Esther Ouray was on her way from Florida to San Francisco. It was September 1980. A theater student from Boston, she'd quit grad school down south and was heading to work for a California film crew that in the hope that it would eventually further her ambition to act. She jumped on a Greyhound bus bound for Wisconsin, where a boyfriend she'd met hitchhiking in Colorado -- her future ex-husband -- would join her for a cross-country drive.
They stopped the first night in Minneapolis and Ouray found herself at the Seward Cafe. For years, she'd been corresponding via rambling letters with Sandy Spieler, the artistic director of the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. That became the first of several quick connections she forged here. Then a friend of a friend she bumped into who rented a house disclosed that his tenants had just moved out.
"We had a house at the end of the day and I called my parents," Ouray recalls. "I had no context for this part of the country. I thought I was in Milwaukee."
Three decades later, after working steadily as an artist, dancer, actress, Hebrew teacher, storyteller, playwright and arts educator, Ouray is still living in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood of Minneapolis. "I never expected to stay here more than a few years," she says. "But I couldn't budge and wound up building this amazing community."
A single mother with three kids now in their 20s, Ouray marvels at how she's found consistent work in the Minneapolis arts world for 30 years. "It's phenomenal and something that never would have happened out east or in the west," she says. "I've had a really whacko career. From the outside, it looks like I'm all over the place. But it makes perfect sense to me."
Ouray recently wrapped a one-woman show she wrote and performed in, called "The Hebrew Lesson" at the Pillsbury House Theatre. She morphed into several characters, including a bubbly Hebrew teacher and a little girl collecting her allowance to plant trees in Israel. As the girl ages, she travels to the Middle East to spread her father's ashes, realizing "a people without a land thought they had come to a land without people" and that the pine trees she helped plant obscured the Arab villages that once thrived there.
The play sprouted from a 2007 return to Israel, a place she'd hitchhiked through as a teenager. Today, her travels are less politically charged and far-reaching. With grant money from the Legacy amendment that funnels tax money to arts endeavors, she's struck up a relationship with the Fergus Falls Center for the Arts in west-central Minnesota. She'll spend a dozen weeks this year in Fergus Falls, teaching and coordinating a citywide storytelling festival and a community pageant.
"I think about leaving Minnesota a lot because I miss the oceans and the mountains," Ouray says. "But every time I think about leaving, I realize how low-key and friendly things are here and how it would take years to build up the kind of community support I've found in Minnesota."