests today. Angie Tagtow is the founder and chief strategist of Akta Consulting. She is a registered dietician and has a background in food systems and she served as the head of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in the United States Department of Agriculture in the Obama administration. Angie is originally from a rural area in Wisconsin and she currently lives in central Iowa. Angie tells us how she has experienced rural life and the changes she’s seen in her community.
Angie Tagtow: The biggest strength is that I see a lot of diversity, not only in the businesses in the surrounding areas, but also diversity of housing, diversity of lifestyles, and especially over the last five to 10 years, I think. But it’s also a demonstration of change in economics. And so when you see the suburbs thrive the way that they have around the greater Des Moines area, that’s an indication of economic growth. Having been involved in food systems work over the years and one of the primary reasons why we decided to live in the rural area is, we both grew up in rural areas. We’ve been here for about 26 years or so and having watched that change in landscape has been challenging. When we moved here we were literally surrounded by family farms of all sizes. Over the years, of course, that has changed and the farm fields are no longer there, but there are now businesses and homes and developments and we have expanded roadways in the northern part of the county. That give and take between development of communities and the loss of our farmland has been challenging to see. And also keeping up with the growth is also a challenge, so even though we are within Polk County, the most populated and most urban county in the state, we still have challenges with broadband. We still have challenges with, sometimes our electricity will go out and so those utilities aren’t quite equitably distributed across the county regardless if you’re in West Des Moines or if you’re in a rural part of the corner of the county. I think keeping up with changes in technology, keeping up with the changes with the transportation infrastructure, and of course, when small communities change and new families or new businesses come into a community that has remained pretty much the same for years, change is hard. You do see that sometimes with perhaps people leaving an area because it’s no longer the area that they thought it was going to be.
Hannah Shultz: Being from a rural area or living in a rural area is a strong part of identity for many people.
Angie Tagtow: I think living the rural life is almost a badge of honor. You know you can make it when you can live rurally in the upper midwest. What’s interesting is, growing up in a rural area and then having to travel into a metropolitan area for work, come the winter months or when you have bad roads, it literally is sometimes impossible to go anywhere. And comparing those experiences to people who live in town, in which they might live on a main byway and they have plows that come by much more readily and they can get to work easier, that is a reality of living the rural life. We don’t actually live on a farm here. My husband and his family have a farm up in northeast Iowa. There’s an assumption that often gets made that we live on a farm. We have just 12 acres here that we built our home on 26 years ago and there’s a lot of assumptions that get made about living in the country. We are active gardeners. We do have a reconstructed prairie on our property. We have really transformed the landscape here with doing a stream bank restoration project a couple of years ago. We think we’ve kind of repaired some of the problems that were on this land when we bought it. There was some flooding, there was erosion and not a lot of vegetation on the land either. So over 26 years, we’ve really changed, literally, the landscape here and it’s been quite enjoyable to be able to see the seasonal changes that are happening. Like right now, I still have maple trees outside my window that are still bright red, which is fun to see. The tall grass prairie restoration project has been a 20-year learning process for us both and it’s been fascinating to see the evolution in tall grass prairie over that time. Sometimes it looks different week to week. Sometimes it looks different month to month. And there is definitely differences year to year. Learning how to manage and maintain that kind of diverse landscape has also been a wonderful learning experience for us both as well. I just think that unless you have lived in a rural community, grown up in a rural community, you have a much greater appreciation for what a rural community really has to offer.
Hannah Shultz: Angie and her husband have lived in rural central Iowa for more than 20 years. I asked what kinds of activities there are and how those opportunities have changed over the years.
Angie Tagtow: Immediately, within our community, we have apple orchards and pumpkin patches and we have a small farm store just a couple of miles away. Those are relatively new, over the years, and so I think having access to those types of experiences really adds to the culture of a community. It’s really fun to see, especially young kids who grew up in town, in the city, to come out and experience that. That’s, I think, one of the biggest advantages of living in a rural community is that we can offer that sense of community and culture to others who don’t live in a rural area. Perhaps northeast Polk County is unique because of its geographic location literally right in between Des Moines and Ames and so the access to arts and culture in the state is… we have lots and lots and lots of opportunities there. This year being, of course, a very unique year in which that access has been limited, but the interesting thing is how innovative and creative folks have been to still make sure that they can deliver on their services and their products even though their offices or their locations are not open to the public right now because of the pandemic. This is a very unique part of the state, that corridor between Des Moines and Ames, and I just anticipate that over the years it will just continue to grow and flourish and offer even more opportunities.
