Campus News

20 years of theatre at Bethel College

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Theatre has been a well known and loved aspect of Bethel College throughout its history. This year, the theatre department celebrates its 20th year of existence and action at Bethel. To help gain a larger picture of what the department has done in the past, as well as what it’s meant to many individuals, we met with a few individuals who have spent a large amount of time within the halls of the theatre department. We talked with Robert Rhein, professor of music at Bethel, Kelli Grosse, fifth-year senior vocal and flute performance major, Deb Swerman, director of acting, Victoria Schindler, senior theatre major, Jeshua Franklin, current choral director, and Shawn Holtgren, vice president of student development. unnamed First off, we asked each individual how long they’ve been a part of the department. “Since my freshman year, almost four years,” stated Schindler. “Six years, going on seven,” said Swerman. “Going on five years in the theatre department,” stated Grosse. “Been here since the building was built or even before; I started in 1988,” said Rhein. “I was here as a student from 2001 to 2004, for three years. So roughly 12-15 years ago,” stated Franklin. Holtgren actually made a clarification as to what “being involved in the department” actually means to him. “I was never involved with the theatre department,” he said. “There wasn't a theatre department when I was here. (The) theatre department happened after I graduated, so I graduated in '95. I was working as an RD, when they did the first show in the building, which was 'My Fair Lady.' And then after that point, I think it was the later 90's, where they actually launched a formal major.” Holtgren said that when he was involved in shows, the “department” was run by Earl “Doc” Reimer. The shows had open auditions, and many were written by Reimer himself. We asked Holtgren how many shows he was involved in when he was at Bethel. “Maybe ten or twelve,” shared Holtgren. “Doc Reimer wrote a lot of original shows when I was here, so I was in a lot of those. One was called 'Man in the Shadows,' He wrote one called 'She Was Only a Garbage Man's Daughter but She Was Nothing to Be Sniffed At,' I was in 'Barefoot in the Park,' 'Fiddler on the Roof,' 'My Fair Lady,' and 'To Kill a Mockingbird.” “I have been in the capacity of music director or accompanist for every musical we’ve done,” Rhein shared. “They were every other year for a while because it was a small college and it was felt that we’d get better participation and probably wouldn’t get enough to cover our show. That went on until 2003 where we went to every year.” Franklin said that when he was a student, the alternate years between the musicals were filled with a musical revue. Franklin shared a bit about what the revues actually entailed. “Essentially, it was sort of an evening of Broadway music.” Franklin said. “So choral stuff, and then people auditioned to do solos, so there were lots of individual solos and highlights as well. Small ensembles and such that auditioned. And then there were two or three, also, theatrical sketches.” Each individual also shared what their favorite show was and how it affected them personally. “I would have to say ‘Shadowlands,’” said Schindler. “It’s one of the most beautiful scripts I’ve ever worked with, and my fellow actors were great, as well as my director, Aaron Nichols.” “When you’re working on (the shows), they’re all your baby and so they all end up being your favorite,” said Swerman. “One that I had particularly wonderful experiences on was ‘Joseph’ because it was my first big one.” Grosse spoke of her most recent production as her favorite. “‘Like Watchmen,’ because it was my first play, so it was the biggest challenge for me in my theatre career at Bethel, and creating my own character was quite memorable,” she said. Rhein spoke from his 20 years of musical theatre at Bethel. “I’ve gotten to do ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ two times, once was in the old gym, and then not that many years later we did it in the new (Everest-Rohrer) building, and that is my favorite show all around,” he said. “It’s such a serious show (with) such marvelous touches of humor.” “(My) favorite musical would be 'My Fair Lady,'” said Holtgren. “Loved that, loved acting with Jennie Sophia, we had a real good chemistry as actors together and enjoyed doing that production. And that was the first production in the Everest-Rohrer, so that kind of set a new tone for the theatre department.” Theatre is about more than just shows. We asked each person what their favorite overall memory of the department was. “One of my best memories is certainly ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel,’” said Franklin, “which I was in the pit for, but I was also Bob Ham's assistant music director. And that show was really meaningful to a lot of us...I don't think Bethel had done musicals quite that contemporary before, so it was kind of the first time to sort of catch up historically in the genre, so to speak.” “My most memorable experience was probably going to Stratford, (Ont.)” said Schindler, which is a week-long trip that we take to Stratford (in) Canada and have this Shakespeare festival here.” “My favorite memory was in the early days, after rehearsals, going out with Doc Reimer to (Elias Brothers) after late-night practices,” said Holtgren. “We would go there with Doc, some of the cast, and we would have just pie or something, and just sit and talk 'till 12:00 (or) 1:00 in the morning, and he would just stay with us and chat.” Rhein said, “Working with very talented kids in the past who have gone on to professional careers has been a good memory within the department. Also, working with Doc Reimer was fun.” “I think my favorite memory of the theatre department has always been opening night,” said Grosse, “because it’s the night where everyone’s hard work and collaboration all comes together. It’s where you feel the most energy and this rush of joy and excitement and pride for the all the work that you’ve done.” We also asked about any strange or humorous experiences that may have cropped up over the years. Grosse shared, “Rob (Rhein), our accompanist for the musicals, he usually brings snacks with him into rehearsals, which everyone is invited to take part in. During ‘Oklahoma!’ rehearsal, we had a scene in which one of the characters was using a rope as a lasso, and Rob’s piano was moved a little closer to the set than usual, so as the individual was lassoing, he lassoed Rob’s snacks and knocked them all over the floor.” Rhein spoke about his time before the Everest-Rohrer auditorium. “When we were in Goodman (Gymnasium), there was a stage there and there was no orchestra pit. So, there would be an extension on the stage which gave us a little ‘under the stage’ area where we could put some brass players or some woodwind players. I was on a piano that was out in front of that, but we had kind of a barrier and so that was a very odd orchestra pit that I was involved with four times.” Holtgren shared, “We had one boy in 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' there's three main children, and one of the boys, literally during a production, ran off site, just kind of quit. He threw a little tantrum…ran out the back door during the show, and started running down the street. And we had to literally chase him down and get him back to continue the show. Now, the show was going; we didn't have to stop the show, but that was really peculiar and terrifying.” As with any medium, the good comes with bad. We asked each individual about their negative experiences doing shows. “(The shows) being over,” said Holtgren. “I loved it, I could still be doing shows. I think theatre's in my blood. And so, honestly, I think the hardest part was when the show (was) done.” “When directors were fighting with each other,” said Franklin. “I know it's natural to have, and I've been guilty of it myself in a directorial role, but it's hard on students when directors clash in public.” Swerman spoke about her reaction to hearing about negative experiences. “Anytime that I hear that a student had a negative experience on a show, I take it straight to heart,” she stated. Each individual also shared how they have changed from their experience with theatre at Bethel. “It’s really helped me grow as a person,” stated Schindler, “getting to experience all the that the department has to offer, such as the Stratford trip, workshops with Stratford actors and going to (The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.) They’ve all helped me to define who I am and who I am as an artist and discovering that I want to go into classical theatre.” Swerman said, “It’s helped me develop more of that feeling of collaboration and how important it is to work as a team; it’s not just one person’s vision but it’s a lot of people’s visions. And although I’ve always felt that way, I’ve never gotten to work in that atmosphere, you don’t always have that luxury of working with people who are willing to work together and collaborate.” “I think it’s made me a more confident individual,” Grosse shared. “Each time that I’ve been on stage, I’ve become more confident in myself, not only as a person, but in my abilities as an actor, singer and dancer. I’ve gained a lot of leadership experience as well, and I’ve gained confidence and skill in those leaderships. And I’ve made so many amazing friendships over the year that I can’t even begin to count how many there are.” Rhein said, “I have enjoyed the cooperation between the music and theatre department(s), because there are schools where the theatre and music department(s) either have no cooperation or have difficult cooperation. But we’ve always had great cooperation here.” “I think for me, trying on roles and perspectives was helpful for me in the way I see the world (and) in the way I see human interactions,” Holtgren shared. “But then beyond that, I think my connections with directors and with those who invested in me in those years probably profoundly impacted me.” “I think it just opened up my eyes a little bit to theatrical possibilities,” said Franklin. “And I don't consider myself an excellent actor, and again, I mostly had bit parts in the stuff that I actually did onstage, but the process that you go through to put together a character, to put together a show, and how piece by piece, and I'd done that from a musical end of things, but to do that from a theatrical end of things as well was new, and I think that shaped who I am and how I just understand the process of life, or the process of community building or the process of working together on a team towards an end project.” The department has gone through its fair share of changes through the years. We asked each individual what changes they felt they’ve seen since they’ve been here. “I think we’re growing, said Swerman. “We’re striving every day to look at not just (what) will benefit our students here at Bethel, but when they leave our hallowed halls and move into the field of theatrical production. We continually strive to keep ourselves up to date and current, as well as offering diversity in our productions so the students have a more worldview of what’s going on in the theatre world.” “We’ve started to get a little bit smaller due to budget cuts,” said Schindler, “but we’ve also started to get a little bit more liberal in a sense because I’m sure there’s a couple shows that we’ve done that in the past I’m sure wouldn’t have been acceptable.” “I think, in a way, it’s more professional than when Doc Reimer was here, although he was a pioneer at Bethel,” said Rhein, “But he was sort of a one-person department for so long and now we’re able to have more input. The department has definitely grown, and the seriousness of things that are done here has grown as well. There’s room for growth, certainly, but it’s come a long way.” “In many ways it's a younger department,” said Franklin, “and I see more intent in the students today, in the choices they're making and the boundaries they're wishing to push. I just feel like there's a generally more thoughtful process cohesive through the theatre department, both in the students and in the staff and faculty.” Swerman spoke a bit about her perspective of the department as a whole. “One of the things that I look back on fondly of the whole experience at Bethel is how much we work and collaborate together,” she said. “We all work together on the goal of putting on a good show, educating the students as best we can and giving them a positive example as well.” Swerman also shared a bit about her love for the job as well as potential changes she sees for the future. “I get to come every day and direct and teach theatre, and I get to teach people that are enthusiastic about learning it, and I come every day with a smile on my face,” she said. “And I think the department will just keep growing and getting even better as we develop it further.” “I'm really grateful for the chance that I had,” Franklin said. “Again, theatre's such an interesting thing because you get to feature phenomenal actors and actresses, and also folks like me get to still be a part of that, who don't consider themselves to be leading men in that sense. And so, I think that's a great experience, and I'm glad to see that still happening.” Grosse shared, “One of the things that I loved when I first came to Bethel was its rich history, just over the years how many people have come and how many lives have been changed because of Bethel. And, that’s just the same within the theatre department; you can look up and down the walls and see the variety of people, talents and skills that have come together to put on this wide variety of shows, and I’m really honored to have been a part of this history.”


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