St. Olaf Magazine | Fall 2020

Spotlight: The St. Olaf Theater Department gets creative with Mamma Mia!

Adhering to campus COVID-19 guidelines, dozens of Oles enjoyed the first live theater production they had seen in months. Arriving early with blankets to secure prime spots on the lawn, they fell silent as the music of Swedish pop group ABBA resounded across the quad and ht performance got underway on the plaza outside Boe Memorial Chapel. Photo by Fernando Sevilla.

On a warm September afternoon, Oles gathered on the quad in front of Boe Memorial Chapel for the Theater Department’s physically distanced production of Mama Mia, in what would be the first live, in-person production in months.

“The most rewarding part of this process was to be able to see all the cast members put in the effort despite all the COVID-19 rules and measures, and to actually put up a show, despite the fact that we literally had to relearn so much… It gave us a new process to be able to jog our minds and come up with something different and something beautiful.” Mary Maker ’23

The production was originally scheduled to be performed in April as part of the 2019–20 theater season, but it was postponed due to COVID-19. When students were sent home in March, the cast had already completed four weeks of rehearsals, and guest designer Kurt Gough ’88 had built much of the set. Despite all this hard work, the many new restrictions of the pandemic made it difficult to imagine how the production could still move forward.

Dedicated to bringing the efforts of the cast and crew to fruition, Professor of Theater Karen Peterson Wilson ’77, who directed Mama Mia!, considered how an in-person fall performance might work.

“When we learned that St. Olaf would be back in session early, I asked students if they were interested in completing the production, and they responded enthusiastically,” Wilson says. “I ultimately had to recast a few roles, as some seniors had graduated and other students would not be returning to campus due to COVID or personal reasons. I did this by using actors from within the ensemble who were already familiar with what we had been working on. So a few students returned to campus with an extra challenge of learning a new role.”

The themes of Mamma Mia! also took on a new meaning for the cast and crew in the midst of a global pandemic.

“With our diverse cast, we had many discussions about what it means to be a family — about how family units can look very different from each other — and we talked about how coming to St. Olaf also allows us opportunities to make unique family units, particularly now in this COVID world,” Wilson says. “The production demonstrated how we need theater, how being together is essential to humans, and how Mamma Mia! is a celebration of this. The students were an absolute joy to work with. They were flexible and reacted to last-minute changes with grace, energy, and imagination. They learned new choreography, they brought extra jackets to rehearsals outside, and they brought absolute joy to the process.”

As the overture faded out and the show’s opening number, “I Have a Dream,” started to play, Tamsin Olson ’21 took center stage on Boe Plaza. Olson, who is studying music and pursuing an individually designed musical theater major at St. Olaf, played the role of Sophie. Looking out at the audience, she began to sing, and amid the uncertainty of what lies ahead, the song’s lyrics took on unique importance: “I have a dream, a song to sing, to help me cope with anything. If you see the wonder of a fairy tale, you can take the future, even if you fail.”

For Mary Maker ’23, who played the role of Donna and who is majoring in theater at St. Olaf, the production shed light on the value of theater during the pandemic era.

“Theater is about seeing,” she says. “It’s about being seen; it’s about community; it’s about being able to see the other person giggle or laugh. It’s spiritual, it is healing.”

Mary Maker ’23 (left) as Donna and Tamsin Olson ’21 as Sophie in Mamma Mia!