Hannah Shultz: I was curious how being from Iowa helped Angie in her time at USDA.
Angie Tagtow: I think the advantage that I had going into that post at USDA was my knowledge of agriculture here in Iowa. So having worked with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, having a degree from Iowa State University, living in a rural area in which my land and my husband’s family’s land is enrolled in programs such as CRP. Having that type of knowledge, I think helped me in creating stronger relationships across the different agencies at USDA. It definitely gave me a much broader perspective of the types of services that USDA provides. And I hope it helped build stronger relationships between core agriculture programs as well as nutrition programs.
Hannah Shultz: Pastor Lisa Crow is our next guest. She serves First United Methodist Church in Marengo, a small town in east central Iowa. She starts by telling us a little bit about her town.
Lisa Crow: It is the county seat. It has all of those resources right there. People drive to Marengo to renew their driver’s license, to do any official business, update your license plates, things like that. But also our hospital there is, I think, unique in that it serves a great purpose in our community and beyond our community. I think that it’s unique in the people that live there. A lot of people that live there were born and raised there. Not a lot of people are transient, meaning, you know, are in the process of something else in their life. If they move there, they usually stay. I think that that is a bonus in a way, but of course also, being an outsider, it’s always, I wonder how they will accept me. But my experience has been that people are just so loving and generous there, so I think it’s a great community to live in and it’s definitely a great community to serve.
Hannah Shultz: Lisa says being in a close-knit community is one of the biggest strengths of being in a small town.
Lisa Crow: I think having lived in some bigger cities, Cedar Falls, Waterloo, and Coralville, one of the biggest strengths of living in a small town is knowing your neighbors and being able to easily build community. Part of that is done at the church, within church community, but part of it is just, even at the grocery store, knowing people’s names and being able to just stop and have a conversation with someone wherever you are. That’s not something you generally experience in a larger community. It’s nice. It’s easy to find someone who will speak up on your behalf so when you write down your references, most of the time I might know the reference and just be able to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, what do you think?” But I think most of the time we kind of already have a sense of whether they are a good fit for that position or not. I think that’s the benefit. I think also reputation is a big deal in small towns and so people are maybe a little more careful about how they live their public life because they don’t want their reputation to be marred, where, in a bigger city, you’re maybe a little more incognito when you’re in public. When you’re in a small community and people know who you are… I guess it just makes good living a little bit easier. Community building is so essential to our wellbeing. Feeling like you’re a part of something is astronomical. We all have that need to be a part of something and it’s so much easier to be a part of something when you’re in a smaller community. Marengo, specifically, has a lot of opportunities. Non-COVID, there are a lot of things throughout the year, just activities going on where people can choose to come and usually they are family-oriented, centered around kids, and sometimes the Ministerial Alliance is a part of that and sometimes it’s just the downtown businesses put things together and sometimes they are at the church and sometimes they aren’t. There is just a lot of ways to really dive into community there.
Hannah Shultz: There are great examples of church alliances in larger communities, but Lisa’s comments about churches relying heavily on one another in smaller communities is important and points to other comments about community cohesion and connection.
Lisa Crow: I definitely think it is different. What I notice is, for me particularly, we are the place where people go when they don’t know what to do. So I have done a lot of funerals since I’ve been there, but only one or two of those funerals have been for my own church folks. We do a lot of community outreach. We have the Marengo Ministerial Alliance, which is a group of local pastors there in Marengo and surrounding churches that aren’t in town that we do a lot of things together to help the community. That’s not really something that you see in larger communities, churches generally do their own thing and they don’t most of the time band together to make things happen, but I think it’s really lovely to be able to work with our neighboring pastors who are of a different denomination to do things in the community. But also, just having our doors open to everyone and people knowing that they are welcome there whether or not they step in the door. This has been a very unusual time for the church, as you might imagine. We have not been worshiping in person for a couple of months. We were together in-person for about six weeks in the summertime and we weren’t in-person before that, so this pandemic has caused all church leaders to really pivot and learn technology and things that I didn’t ever want to know. We’re picking up people who are unavailable on Sunday mornings because once it’s there, it’s there and they can watch it anytime they want. If they are available on Tuesday, but they are not on Sunday, they can go to church on Tuesday or whatever day it works for them.
Hannah Shultz: Lisa has talked about how easy it is to know one another and for collaboration in small communities. I asked her what her relationship is like with the public health department.
