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Readers’ theater performance recalls theater artist, national program

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – A readers’ theater piece organized and performed by local Bethel College alumni and current students will make up the second program connected to the special exhibit currently on display on campus at Kauffman Museum.

Berneil Rupp Mueller, North Newton, has organized “Federal Theatre Project: A Grand Experiment,” to be performed Nov. 17 at 3:30 p.m. in the museum auditorium. The Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum program is free and open to the public.

The performance and discussion following are part of “Art that Worked: WPA Art in Newton 1935-1943,” which opened at Kauffman Museum in September and remains on display through Jan. 5, 2014.

The piece centers on Hallie Ferguson Flanagan, who was born in Redfield, S.D., grew up in Grinnell, Iowa, and graduated from Grinnell College. She taught at Grinnell and at Vassar College, where she made experimental theater famous.

Flanagan was director of the Federal Theatre Project, one of the arts projects under the WPA (1935-39), and later a dean and director of theater at Smith College. She was one of the first women to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled her to study European theater on-site.

Readers for the Nov. 17 program are André Balzereit, Erkath, Germany, a Bethel-Wuppertal exchange student, Julia Campfield, freshman from Wray, Colo., Omer Galle (Bethel 1959), North Newton, Zona Platt Galle (Bethel 1958), North Newton, Tara Harms-Becker, junior from Halstead, Rupp Mueller (Bethel 1962), Joshua Powell (Bethel 2011), Newton, and Leah Towle, sophomore from Lawrence.

Ted Mueller (Bethel 1958) is providing technical support. Zona Galle assisted Rupp Mueller in developing the readers’ theater program for Kauffman Museum.

Before Berneil and Ted Mueller retired to North Newton several years ago, they spent careers teaching and working at Grinnell College.

“Down the hall from my office at Grinnell was the Flanagan Arena Theatre,” Rupp Mueller said. “For a number of years, I didn’t know to whom ‘Flanagan’ referred.

“When I participated in a theater seminar in the summer of 1980 at nearby Simpson College, in Indianola, Iowa, the instructor, Jack Jenkins, noted that I came from a college with a connection to Hallie Flanagan. He had taught at George Mason University and was an enthusiast regarding Flanagan and the Federal Theatre Project. I was hooked.

“I realized that many people in Grinnell did not know about Hallie Flanagan, an extraordinary woman. I persuaded two friends, James Fudge and Elizabeth Hansen, to help me write a readers’ theater piece about her and the FTP. Subsequently, we performed it for Alumni Reunion Weekend at Grinnell College and for organizations in Grinnell, about 10 performances in all.

“I continue to be impressed with Hallie Flanagan and the Federal Theatre Project – both her and its ambitions, fervor, idealism and challenges.

“In the 1990s, I was able to go to two FTP festivals at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., where at that time most of the materials – play scripts, reports, costumes, set materials, posters and so on – for the FTP were housed, having been rescued from oblivion by Lorraine Brown and John O’Connor when they were graduate students. The materials have since been reclaimed by the Library of Congress.”

At the festivals, Rupp Mueller said, “I met some of the people who had been involved with this vast undertaking [the FTP], and see that much of the fervor and idealism were still there after more than 50 years.”

There will be one more special program based on “Art that Worked.”

Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014, the exhibit’s closing day, John Thiesen, archivist at the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College, and Rachel Epp Buller, Bethel assistant professor of art, will conduct a gallery walk, beginning at 3:30 p.m. in the museum, and free and open to everyone.

Regular Kauffman Museum hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and 1:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. Admission to “Art that Worked: WPA Art in Newton 1935-1943” as well as the permanent exhibits “Of Land and People,” “Mirror of the Martyrs” and “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture” is $4 for adults, $2 for children ages 6-16, and free to Kauffman Museum members and children under 6. For more information, call the museum at 316-283-1612 or visit its website,, or Facebook page.

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