by Erin Bradley
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For this year’s Fall Festival, the Bethel College theater department is bringing a well-loved musical to the Krehbiel Auditorium stage.
The Secret Garden is based on the children’s classic by Francis Hodgson Burnett. The book was first published in 1911 and then re-imagined for the stage by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman with music by Lucy Simon. It premiered on Broadway in 1991 and won three Tony awards that year.
The musical will be performed three times during Fall Festival: Friday, Oct. 12, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 13, at 3:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m., in Krehbiel Auditorium in the Fine Arts Center.
The story is set in the early 1900s. After a cholera outbreak in colonial India, where 11- year-old Mary Lennox lives with her parents, leaves her an orphan, she is sent to England to her only living relatives, her reclusive uncle, Archibald Craven, and his invalid son, Colin.
“Mary learns quickly that the house in Yorkshire is home to many ghosts and old memories,” says the Fall Festival program, “as well as a secret garden that has been awaiting the arrival of someone to love and care for it, much like the inhabitants of the house. Through Mary’s search for the garden, everyone around her is awakened to the beauty [that] surrounds them.”
Megan Upton-Tyner, instructor of theater and director of The Secret Garden, says the musical has special meaning in reference to the Bethel community.
“When I started here [two years ago], Bethel was just unveiling the ‘Seek. Serve. Grow.’ tagline,” she said. “I felt like, from what I knew of Bethel and then coming into the community, it fit perfectly. As an educator and a theater artist, [the tagline has] made me think about things in a really good, concrete kind of framework.
“So as we were tossing out titles, I definitely thought of ‘Seek. Serve. Grow.’ [in relation to] The Secret Garden. But it also came up for beautiful music and lots of roles. Plus it features children, which I always think is good for families.”
Julianna Schrag, 11, of Goessel, plays Mary, and Kenton Fox, 12, of Newton, plays Colin. Both have direct ties to the Bethel community – Julianna’s grandfather, Dale Schrag, and Kenton’s father, Mark Fox, work there.
“As I started to reflect on Mary’s journey,” Upton-Tyner continued, “I felt there was a lot the story had in common with Bethel’s story. The roots are deep. Sometimes we take for granted what is in our midst and we can’t find it because we are so used to it.
“Our community is made up of people who come in from the outside and create that community. Mary is a ‘foreigner’ who comes in with no ties to this place, this house, this family, other than some random familial association, [and] she has to find her place. I think every freshman for 125 years has felt that.”
All four of Bethel’s theater productions this year will relate in some way to Bethel’s 125th anniversary, which will be a centerpiece of the 2012 Fall Festival, Oct. 10-14.
Reflecting further on the choice of The Secret Garden for the 2012 Fall Festival production, Upton-Tyner said, “We as a community create and tend the garden. Without getting overly dramatic, I feel like the garden is Bethel. Every Bethel person, every Bethel student or faculty or staff member, knows there is something wonderful and beautiful in this place.
“I think the growth motif, and that idea of people coming in from other places to create and nurture this garden, [relates to what Bethel is]. It’s interesting to me that the people who live in the house and on the grounds where the secret garden is can’t find it – it takes a girl coming in from the outside. I think that’s an important part of the Bethel story, too – that it’s the people coming from the outside in who find the miracle of the garden.”
As with most Bethel productions, the cast of The Secret Garden is comprised mostly of students – unlike most, it includes the two children in major roles.
Having these younger actors involved brings some differences to the rehearsal atmosphere and the play overall, but also has some perks.
“I am so impressed with the children,” Upton-Tyner said. “As a director, oftentimes you have to set up the scene and go into great detail and justify why you are asking them to act like this. With kids, you don’t have to. You just say, ‘Pretend this,’ and they do and you’re like ‘Yeah, that’s exactly it.’
“That’s refreshing and I think it’s filtering into the rest of the cast, as well. That’s been wonderful to witness. It’s heartwarming how these college students have responded to Kenton and Julianna. I think that’s going to be major highlight of the show.”
Everyone in the cast has noticed the connection between the students and the children.
“They bring so much energy to the stage,” said Julia Miller, senior from Hesston, who plays Lily. “To tell you the truth, when we first began, we college actors were intimidated because their British accents were better than ours.
“They are professionals. They come so prepared every night. It has been a joy working with them,” she added. “I think it really makes the play. Without having children in the child roles, you would lose a sense of believability and innocence that is crucial to the development of the musical’s story. They bring the production as a whole to life.”
Aaron Rudeen, senior from Osage City, who plays Dickon, agreed. “I think they are going to add an entirely new dimension to the play and make it very dynamic. I think the audience will really enjoy it.”
Working with the college students has been a good experience for Kenton Fox.
“I thought it would be more different than it is, but they’re all really nice to me,” he said. “It’s a bigger play than I am used to.”
Mark Fox, Kenton’s father, added, “Susan and I sensed some nerves on his part the first day or two – but the Bethel [students] have done a good job of welcoming him and are pretty accepting of him, which is good.”
“The Secret Garden is a story many people are familiar with and it is a family-friendly show,” said Renee Reimer, senior from Sioux Falls, S.D., who plays Martha. “There are many Bethel faces on stage and it should be a fantastic time for everyone.
“I am blessed to be able to work with all these wonderful people,” she added. “I think this cast and show will be a great part of the 125th-anniversary Fall Fest.”
In addition to Kenton Fox, Miller, Reimer, Rudeen and Schrag, the cast includes Will Lewis, junior from Newton, as Archibald Craven; Aaron Tschetter, junior from Freeman, S.D., as Dr. Neville Craven; Audra Miller, senior from Hesston, as Mrs. Medlock; Austin Unruh, senior from Goessel, as Ben; Katie Schmidt, sophomore from North Newton, as Mrs. Winthrop; Mycah Westhoff, sophomore from Newton, as Rose Lennox; Nik Krahn, junior from Mountain Lake, Minn., as Albert Lennox; Riley King, sophomore from Lawrence, as Lt. Ian Shaw; Andrew Walker, junior from Newton, as Lt. Peter Wright; and Tara Harms-Becker, sophomore from Hesston, as Ayah.
The Dreamers are Abigail Bechtel, freshman from Henderson, Neb.; Cody Claassen, junior from Whitewater; Caleb Epp, sophomore from Marion, S.D.; Emily Harder, junior from Newton; Luke Loganbill, sophomore from Moundridge; Emily Luedtke, sophomore from Wichita; Karina Ortman, sophomore from Marion, S.D.; Jessie Pohl, sophomore from Moundridge; Chris Riesen, senior from Beatrice, Neb.; Megan Siebert, senior from Lawrence; Dalton Smith, junior from Burrton; Micah Smith, junior from Topeka; and Leah Towle, freshman from Lawrence.
Ticket prices for The Secret Garden are: adults $12; non-Bethel students and adults age 65 and older, $10; children ages 3-12, $7; Bethel students, $2 for Friday and Saturday shows, free admission Sunday; Kidron Bethel residents’ admission prepaid – show ID to obtain ticket. Tickets are available at Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., 316-284-5205 or at the Fine Arts Center ticket office starting one hour before the performance, subject to availability
Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 Forbes.com analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.