Lisa Crow: I have met with them a couple of times. Once, we invited them to come for a Ministerial Alliance just to enlighten us on what happens with healthcare in our community, what our needs are so that the church can try and fill some of that void. And mental health has been a real struggle, and before the pandemic even, mental health was a topic of concern for us. Just trying to find ways that the church can fill the void of what isn’t available anymore and what is necessary for a community to thrive. We met with them, that was pre-pandemic, also met with them again because we were launching a youth center in Marengo and just trying to pick their brains on what we needed for that, how they could partner with us in that endeavor. We actually did get that youth center launched and then the pandemic.
Hannah Shultz: We’re going to switch gears a bit now and talk with Mary Swander again. We’ve already heard from Mary a couple of times in this series. She’s a former poet laureate of Iowa and is really passionate about arts in rural areas. She sets up the next part of our episode really nicely as we dig into cultural identities and the arts.
Mary Swander: There is a wealth of talent, activity, people who want to do the arts in the rural areas really because Gene Logsdon has a book called, Agriculture is the Mother of all Arts, and all the folk arts evolved from agriculture. And so that is all here today from quilting to woodworking, folk music, it just goes on and on and there you have this foundation that people can work from. And then it’s a very ignored – again – this richness that’s here is often ignored. I think of Alan Lomax a lot who went around and recorded all the … He was an amazing archivist and musician and he recorded all the folk music, everything from prison songs to work songs to old English ballads in the Appalachian Mountains, to cowboy songs and it’s out there to be had and enjoyed. There are a lot of artists actually in rural areas and I established a nonprofit called, Ag Arts, and I have a little office now in downtown Kalona and the conversation I was having with fellow rural artists is, why don’t more artists come to the rural areas… because the basic issue is cost and when people [ask], “You opened an office? Not in Iowa City?” I’m like, “No, not in Iowa City.” “Where, in Cedar Rapids then?” I’m like, “No, Kalona.” “Kalona?” Yeah, well I could open an office in Iowa City and it would be at least 15 times more expensive for the space that I have. Rural areas offer, the price is right. I did a little bit of work in Waukon, Iowa and I was really trying to help them get some arts initiatives going. I said, “Well you know, if I brought in visual artists, I’d need space for a studio.” They come with stuff, with paints and easels. It’s not just like a writer who needs to plug in a computer. These economic development people, they looked at me and they go, “Mary, we have space. Have you walked downtown?” They have a lot of boarded up huge buildings. I think we should do in Iowa what Paducah, Kentucky did, which is try to revitalize rural areas, small towns who have these empty spaces with the arts and I think it would bring a lot of interest, tourism, diversity to our rural landscapes and also opportunity. I have two people working for me now, and my friend, Monica Leo does Eulenspiegel Puppet Troupe in West Liberty. She is actually the one that gave me the idea. She has three or four people that work for her and so every time she has a puppet show over there, people come to town. They buy stuff, they eat lunch, they spend money. So there is something that people don’t always think about how arts are economic development in a small space. And then I give a plug for Ag Arts. We do residencies for artists to stay on farms for two weeks to two months and then it’s not just like a residency where you hole up and write beautiful poems. The artists have been doing that, they go to farms and they interact with the farmers, get to know what their issues are, get to know them and then reflect that material in their art. That’s been working out really well. I’ve been bringing them in from all over the world. That stopped because of the pandemic, but we’re bringing them in from all over the United States. I had dancers from New York City here this summer. I’ve had writers. I had Irish musicians from Ireland. I’ve had a painter from Maine. It’s been very different. I had a writer here from Chicago today and he wants to do one. The farmers like it too because they are out harvesting the vegetables and this Irish accordion is playing in the background. And they are like, “This is just great.” It’s really funny because right now I’ve got more farms and farmers who want residencies than I have money. But donations are starting to come in because I pay the farmers a little bit and I try to pay the artist’s transportation to get them there. They’ve put in special requests. They’re like, “I really like calypso music. Can you get me a calypso?” I’m like, “Yeah, you guys, this is really specialized. All right. I actually know a calypso musician.” It’s really funny what they come up with. I’m like, “Oh, okay. That’s cool.” The arts can learn a lot from farming too instead of us just being an ornament for them.
Hannah Shultz: We’re now going to hear from Tom Johnson and Meg Merckens. Tom was born in South Dakota and his family moved to western Iowa when he was a young child. Meg is from Ohio and tells us why and how she came to Iowa in February many years ago. Tom and Meg have worked in theater for years and are great storytellers so I’m just going to let them talk.
