By Erin Bradley
For this year’s Fall Festival theatrical performance, the Bethel theater department is bringing a well-loved musical to the Krehbiel Auditorium stage.
The Secret Garden is based on the children’s classic novel 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.
The story is set in the early 1900s. After a cholera outbreak in colonial India leaves her an orphan, 11- year-old Mary Lennox is sent to England to live with her only remaining relatives, her reclusive uncle, Archibald Craven, and his invalid son, Colin.
According to the Fall Fest program, “Mary learns quickly that the house in Yorkshire is home to many ghosts and old memories, 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,” Upton-Tyner 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, is cast Colin. Both have direct ties to the Bethel community – Julianna’s grandfather, Dale Schrag, and Kenton’s father, Mark Fox, are both prominent figures on campus.
“As I started to reflect on Mary’s journey, I felt there was a lot the story had in common with Bethel’s story,” Upton-Tyner said. “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.”
As with most Bethel productions, the cast of The Secret Garden is comprised mostly of students, but 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, and it definitely 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, and it has been a joy working with them. 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.”
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,” Fox 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.”
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.