Farmscape, readers’ theatre play from an Iowa State University classroom, is now a book

CATEGORIES: Uncategorized
Iowa Poet Laureate andDistinguished Professor Mary Swander(Bob Elbert photo)

AMES, Iowa – A readers’ theatre production about the plight of Iowa farmers, written by students in an Iowa State University creative writing course, is part of a new book by ISU Distinguished Professor and Iowa Poet Laureate Mary Swander.

Farmscape: The Changing Rural Environment is published by Ice Cube Press in North Liberty, Iowa. The book includes the readers’ theatre play and accompanying essays about multiple Iowa farmers and others who have experienced the hardships of an ever-changing lifestyle and career.

The play, from Swander’s 2007 creative writing class based on a series of personal interviews with Iowans connected to farming, has been performed throughout Iowa and in other states. Almost five years after the students put together their intense and raw dialogues, their work is now comprised in 154 pages of print.

The 10 students are still involved in the production, aiding Swander in readings and other tasks. "This has been a really unique teaching experience that has now blossomed into a piece of literary art with a life to it," said Swander.

Swander is a Distinguished Professor in ISU’s Department of English, an academic unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Readers’ theatre is a dramatic performance in which the performers read from a script in front of an audience.

During the 2007 fall semester, Swander taught a student-led writing class in which the students were to produce a play at the end of the semester focusing on a present environmental issue. The 10 students wanted to focus on a real-life scenario, choosing to write about the shifting environment of farming. Each student interviewed an Iowa farmer or someone linked to agriculture to get insight on issues such as pollution in rivers and streams and handling death on a farm. Many of those interviewed had experienced the farm crisis during the 1980s, leading many of them to move and find new careers.

When the interviews were completed, students returned to the classroom to write dramatic monologues that would eventually develop into a cohesive play. Swander and her students "spiced and diced" the monologues together into a polished piece, which was performed for the first time in February 2008 at the M-Shop, an entertainment venue in the ISU Memorial Union.

The next morning, Swander was offered a small grant by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University to tour the play to three different locations across Iowa.

"I sent out emails to contacts hoping, crossing my fingers and praying that I would get three venues," said Swander. The play has now been performed extensively throughout Iowa, and also in Colorado, Wisconsin and Tennessee.

Post-performance discussions are almost more dramatic than the play itself, Swander explained. At the end of one performance, a man in the audience stood up and burst into tears. He had lost his own farm, and 30 years later, still felt the pain.

"It’s so rewarding to get those responses from the play," added Swander.

The book can be purchased at local bookstores or at


About Liberal Arts and Sciences:

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is a world-class learning and research community. Iowa State’s most academically diverse college, LAS educates students to become global citizens, providing rigorous academic programs in the sciences, humanities and social sciences within a supportive personalized learning environment. College faculty design new materials, unravel biological structures, care for the environment, and explore social and behavioral issues. From fundamental research to technology transfer and artistic expression, the college supports people in Iowa and around the world.


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Iowa State University


Paige Berg, Liberal Arts and Sciences Communication, (515) 294-0461 Steve Jones, Liberal Arts and Sciences Communication, (515) 294-0461, Mary Swander, English, (515) 294-3373,