Tom Johnson: I was brought up in the rural world until I went off to college, actually. One of the things that make me want to stay here and did while I was actively pursuing my career was, I knew what kids, especially in small towns, are missing, particularly the in arts and particularly, specifically theater. I didn’t realize it until I was a freshman in college that some of these things existed because I had never been exposed to them. I made it my career to take theater on tour. I’ve done that for 50 years, taking theater on tour to these small rural communities because I know what I was missing and I don’t want to see any little kids miss that same thing.
Meg Merckens: Actually, the reason that I am here is that I found out about this little theater company that was just started off, small, professional theater in Iowa. I have to be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure where Iowa was when I came out here. I graduated from Kenyon College in Gambier, Iowa, which is a small town in itself. And after I graduated, one of my professors wrote me a note and said, “I heard about this theater. It’s out in Iowa and they are looking for actors to come out and I think it’s a good fit.” I sent a pictured resume but I didn’t get hired at the time. I didn’t know what to do so I went to New York City and studied acting when I got a call from Iowa saying – it was February 1976 – saying, “Would you come out and tour a show?” I said, “When do you want me there?” I hopped a plane and flew out. I wasn’t enjoying big city life. However, I wasn’t quite prepared for how rural Garrison is or Iowa. When I got off the plane and Tom was driving me out to Garrison from the Cedar Rapids airport, I remember it was in the evening and I looked around and I said, “Where are the houses? I don’t see any houses.” “We’ll get there.” You picked me up in a bread truck, by the way. It was a truck that the theater had so I was sitting in a living room chair in a bread truck without a seatbelt. I wasn’t even in a regular seat and we drove out to this little town and I saw this theater that was starting up and it took a while before I realized how special this was. It was wonderful, but it was remote and it did take some adjusting, it was just so quiet was the biggest thing. There weren’t sirens and people screaming in the streets. But I got to meet a lot of the people and of course the actors. The mission statement of this particular theater is to go to all these small towns across Iowa and bring live theater. It was stunning. I can’t imagine a better audience than these young people who hadn’t really been exposed to a lot of the arts before. It’s what made me want to stay and that’s why I’m still here.
Tom Johnson: In our first year, in 1971, we did 180 performances within the state of Iowa. We got to the point that, as time went on – and this was 50 years ago by the way – as time went on we routinely did five months, I would say, five days a week, two or three shows a day in gymnasiums, backyards, any time we could find some place. All, what we thought was an affordable rate of fee for these rural schools. And that was really, distinctly our mission.
Meg Merckens: And for the most part, I would say that at that point, the shows were geared for K through five, K through six. However, we came to many towns where it might be a first through eighth grade school and the teachers wanted so badly for those seventh and eighth graders to have this experience. We’d oftentimes go into the classroom and ask them to look at the show in a different way and to be audience members as models or mentors for the younger students that were going to be watching this. But in fact, those seventh and eighth graders had never seen anything like this either. It was a really a pioneer effort to take the arts out of the city and it was such a wonderful experience for me to have the chance to be part of such a thing, seeing what the arts do in a very first hand way, to see the response from those kids that sat in those performances.
Tom Johnson: I think it made a very interesting point of view or perspective of small towns in terms of education. I can remember playing in schools that only had like 80 kids in the entire- perhaps a parochial school, for example. And there would be high school kids at our shows and we had to go to them and say, “Pretend that you’re only 10 years old when you watch the show.”, so they wouldn’t throw pennies at us or something. But what it caused me to see, at least, was after all that touring is the death of the small schools, the consolidation, the identity in the small town being based on the school, the school activity. You’ll see, if you go all over Iowa these days, I still do a lot of traveling, and you’ll see an abandoned school building that’s been turned into an antique shop or something. And it’s sad because they have lost a very specific focal point for the pride in the community because the schools are gone. I’m sure that’s true coast to coast, but it’s very true in Iowa.
Meg Merckens: And another something that I hadn’t really thought about until now, we did these school performances but it was offered to the community. Say we went in and did their school in the afternoon, and then we offered it to the community that evening so that perhaps the high school students, the theater organization, club, would want to come and see it or the parents. And it was so wonderful to see the kids that had seen the show that afternoon, for the most part, all come back with their parents and then you had this huge turnout for the evening performance, which was literally, in many cases, the same show. Sometimes we added material to it to make it a little bit longer, but we were not only doing the schools, but we were also performing in the communities themselves. I remember Tom oftentimes would go in as, what was it called, an artist in schools-
Tom Johnson: Artist in residence.
