Ashfield, MA: Ashfield Town Spectacle

Parade of local townspeople with musicians crossing a neighborhood green
Photo courtesy of Double Edge Theatre

How can an ensemble theatre company help to catalyze the development of local business, education, and culture?

The Town of Ashfield’s economy is in transition from a primarily agricultural economy to one that highlights both agriculture and creativity. In light of this transition, Double Edge Theatre (DE) partnered with the Town of Ashfield to engage community members in the growth of Ashfield's social and economic identity. DE accomplished this through a variety of community engagement activities at location across town, collaborations between area businesses, farms, and artists, and the creation of a spectacle performance that included public pageantry, live music, and educational programming.


The Town of Ashfield, MA, was incorporated in June 1765 and is governed by a deeply committed Select Board. Located in Franklin County in rural Western Massachusetts, Ashfield has about 1,800 residents across 40.4 square miles; Franklin County is the second poorest in the state but has the highest per capita population of visual artists and craftsmen in New England. Ashfield’s cultural and economic life is characterized by its vibrant artist community and rich agricultural history. Once a flourishing agricultural community with over fifty family farms, today only two of those working farms are still in operation.


An underserved rural community of families, youth, elderly, family farmers, and independent artists, Ashfield and the surrounding rural Hilltown region has strived to reinvent itself as a nexus of creativity and collaboration since the demise of its agricultural economy. In recent years, it has begun to attract a diversity of people from the region and all over the world, whether to visit or to live, for its mix of agriculture, localization, and creativity. In addition to a focus on agro-eco-tourism, the Town actively promotes civic engagement of local residents through public planning meetings, volunteerism, and the facilitating town-wide cultural events such as its annual Fall Festival and participatory devised arts activities.


However, while the town is currently in a period of social and economic growth, it is still actively growing its identity as destination and the constellation of hill towns of which it is a part continues to struggle greatly economically and socially. As part of this, Ashfield has focused its efforts on establishing cross-sector collaborations between its artistic and agricultural communities and local residents and businesses. The major goal has been to increase visibility for local farms, artists, craftspeople, and the tourism sector and to galvanize cross-sector exchanges, resource pooling, and collaborative marketing. In order to achieve long-term sustainability, the town needs to understand the importance of its local culture as a living entity and develop local resources – cultural opportunities, community partners, etc. – that will continue to reanimate the community culture from within while simultaneously attracting outsiders to its model. This vision of reinvention and cross pollination that includes all facets of the community will further catalyze the development of local business, education, and local culture.


To fill this void, DE envisioned linking the region’s creative economy with agricultural sustainability and rural development by expanding area partnerships and civic participation. The thought was to bring ensemble methodology and programming to the public town commons, streets, and neighboring farms in Ashfield through a Summer Spectacle performance series. Project activities would include public pageantry, live music, circus, large-scale installations (mosaic, sculpture, painting, puppetry), educational programming, and collaborations between local theatres, visual artists, farms, and businesses. By empowering every interested townsperson in Ashfield—farmers, firefighters, teachers, pastors, elected officials, parents, kids—as artists, it hoped to increase their relationship to the community and the arts. It envisioned animating public and private spaces, rejuvenating farms, pastures, and streetscapes, improving local business viability, and bringing diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired. Having collaborated with the town of Ashfield on previous Summer Spectacles, DE saw this as the perfect means to begin to harmonize local art and agriculture.


The project was an experiment in intersectoral collaboration with local and state government, area businesses and farms, public service organizations, artists, and neighbors. DE worked with Ashfield Select Board, Ashfield Farmer’s Market, Sanderson Academy, and St. John’s Church in designing and implementing small scale arts program experiments and establishing new connections and resource sharing across sectors. State Representative Stephen Kulik reached out to corporate and public sectors and engaged state funding. The regional USDA brought connections to local farms and helped to identify future opportunities for funding and technical assistance. DE attended meetings of the Agricultural Commission and received support from Ashfield Cultural Council. Franklin County CDC was essential in establishing cross-sector connections and forming the Corporate Advisory Committee (see unexpected impacts). A handful of partners played a significant role in assessing and planning for implementation of future projects, including: the principal of Mohawk Trail Regional High School, who helped to assess the needs and interests of his students; Elmer’s Store, a local restaurant and Inn, helped assess the mutual relationship between DE and the hospitality sector and plan for future activities at the Store; and the Belding Memorial Library, which began to develop new library programs that would integrate Double Edge research and source material.


