Wykoff residents find bearings, vision through applied theater

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE Meghan Grover, standing, gives instructions for the next Defrost Project activity as Wykoff area residents gathered at various stations around the basement of Wykoff United Methodist Church last Monday evening, July 8.

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE Clockwise from left, Connie Bicknese, Deb Dahl, Mark Burmeister and Eva Barr find their applied theater image of "trust" during the Defrost Project.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Stories of a 4-year-old birthday cake, oversleeping students roused by teachers and a would-be bank robber identified without committing a crime surfaced when four City University of New York (CUNY) students met with Wykoff residents Monday, May 8. 

CUNY students Meghan Grover, Amelia Fredrickson, Sarah Meister and Amanda Hefferon arrived in Wykoff earlier in the week, familiarizing themselves with the area before setting to work using applied theater as part of the Defrost Project, an evolving effort to help small towns such as Wykoff find mission and vision for their futures based on the collective experiences of their residents. 

The presentation started with an attempt to identify Wykoff’s history and purpose on a map.                   

“If you were born in Wykoff, stand here.  If you were born somewhere else, stand over there,” directed students, sending Wykoff area residents to stand on various stations around the basement of Wykoff United Methodist Church. Next they asked them to stand on a hypothetical map of where their parents were born, then on another map of where the people to whom they are closest in heart live. 

Meister observed the roomful of people who had chosen their home spot on the church basement floor, saying, “It’s complicated – some of you have roots in multiple places.  What’s your favorite place in the world?  Put yourself on the map.” 

Stan Juzwiak stood on the place he called “Croatia” as Meister then called for participants to answer the question, “Is anybody in their favorite place right now?” 

That’s when Connie Bicknese, who’s spent all nine decades of her life in Wykoff and Fillmore, spoke up to share her status. 

Meister then asked the participants to align themselves on a spectrum that ranged from “I’ve lived in Wykoff my whole life” to “I just got here 20 minutes ago,” and following that visual exercise, instructed the individuals in the group to turn to someone next to them and tell them why they like living in the Wykoff area. 

Conversation then was directed toward where to get “the most authentic Wykoff bite to eat.”  Dianne Bicknese and Rod Thompson volunteered the Wykoff United Methodist chicken pie supper.

Grover took over from Meister, asking the crowd to form groups of four or five and tell stories of things that “could only happen in Wykoff.” 

Eva Barr, of DreamAcres, one of the event’s sponsors, related to her group that she had visited Ed Krueger’s grocery store before it became a museum, and at that time, shop owner Ed was nearing a milestone birthday that members of the community celebrated with him by buying him a special birthday cake.  True to Krueger’s lifelong penchant for carefully labeling and preserving every single thing, he did just that with his birthday cake.  And, according to Barr’s story, it was still on display when she visited his shop four years later. 

Others told about how they lived close enough to the parochial school that when their child failed to heave out of bed one morning, the teacher went upstairs and retrieved the student, and how a would-be bank robber spent so much time standing outside Security State Bank that by the time he decided not to go through with the robbery, the deputies were waiting for him at his house. 

Participants then created “frozen-image postcards” using just their arms and legs to show their intended picture, and Grover asked the significance of each postcard. 

Dianne Bicknese explained that her group’s “church” postcard depicted the significance of Wykoff’s churches. 

“Our churches are important to us,” she said. “They just help with everything.  Here, we let the little kids ring the bell, and the littlest kids ride the rope up and down and their folks have to come and help them.  And we still do our own funerals…we don’t have someone else do them for us.” 

The troupe drew the residents to tell about the “unofficial guidelines or laws” of living in Wykoff, from being certain to stop to help someone who has car trouble to making it a point to introduce oneself, being patient while driving behind a tractor during planting and harvest seasons to asking questions about people who are visiting so that everyone’s acquainted.  The deduction made was that the guidelines are unspoken, but most people understand that they are that by which someone from the Wykoff area should live to get along well with others. 

The “monuments game” garnered use of attendees’ bodies in theater once more, this time to show monuments to agriculture, to tourism and to a “city slicker.”  The monument to a city slicker encompassed its representatives showing upturned noses, hands flattened with palms up to signify cell phones and eyes on an imaginary watch on one person’s wrist. 

Fredrickson inquired, “What are the challenges you see between urban and rural spaces?” 

That led the group to name transportation to specific destinations and isolation due to lack of transportation or being elderly as some notable rural challenges that don’t present themselves so noticeably in cities. 

Fredrickson wanted to know, “What are the different challenges you identified in your conversations?” 

Thompson suggested that there is difficulty in keeping young people interested in staying in their hometowns after they graduate, and Barr, an actress and director, illustrated that in another theatrical exercise using a hula hoop as the gyrating frame for the concept of all of one’s dreams coming true as the draw for graduates who want to seek their fortunes outside of the rows of corn. 

Hefferon stepped up to ask some questions of the attendees, specifically what images they pulled out of the urban-rural divide concept. 

Fountain resident Sandy Seha commented that she has lived in an urban or suburban town before coming to live in Fountain and that she likes both places for different reasons – the city has energy and artistic opportunity not often found in rural communities, and the rural communities have attributes not found elsewhere.  However, she remarked that there isn’t as much anonymity in living in a city as some small-town dwellers might imagine, and that there are other misconceptions between the “city mouse and the country mouse” that might be cleared up through an exchange program. 

Hefferon sounded their impressions back to them.  “I’m hearing that funding, people moving away, isolation, being far away from culture are challenges.  If you had a magic wand that could look like anything, what would it be?” 

The exchange program that Seha suggested was one solution, along with finding jobs that aren’t all agricultural and offer livable wages, telecommuting and more. 

Hefferon leaned into the circle.  “It sounds like you all have different ideas about what it would look like,” she said. “I want you to write one concrete, tiny step you can take to get closer to that ideal situation.” 

The list that the attendees returned included piloting common ground, making every school district equal, establishing a pen pal system between urban and rural residents, investing in public transportation and other ideas. 

The quartet asked the participants to stand next to the written idea that best represented their individual solution and chat with the others who arrived about why they were there instead of at another solution poster. 

The Defrosters then retreated to the hallway to leave the collective to find a common identification, mission and vision statement that declares who Wykoff residents and their neighbors are, and ultimately, the group came to the statement, “We are engaged rural citizens who want to be vibrant and move forward, to celebrate our neighbors and friends.”

The Defrosters closed their project with acknowledgement of the efforts put into reaching that statement, of Barr and DreamAcres as sponsors, and of the unique people they met while here in the Wykoff area.