Meg Merckens: Artist in residence, and he would spend a whole week at a particular school working with every single grade at that school. You can talk about that because I never did that.
Tom Johnson: Put it in the economic perspective as well. We played every school in the Cedar Rapids public school system and we charged a quarter per kid. That was up all the way probably until 1980 and if a kid couldn’t afford the quarter, we let them in free. That’s why, by the way, we had the bread truck and no second front seat. We did have a school bus we toured in and some of our vehicles got better over the years. But anyways, the economics of the arts, as provided for the school, is dreadfully underfunded and that’s a reality, not a political point of view. The kid has an opportunity to maybe be in band or some kind of- but it’s mostly sports, what my observation is. And so what was missing there was opportunities for the arts. That’s really what made me tick all these years.
Meg Merckens: It’s really heartening to see how many theaters, small theater companies have been created since 1971. Really, the Old Creamery was it, as far as the touring and theater company, but now it’s, especially in the corridor here, we have a plethora of wonderful small theater companies and that’s been terrific to see. Whether anyone’s touring as much as we did back then, I’m not aware of. I hope that some of the smaller communities are able to have the arts available to them right now. We haven’t been with the Old Creamery since 2007, so I know they toured out except for this year, which, of course, is understandable.
Hannah Shultz: For a few years, Meg and Tom hosted a swap meet bringing together musicians, artists, community members, and I practically begged them to bring it back because it sounds like so much fun and I want to go.
Tom Johnson: The last couple of weeks of the second year, we were doing 100 to 150 people in the audience.
Meg Merckens: It outgrew us.
Tom Johnson: It was just, sort of like the Little Red Hen, everybody wanted to help us eat the bread, but nobody wanted to help cook it. It was like, “Oh, God.” I would get up on Monday, order the beer, start cooking the beans, getting the meat lined up, da, da, da, da, and then Friday night we would do the event. We would take a breath on Saturday and then again Monday we would start over.
Meg Merckens: Clean up on Sunday-
Tom Johnson: Yeah.
Meg Merckens: – and start Monday.
Tom Johnson: It was worth it.
Meg Merckens: Yeah it was. That was a very unique experience that came directly from doing theater, I believe. It was kind of like putting on a show every Friday night. It was free to come in and it was free to the vendors to set up. They got to keep everything. We didn’t ask for percentages. We really wanted a chance to bring a community together. And even though the Amana Colonies is a community in itself of seven villages, South Amana was a village where there’s may be 80 people that live in lower south and in upper south, maybe another 40 or something like that, that’s loosely what I’ve understood. I did not know everybody in our village or had a chance to meet them because where do you do that? You don’t go door to door and just say, “Hey, what’s your name?” But you come to a swap meet where there’s a meal and you sit down and there are not enough chairs. You have to go join a table with people you don’t know, but you know they are from the area. Suddenly we have these groups that are coming-
Tom Johnson: Meeting there.
Meg Merckens: – that are meeting there and they’ve just met perhaps. They may be from surrounding towns, but they’ve met some people here at the swap meet and then they have tables. They come over and they want to sit at the table together. They become a group. We had people who had perfect attendance for two years. We had groups that we called with his posse because it would be this one gentleman and all his women.
Tom Johnson: The mean age of the people around that table were like 75. We had bluegrass people. We had some rock and roll people, depending on what we had on a given night and they all worked for – what I used to say – way less than scale, which was like dirt cheap. It wasn’t just what we did, it was the sacrifice that those musicians, if you add them all up, probably about 20 or more individual musicians who came. You and Mark and others that we all know. That was really a sweet thing. I write that down as one of the highlights. If it hadn’t been such damn much work cooking those beans and frying them burgers, boy, I’m telling you…
Meg Merckens: But again, and the music was really good. The quality was really high. We would have all these people coming for the food, but mostly for the entertainment, for the music, and the little sideshows that would happen, the auction at intermission and that became kind of a fun, bizarre event in itself.
Tom Johnson: Let’s not fail to mention my baked beans.
Meg Merckens: Your baked beans were bringing them in from outside the county, Tom. But if we hadn’t had the arts, if it had simply been food and vendor wares that wasn’t necessarily arts-oriented, it would have been fine, but the concert-feel of it, and it was outdoors and it was unusual and people felt like they were in on a secret. Sometimes people didn’t tell other people because they didn’t want it to get much bigger. They like it just exactly the way it was, but word got out and to watch it grow again was really fun and really frightening at the same time because people would start bringing their own lawn chairs and it spread from just under the one tree to just expanding out into the entire parking lot area. It was a joy, I’m so glad we did it. Every once in a while I’m very tempted to have a one-time only Friday night event where we bring it back or maybe just a couple of times, but then I think about the food and we can’t feed them all. But we should do these concerts again, it brought people together and it was a community spirit.
