‘The Ballad of Newton Badger’ and the spark of community potential

Every semester I ask my Iron Range college students to identify a “community problem” and then argue for a solution to that problem. In recent years, without fail, the most common problem identified is “nothing for young people to do on the Iron Range.” The solutions, of course, all include some variant on “here’s something we could do.” The ideas range from paintball courses and music venues to a new YMCA or family fun center.

Still others point out that the lack of fulfillment for teens and young adults leads many to a life that includes too much alcohol or illegal drugs. This breeds new problems that require yet more solutions.

I wish every Iron Range business leader, politician and nonprofit director could see what these students say. It’s rough, not pretty. Honest. Cutting. One young woman, in decrying the status quo and wanting more out of life here, exclaimed “They can’t dig a grave big enough for you and your pickup truck.” Ultimately these arguments inspire me, and I hope so for the students as well.

There exist many reasons why the students’ suggestions haven’t happened yet. Money, of course, and the demographics of our region. But, if you think about it, so what? The bigger issue is that we don’t treat the aspirations of young people with any kind of importance. The prescribed aspirations of old people always come out ahead. As the mechanic says when your car is up on the lift: “There’s your problem.”

Every chance I get, I like to point out something going well around here. In one instance, there’s this. A new play “The Ballad of Newton Badger” opens this weekend at the Reif Center in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Penned by local writer Nathan Bergstedt with original music by local musician (and world traveling jazz man) Sam Miltich, the family-friendly play explores the life of animal scientists.

Using the full force of the Grand Rapids Area Players, a really solid community theater troupe, the play features the story of Newton Badger, a scientist fashioned after Sir Isaac Newton. A gruff loner who doesn’t relate well with others, Badger learns the power of working with others while engaging with a wacky collection of other animals.

You can hear Bergstedt and Miltich talk about their collaboration between each other and the community in this Northern Community Radio segment. I haven’t seen the play yet, but I’ve worked with these guys and trust it will be worth seeing.

“The Ballad of Newton Badger” opens this Friday, March 24 and Saturday, March 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the Reif Center in Grand Rapids. You can also catch it the following weekend, Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1, along with a Sunday, April 2 matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $12.

At minimum, it’s something to do. And at this time of year in Northern Minnesota, that seems a valuable commodity.

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