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Safety First Storytelling: How Bethel Theatre Produced a Musical During the Pandemic

Undergraduate students from a variety of majors took to the stage last weekend to perform 1940’s Radio Hour for a live audience, revealing how stories and song can offer a reprieve in the midst of challenges.

By Katie Johnson ’19, content specialist

February 12, 2021 | Noon

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Snapshots of Bethel's production of 1940's Radio Hour.

Last weekend, a group of Bethel students curled their hair, brushed blush on their cheeks, donned their costumes, and warmed up their instruments while ushers directed guests to seats separated according to COVID-19 guidelines in Benson Great Hall. When the lights dimmed, viewers clutched their programs and settled in for a night of live theatre as Bethel student performers shared their depiction of 1940’s Radio Hour. The musical, written by Walton Jones, was presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals for the interim course Producing and Performing a Musical. The live audience proved to be a gift for performers and viewers alike, especially during this time of virtual gatherings. 

The live audience was possible due to the production’s creativity and commitment to safety. Instead of grouping around one microphone, each of the seven singers were given their own 1940s mic staged at least 6 feet apart. Audience members were required to use face coverings, and the musicians wore masks and covered their instruments accordingly. A line insinuated that the radio studio was cold, so the actors wrapped scarves around their faces. There was no intermission, and understudies were prepared to sing major songs in case an actor was required to quarantine. Director and choreographer Meg Zauner decided not to create a set so they’d have about 20 more feet on stage to block movements according to social distance guidelines.

Despite adjusting the performance in some significant ways, Zauner was confident the actors would still convey the heart of the play. “We kept reminding them that ’40s music is about telling stories,” Zauner says. “You’re not just singing pretty notes. You’re telling stories.” She encouraged the singers to contemplate the lyrics in a new way and sing to emphasize their meaning rather than the melody. Because the musical was a class, she gave assignments for the actors to research the era’s colloquialisms and radio commercials so they could perform the jingles accurately. 

Since the class only covered the month of January, students from all majors could invest their time and energy into rehearsals without making as much of a commitment as it would be during a standard semester. Performers represented a variety of majors such as musical theatre, elementary education, neuroscience, nursing, English, political science, psychology, computer science, business, biology, and the BUILD program. “It’s so good for people in other majors to do theatre because you learn how to collaborate,” Zauner says. “You learn how to be creative. You learn how to problem solve. You learn how to stand up in front of people and be comfortable actually communicating. You need to learn how to tell stories.” 

In this season, people seem to need stories now more than ever. Despite the frigid Minnesota temperatures last weekend, Saturday and Sunday boasted sold-out shows with folks claiming each of the 200 seats available in Benson Great Hall. Zauner says about 530 people in total attended the weekend of live performances, providing the actors with hands-on learning experience about producing a musical and giving their audience a reprieve from the demands of functioning during the pandemic. “For so many people, theatre is entertainment,” Zauner says. “And for theatre professionals, theatre is about communicating a story with your audience. They’re part of the show.”

Bethel's 1940's Radio Hour in the News

The cast of 1940’s Radio Hour was thrilled to perform in front of a live audience last weekend. Daniel Weinhagen '21 told KSTP-TV about the precautions we have taken to keep everyone safe and entertained.

As found in the Star Tribune

Our students did a fantastic job of producing their first musical in front of a live audience since the pandemic's start. As you'll see in this Star Tribune article, it took dedication and creativity to do it safely.

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Music and Theatre at Bethel

Even outside of a pandemic, students across all kinds of majors love to learn and refine their storytelling abilities. With each lecture, lesson, and performance, students are challenged to grow in their abilities and are prepared for a lifetime of sharing their gifts.

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