Hannah Shultz: Tom explains how rural America has changed as infrastructure improved, connecting small towns.
Tom Johnson: One thing, when we talk about small communities in Iowa, there were all kinds of laws that said you had to have a hard surface road from a community to at least connect it with another so there wasn’t … way back in my time, there were towns that were connected only with gravel or dirt roads. But that became a state law that there had to be hard surface roads. Then when interstates and the big four-lane highways, Highway 20 and Highway 30 and all these other things happened, rural America changed because getting from Garrison to Cedar Rapids was 45 minutes, where it might have been two hours in the day of dirt roads. So all these small communities, the people in these small communities had an opportunity to go to the urban area or to a place for a grocery store, a doctor, a nurse, these sort of things. You started seeing that there were no doctors in small communities anymore. You had to drive to get there. They say the big four lane highway runs both directions, it takes people out of the small community. It gives them an opportunity, but it also takes them out of the community and businesses began to get not a successful, medical services don’t get to be as successful and we all live in that now.
Meg Merckens: That’s interesting too because what I especially love about living out in a rural area is that I can, within 18 minutes, get to a city, Cedar Rapids or Iowa City, which has everything that I need or want, pretty much. I’m not out so far that… I’m just what I consider minutes away. In a big city, it takes you longer than that to get across town so I can just zip up to the city, get whatever I need, but then I get to come back to the beauty of the rural area and enjoy the living out here. It really is pretty. I don’t think I’ve ever taken it for granted because I did grow up in a big city and I wasn’t raised like this and so when I got here, it was so stunningly pretty and serene compared to what I knew. A lot of people come out and find that they don’t like that, that they want to go back to the big city, but for many of us, we find this is actually a better way to live.
Hannah Shultz: A lot of the work Meg and Tom have done is to travel to schools to do theater for students.
Tom Johnson: We’ve had many principals and teachers tell us in the schools, “Our kids have never seen a live performance except for the [inaudible 00:41:57] and they are usually terrible. We never had an opportunity to see a professional group of actors.” We took it upon ourselves to do two things at once. One was to entertain them and then turn them into audience members, let them understand the protocol and the kind of etiquette of being an audience member. We applaud at the end or we stand up or we do these certain kinds of things. It informs our art to establish and fit it to these people without giving them strictly the limit menu or diet they want, but expand their tastes. I’ve always compared that to going into some foreign, very primitive society and you don’t dare offend their gods or offend their rituals or their tastes while teaching them that there are other things that … You really were dealing, in a lot of cases, in some of these smaller towns with a very narrow, narrow, narrow, narrow view of what art was. And in my case growing up in that sort of thing, I had no idea that people could get paid to do that. We had a band concert on Wednesday night in the summer time and that was about all I ever saw. There was band. There was choir practice, but to have that expansion… We had to understand without offending the audience, we had to understand that they had somewhat primitive tastes and without being judgmental. Going forward from that, hopefully at the end of a period of time, have a taste for something else. And I know this – Meg and I talk about this frequently – we’ll go some place and they’ll say, “Oh, you were with the Old Creamery Theater?” “Yes.” “I remember …”. First of all, there will be a big guy there with gray hair and his teenage kids with him. He said, “Yeah, I saw you when I was in the third grade and I still remember.” You’re too old to have been in my … 50 years, lets face it.
Meg Merckens: There is an interesting thing too that happened. When we lived in Garrison and had the theater there before we were sharing stages with Amana, when were just in Garrison, I think part of the reason that a theater in Garrison worked is that it was such an anomaly. It was a farming community and suddenly the hippies descend on the town.
Tom Johnson: In 1971, they called us hippies.
Meg Merckens: And want to do this art thing and Tom could probably talk to that. It was pretty interesting. I was not there at the time, but I’ve heard the stories and it’s amazing. But when I got there, a lot of times we had ushers, even our house manager, I think, was 11, 12, 13 years old, and we had ushers that were kids that were 8, 9,nand 10 and they were told how to usher and they were very professional about it.
Tom Johnson: And they worked for free.
