Theater brings Fergus Falls hospital back to life

A new theater production aims to help residents of Fergus Falls reflect on their past even as they move into the future.

This Saturday, PlaceBase Productions is presenting “The Kirkbride Cycle,” an original show about the history of the Fergus Falls State Hospital and mental health treatment in Minnesota.

Actors in the Kirkbride Cycle rehearse on the grounds of the Fergus Falls State Hospital (Photo courtesy of Springboard for the Arts)

The hospital, commonly known as “The Kirkbride Building,” was built in the late 1800’s to handle overcrowding at Minnesota’s other two mental hospitals. It is more than a third of a mile long and features a “bat-wing” design typical of the mental hospitals promoted by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, an advocate for “moral mental health care.” Kirkbride’s believed the design of the hospital played an active role in the care of the patient.

The Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center, as it came to be known, closed in 2005 and was at one point slated for demolition. But the building is beloved by architectural preservationists (it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986) and by those who appreciate the anchoring role it played in the community’s economy and history.

Now a developer is looking to renovate the old hospital campus into a hotel, culinary academy and apartment complex.

The hospital has long been a source of conflict for locals, according to Michele Anderson, Rural Program Director for Springboard for the Arts.

“When I moved here, people were just tired. And sad. And angry. There was a lot of finger pointing from all directions,” said Anderson. “There were few places to talk about the building’s significance except in the setting of the City Council chambers when tensions and emotions were high, and that’s just not a place where people could be human, talk about their personal experiences, hopes and memories.”

Springboard saw an opportunity for theater to help facilitate a dialogue. After witnessing a project by PlaceBace Productions in Granite Falls, Anderson approached them to do something similar in Fergus Falls.

“They had co-created a beautiful work of art that helped the community tell their own unique story about who they are,” said Anderson. “The Kirkbride has a fascinating, tangled up fate — with its dynamic characters, its plot twists, and its embodied cultural energy. What better way to illuminate the varying perspectives about its past and future, than by producing a performance about its history right on site?”

PlaceBase Productions’ co-founders Ashley Hanson and Andrew Gaylord interviewed former hospital residents, nurses, doctors and groundskeepers, as well as current community mental health advocates, historians, preservationists and politicians on both sides of the building debate. Drawing from the interviews and their own research, they created a site-specific play that will take place at eight locations around the hospital’s grounds, featuring more than 50 Fergus Falls residents in the cast. Gaylord pointed to the ancient Greeks, who used theater as a cathartic experience.

“We will stage a work of theater,” said Gaylord, “but it is simultaneously a ritual for the community itself. We work closely with the actors to prepare them for the stage, but their membership in this community and their commitment to this process of storytelling contributes far more significance to their performance than their prior acting experience.”

Lowell Carpenter, Fergus Falls High School’s recently retired theater instructor, will portray Dr. Kirkbride. Other actors will take on the roles of hospital band director Elmer Fick and Fergus Falls founder Joseph Whitford.

In working on this project, Gaylord said he’s come to realize how  easy it is for society to turn any place of mental health care into a “haunted house.”

“The first thing that comes out of most people’s mouths when we mention this project is ‘I bet that place is scary.’ For the record: it’s not. This place wasn’t perfect. But it was in the business of serving human beings in crisis, and that’s not easy. We as a society are frightened of mental illness because of how little we understand it. It is too complex.”

There will be three free performances of “The Kirkbride Cycle” on Saturday afternoon and, even with a capacity of 120 people per show, the shows are almost sold out. Due to the size of the campus, audiences are encouraged to bring bikes to ride from scene to scene. Those who cannot ride will be placed on a “people mover.” The performances are part of a full weekend of activities that will include a bike ride for mental health, a community mosaic and a street dance.