To start, DE knew it needed to build the capacity and infrastructure necessary to implement a project of this scale. DE’s approach to civic development was an interconnection between civic bodies, local businesses, the schools, interfaith organizations, and artists. It quickly learned that, in order to create genuine, honest, and complex connections with community members and local artists, planning need to happen much more slowly and carefully. Proceeding thoughtfully and step-by-step in collaboration with project partners, local artists, and strategic planning consultant Marion Dienstag, the project evolved into a slow, rich process of questioning, listening, and testing. At the outset, DE had planned to create one grand public art installation in the center of town with a cohort of local designers and tradespeople. It quickly became clear that this was too ambitious for the current scope of the project, due not only to the level of funding but also the amount of coordination necessary to execute this in a way that would harmonize the town’s diverse interests and create something unique and lasting. Instead, DE shifted its focus to planning for the kind of infrastructure needed to make this original vision a reality. The final project included a multi-tiered process of community assessment, planning, and small scale arts engagement activities and pilot programs at various locations in town, including the first ever Celebrate Living Culture Day. Approximately 1,200 people attended the events and programming; all events were free, which allowed people to attend regardless of their financial resources.


Project activities led to increased visibility for farmers, artists, and entrepreneurs, to not only outsiders but also each other. Project leader Matthew Glassman said, “We know ourselves, our neighbours, and our resources better, and have carved out paths towards confronting the question of how we can work together toward mutual sustainability.” The project allowed increased engagement between local artists and community members, especially those who do not traditionally attend theatre and are underserved in terms of arts opportunities. The ensemble-driven collaborative nature of our youth theatre activities led to a renewed sense of self-actualization for local youth as they are engaged as true creators and a renewed sense of pride and creativity in Ashfield as their opinions are sought out and heard at public conversations. To give just one anecdotal example of youth retention, Double Edge has been working with three students ranging from 18 to 23 who grew up in the area. Each student has shared that if not for DE they would have already left to seek artistic activities elsewhere. Additionally, DE’s volunteer program is more vibrant than ever before as there has been a marked increase in the number of local volunteers.


As a result of the project, DE has identified a demand from partners and the community to expand its outdoor site specific spectacle work, which previously had been focused exclusively around the summer season due in large part to lack of space to work in cold weather seasons; this issue has been addressed by the addition of the new Hay Barn design laboratory. A need for continuity in connections to local businesses, farms, and other ventures also has been identified. To fill this void, DE established a corporate advisory committee to think about shared interests and seek opportunities for mutual support. An agricultural advisory committee is in the process of forming with the intent of deepening conversations with local farmers about how we can work together in the future to connect art and agriculture. Additionally, DE’s Associate Producer has recently joined the Ashfield Historical Commission 250th Anniversary Steering Committee, which is coordinating a year of events around Ashfield’s upcoming anniversary, a first time that a member of DE has joined a local government committee. Lastly, Barrett’s Year of the Rural Arts Residency (see Logistics sidebar) increased visibility for Ashfield and Double Edge in a national dialogue.


Video excerpt from Celebrate Living Culture Day
Longtime community member Mary Snow reflects on her memories of Double Edge over the years.

Year of the Rural Arts Residency
An article written by Savannah Barrett after her Year of the Rural Arts Residency at Double Edge.

Since 2002, Double Edge Theatre has created a highly visual and imaginative performance known as the indoor/outdoor traveling Spectacle that takes place annually on the grounds of the company’s 100-acre Farm. The spectacles draw inspiration from myths and classical literature and lead the audience along the pastures, pond, river, and hills of the Farm as well as inside the barn. It is a rare opportunity for community engagement. In 2014, Double Edge began touring the Spectacles to universities and hopes to add tours to other rural and urban environments in the future.