Meg Merckens: And they did. They got to see the show for free. They would trade out. Some of those kids, if they liked the show, they’d usher every single night in the summer time. They were fantastic. They were part of the kids in the community, it was fun. We’d chat and get to know them. I’m on Facebook with a whole bunch of them now, these kids that ushered. Some of them have gone on to become music teachers. One has gone on to teach theater. A lot of them are in the arts in some way and I look back on that and I think that would never have happened if that theater hadn’t landed in that particular town, that the influence of that on the younger – especially the younger generation – was even more than I think we realized at the time.
Tom Johnson: There’s a quote I remember about small communities. “One bad thing about living in a small community is everybody knows your business. What’s the good side? The good side is everybody knows your business.” Meaning that there’s a certain kind of care, a certain sort of look-after. I know, when I was a kid on Halloween night, if I was in trouble, it would get home to my mother before I did because somebody would call and say, “You know what your son’s doing?” But there was a care in the small community. We mentioned moving to Garrison and we were not welcome. There’s no way you could say we were welcomed by the community as a whole. Individuals did like us, but you knew that you were in when I got, I was the producing director of the company, and I got invited at the end of the second year to join the fire department. That was the biggest honor you could have bestowed upon you was to be on the fire department. I even was appointed to the town council and even won the election the next year, the next term. I got 11 votes. I’ll never forget. That’s the only political office I’ve ever held. The only time I ever won a vote. It really was a whole different sort of feeling in the community, that because it was small, everybody knew each other. Again, you don’t move into a foreign situation like that and pretend you’re better. In joining the fire department or going to the socials – Meg has been a member of the Lions Club in Garrison, still is, and she commutes back to Garrison to go to it. You got your 30 year pin?
Meg Merckens: Yeah, it’s coming up.
Tom Johnson: 30 years of being involved in a service organization.
Meg Merckens: You’ve become a part of the community. I always consider it my birth home in Iowa and then Amana has become my next home. I feel very at home in both places and very welcome and of course I want to do what I can back for the community. I think people are always excited about the arts, they don’t necessarily understand what it entails, so to sit down at a Garrison Lions meeting and they ask you about what your work day is like, it can be pretty stunning for them to hear what kind of work you do all day. We don’t just memorize lines really quickly and pop it up on stage. They don’t understand. We do it in three weeks time, putting that show up and what happens in that three weeks time, it was really fun to share that with them. On the other hand, I learned more about why tilling, discing was important at a certain time of year and what GMO – I learned a lot about agriculture because it wasn’t just about me being, “Oh, I’m in the theater and let’s talk just about what I do.” When I go there, I want to hear what they do and so it was as important for me to find out what it was like to go out to a farm and see those pigs being born or whatever else I wanted to open up to. When we went out on tour we stayed in what we called host homes and I always asked, if I stayed on a farm, if I could get up with them and just go along with the chores. Obviously, I didn’t know how to do it, but I could watch. They were always stunned by that. Why? I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, I have no idea what you do in the mornings.
Tom Johnson: I will say of all the actors who toured with us, you were the only person who offered to help with chores.
Meg Merckens: They could always tell when on got on the bus after that I had helped with the chores.
Tom Johnson: Back to Meg’s reference that we were called hippies when we went there. They were afraid we were going to come in and turn their kids into drug addicts or something, I don’t know exactly. We were all college people, college professors, advanced students, da, da, da. We had a regimen. We went to work in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening. We took Mondays off, like any theater company. And there was a series of articles in the paper about those hippies over in Garrison and letters to the editor. One night we were sitting in a little local watering hole, the only little watering hole, The Hitching Post, and this man came up to us and he said, “They’ve been saying in the paper that you guys are hippies. You ain’t hippies.” He said, “I see you. You go by my house every day. At 10:00 you go down and you go to work and you come back at 1:00, and then you go back at 2:00 and you work in the afternoon. And then you come home for supper and then you go back and you work from 7:00 to 10:00 in the evening.” He said, “Why don’t you go to work earlier in the morning and you wouldn’t have to work in the evening?” Meaning, he didn’t realize that we hadn’t been doing shows yet, I guess.
Meg Merckens: I don’t think he’d ever been to a play.
Tom Johnson: But we weren’t hippies.
Meg Merckens: But we. weren’t. There were some, I don’t know, some letters that went back and forth in the newspaper about those hippies in Garrison and somebody wrote back from Garrison and said, “Well, they may be hippies, but they are our hippies and we like them.” It became this kind of protection of our hippies. The deal was that they saw that arts were a business. You work six days a week and that was something to, it was eye-opening and it was something to admire. They worked seven days a week, many of them.
