Interview: New play shows love for St. Croix’s cranes

Project leader Robin Murray was inspired by camping and crane-watching at Crex Meadows.




4 minute read

Ancient Wings: A Crane's Story

There is perhaps no greater magic to experience on the St. Croix River than hearing the ancient trumpeting call of Sandhill Cranes as they fly overhead. A new play being produced at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls is honoring these enigmatic birds.

Robin Murray, a professor of theater at the school, has led the project, which has included “hundreds of collaborators.” Murray recently provided more information about the production in an e-mail interview.

Ancient Wings: A Crane’s Story will premiere at UW-RF on April 25-27 and May 2-4. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 715-425-3114.

Why cranes? How did the project come to focus on these birds?

I first fell in love with Sandhill Cranes while camping at Crex Meadows (near Grantsburg, WI) in the fall. My family and I have camped there every year for 14 years now.

On one trip seven years ago as I lay in the tent and watched the shadows of the cranes fly over the tent and heard their magical sounds I had this idea that I should share their magic with others by creating a show using puppets.

What was the production process like? I understand you lead the project, but you say there have been hundreds of contributors. How did it all work?

I have been wanting to create this play for a long time. Last fall I was awarded a sabbatical to give me time to work on the project. An important element of this project is and always has been that the process would include a large group of people, and that these people would all have a part in the building of the play.

There have been people who have contributed in big ways, like helping write the initial script (Ed Moersfelder) or Danette Olsen who has served as my biggest cheerleader and who has helped make connections to other people like Gloria Adrian, an artist who has a series of paintings of Cranes and who has graciously painted the Crane image for the poster; or David “Doc” Clausen who helped introduce me to many people who shared their “Crane” stories with me; or several people connected to the St. Croix River and/or Crex Meadows and/or Festival Theatre-the list is endless.

Sandhill cranes (Photo courtesy Robin Murray)
Sandhill cranes (Photo courtesy Robin Murray)

There have also been people who have helped in smaller ways, such as loaning books, or suggesting resources, or inviting me to events where other people were. David Clausen also hooked Ed and I up with a Crane biologist at the International Crane Foundation.

The how of it, has been messy, chaotic and has never been a linear process; but it has been a special process as I have met people who told me their stories, or made a connection for me to hear a story, or introduced me to someone with expertise.

To get to the final product we have used a collaborative approach. Ed Moersfelder and I worked together to create an initial script based on my ideas; I attended a three-week intensive puppetry workshop to hone my puppetry skills, and meanwhile I recruited a dance professor, two student designers in sound and set and UWRF has supported bringing in an Alum who is an expert in Scenic Projections.

What can people expect from a performance of the Crane Project? Is there a narrative or is it simply about the visuals?

486091_393554734076280_705571520_nThis is a play featuring puppetry, dance and scenic projections to tell the parallel stories of a young girl, her grandmother who introduces her to cranes, and a Sandhill Crane. We will follow both the girl and the crane from the time they “meet” for 17 years.

It is highly visual, but there is a story supported by all these elements plus music. The puppets are of many types and scale and the puppeteers are in full view. The use of puppetry in theatrical productions was popularized by the stage version of The Lion King….and while we don’t have that kind of budget, this is a similar style. Most of the scenic projections in the play are from photographs I have taken, and most were shot in the St. Croix Valley including some of the St. Croix River I took from an airplane flown by Woody Minar of Osceola! The play will run about an hour and 30 minutes and is suitable for all ages.

What kinds of messages are in the play? Is it appreciation? Conservation? How do you think people might feel after viewing it?

The message is to raise awareness as to the plight of cranes such as the Whooping Crane and to suggest that we have a responsibility to practice conservation of our natural resources in a sustainable manner to ensure they remain for the future.

Can you tell me a little about the project’s connection to the St. Croix Watershed? What do you think this project says about this place?

A fall airplane flight shows cranes on the Crex Meadows marshes (photo courtesy Robin Murray)
A fall airplane flight shows cranes on the Crex Meadows marshes (photo courtesy Robin Murray)

The play is set mainly in Crex Meadows and the fall scenes are all in the St. Croix Valley Watershed. I met so many people who love Sandhill Cranes in the watershed! There are also scenes at the Platte River for the spring migration there, and at Bosca Del Apache in New Mexico where some sandhills winter.

As for what it says about place? I believe that most people will feel the connection to the St.Croix Watershed because of the scenic projections and also the mention of place names.


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Interview: New play shows love for St. Croix’s cranes