In our interactions with elected officials and city staff, we seek out areas of common interest that can be pursued by all parties without fear of favoritism or conflict of interest. We believe that reservations that have at times been expressed by government officials are fundamentally a matter of unfamiliarity, and that the opportunity to grow our partnerships will bolster a shared ethos of sustainability and mutuality. This is a challenge, but we believe that if we can help to move beyond a sense of competition between different interests in the town, we can reach a place where we are all at the same table contributing to the common cultural and economic good of the town. To that end, one of the guiding questions of the project has been investigating how we can work towards a shared understanding that efforts to promote artistic activities are efforts to promote the health of the town as a whole, rather than the individual interests of the artists involved. Through this deepening of our relationships with Ashfield’s Select Board, Historical Commission, Cultural Council, and Agricultural Commission, it is our hope that our work will strengthen policies that promote multi-use access to public spaces and integrated, responsible stewardship of the land.

A wide range of artists and designers were involved in planning for future public art programming and re-envisioning the Hay Barn: Nancy Milliken, an installation artist; Russ Loomis, master carpenter; Rachel Silverman and Hayley Wood, large scale scenic painters; Mark Day, custom metal fabricator; Harry Dodson, landscape architect; Jim and Bill Vieira, stone masons; and Beckie Kravetz, mask maker

  • The Hess Foundation
  • The MAP Fund
  • MCC’s Adams Arts Program
  • Saturday Farmer’s Market on the town commons (giving us a chance to meet and talk with the farmers and other community members)
  • Community Hall
  • Community Rooms around town (ex. St. John’s Church)
  • DE Farm Center
  • Sanderson Academy
  • Town meetings and events (ex. Ashfield Fall Festival)
  • Excerpts from current performances
  • Open theatre trainings
  • Music sharing events
  • Conversations on what it means to live in Ashfield and how we create new ways of connecting
  • Meetings to plan for future programming
  • Meetings to plan for the transformation of the old hay barn
  • Celebrate Living Culture Day
  • Educational programming 
  • Year of the Rural Arts Residency

On July 6, 2014, DE hosted its first-ever Celebrate Living Culture Day, a hybrid community event coinciding with its 20th anniversary on the Farm that was one part open house gathering, one part town hall-style meeting, and one part town fair. The impetus came from meetings and conversations that had occurred over the course of this project. It included arts activities for all ages, tours of the farm, and the presentation of the first annual John Snow Award to Ashfield Tae Kwon Do master Roger Lynch for his community leadership, a Massachusetts State Senate citation of recognition for outstanding achievement to Double Edge Theatre, and a photo exhibition documenting the history of Double Edge at the Farm. Attendees discussed Ashfield’s current context, changes the community would like to see, and how Double Edge and other artists could be involved. Additionally, Local farms and other ventures were promoted through the offering of sample produce at post-show gatherings and a raffle.

We identified that we lacked the kind of indoor space necessary for the large scale building and level of collaboration with so many designers. This led us to re-envision a historic, dilapidated Hay Barn on the Farm (formerly used as a storage space and unsafe for public use) as a design workshop and studios for local visual artists. The first phase of this project, currently underway, involves shoring up the foundation and saving the original structure of the building. While the renovations themselves are not part of Our Town activities, this project allowed us to identify a need and to respond strategically. It has opened a door to working more closely and regularly with local artists and to new programming possibilities in the future (see links to photo gallery in question 6).

Likewise, we had initially planned educational programming that would take place in multiple phases and integrate Ashfield’s cultural and agricultural life. We realized that building deeper relationships with parents, teachers, and staff was key to developing the kind of locally-sensitive programming we desired. As a next step, we held our first ever free theatre workshop at Sanderson Academy, Ashfield’s local elementary school, where students got a taste of our collaborative ensemble devising process, and we had the opportunity to work with the Parent-Teacher Organization and teachers

We engaged in further assessment and documentation, with a particular eye to our rural location, through a Year of the Rural Arts Residency with Savannah Barrett from Art of the Rural. Barrett spent a week at the Farm interviewing artists and citizens of Ashfield, looking at the past 20 years of Double Edge in Ashfield. In an article published online in October 2014, Barrett contextualized Double Edge’s summer performance work within the national rural arts and culture movement