Tom Johnson: They wouldn’t rent houses to us when we first went to town. It was difficult to find housing for everybody. After about a year and a half, after we did manage to get … they saw that we paid our bills, every time a house came open, they would call Tom Johnson. “I got a place, do you have anyone of your actors want to live there?”
Meg Merckens: That’s right. It did change, but that’s because we learned so much about each other because of the location and because we were working in a community and becoming part of the community. Not everybody thought that, certainly so, but for the most part, if you do your job and you work with your neighbors, you are a local and you’re part of the community.
Hannah Shultz: We’ve now spent quite a bit of time talking about the arts. So, I asked our guests why they think the arts are important enough to have dedicated their lives to sharing theater and the arts broadly.
Tom Johnson: When it comes to funding the arts, practically every European country is much more focused on funding the arts for their citizens, no matter where they live in their country. When I first started the company in 1971, we had a small grant, $4,500, from the Iowa State Arts Council and then as time went along, we were funded by corporations. One time we got something from the Joyce Foundation that amounted to $90,000 over three years and we lived off that. That funded our … and then we had the National Endowment for the Arts and that was another big source of funding for us for a good number of those years. But in the meantime, the National Endowment for the Arts is no more. It’s still a skeletal organization and it only funds large things like the Lincoln Center and stuff like that. Corporations don’t pay money or don’t give donations like they used to because there is no tax advantage and if they do fund rurally, they fund things like health or welfare, kinds of basic living of people, but the arts are not on their list of funding. The State Arts Council is skeletal. Schools, it’s more difficult to get them to bring in theater companies or any companies to not only entertain, but teach the kids. Arts have begun not to matter. They’ve become, in priority, they’ve become way down here, and if you don’t have art… Human beings are the only species – if that’s the correct word – that does art for arts sake, that creates art. Music, acting, painting, all the arts. And if we don’t have that, we don’t have humanity. That’s my reason for thinking that, knowing that arts are important to everybody.
Meg Merckens: I think, too, the arts open up your mind to new ways of thinking. In so many different ways, you might start to think of something in a whole new light after seeing or hearing or however you are experiencing the arts, it may open up a part of your brain that wouldn’t happen with anything else. And so I love to see the light go off in a child’s eyes when they see something that is just brand new to them. I just think there is no other way to get that to people except in the creating of human experiences, then using that to convey feelings and experiences that someone might not have unless you were presenting them with something artistic. It just gets your brain to work in a different way. We would go into schools and do some interactive arts with some of the kids. Some of the kids would put their hands up right away to be part of that. You could see the teacher flinch and just think, oh, here we go, and this student would get up and do the most amazing piece of work, just a little improv acting out something and it was amazing to see this kid come up with something that was so unique and new. The other kids are looking at this fellow student with just wonder because they’d never seen anything like that from this kid. And then afterwards, the teacher would come up and go, “Oh, I just thought that was going to be a disaster, but I’ve never, ever seen that particular child capable of doing what he or she just did in the class. That just made me look at that child in a whole new way.” That was because of the arts. That was because of getting something to that kid that nobody had been able to do.
Tom Johnson: One of the exercises I did – just to very briefly go over this – I would say, “How many of you are creative?” About three kids would raise their hand. “You’re not creative? Everybody is creative.” “No, they’re not.” “How can you be creative?” “You can paint, but I’m not a painter.” I did a series of exercises and I guarantee by the end of that 20-minute little exercise I had every kid there thinking that they had a way they could express their creativity. I count that as a big success, the number of times I did that. Because it gives the kids, like she says, an awareness that I might not be able to paint or draw or something else, but there is some way I can express myself creatively and that’s what makes us human. That’s what makes us unique.
Hannah Shultz: What an interesting group of guests we had today. Thank you all for joining us and thank you for creating, supporting, and enjoying art in your communities.
Thank you for tuning into this episode of Share Public Health. Thank you to the Injury Prevention Research Center, Iowa Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, the Healthier Workforce Center of the Midwest, the Heartland Center for Occupational Health and Safety, the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health, the Midwestern Public Health Training Center, the Prevention Research Center for Rural Health and the Rural Policy Research Institute. The theme song for this series is Walk Along John. It’s performed by Al Murphy on fiddle, Mark Janssen on mandolin, Brandy Janssen on banjo, Warren Hamlin on guitar and Aletta Murphy on bass. Al learned these songs from a Fiddler named Albert Spray, who is from Kahoka, Missouri. A transcript, evaluation and discussion guide for this episode are available at mphtc.org and in the podcast notes.