St. Olaf’s production of ‘Mamma Mia!’ reveals the importance of theater in an age of separation
On a warm fall afternoon in September, St. Olaf College students gathered on the quad in front of Boe Chapel for the Theater Department’s production of “Mamma Mia!”
Clad in masks and toting blankets on which to sit, they spread out in order to physically distance, arriving several hours before the show started to secure one of the prime spots on the leaf-covered lawn. As the sun began to peek through the overcast sky, the music of beloved Swedish pop group ABBA resounded across the quad. The audience members immediately fell silent in eager anticipation of the first live theater performance they had seen in months.
As the overture faded out and the show’s opening number, “I Have a Dream,” started to play, Tamsin Olson ’21 took center stage — in this case, Boe Plaza. Looking out at the audience, she began to sing. Amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, 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.” Olson’s voice filled the air, enchanting the audience and setting a hopeful tone for what would be a memorable performance.
A feel-good musical set on a Greek island, “Mamma Mia!” tells the story of Sophie Sheridan, daughter of single mother Donna, who is about to get married. When reading her mother’s diary, she realizes that she may have three possible fathers and decides to invite them all to the wedding. As she and Donna grapple with questions of family and romance, adventures ensue.
Originally scheduled to be performed in April as part of the 2019–20 theater season, the production of “Mamma Mia!” had to be postponed due to COVID-19. When students left campus in March due to the pandemic, 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.
However, the show must go on. And Professor of Theater Karen Peterson Wilson ’77, the show’s director, knew she had to get creative in order to pull it off. At first, she sought out rights for streaming an online version of the musical, but none were available. Dedicated to bringing the efforts of the cast and crew to fruition, she then 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.”
Wilson also had to consider the logistics of space and choreography. Kelsey Theater, where the production was originally going to be staged, would be much too small to accommodate audience and cast members while adhering to social distancing guidelines. After conducting research and seeking out input from an infectious disease panel at Allina Health in St. Paul, Wilson decided on the plaza of Boe Chapel as a safe performance space. The choreographer, Heidi Spesard-Noble, adjusted the dance numbers so that cast members would not be touching or doing lifts with one another, and the performers sang and danced to a recorded soundtrack instead of the originally planned pit orchestra of student musicians. Needless to say, the process was not without its difficulties.
“This was an enormous logistical puzzle. Where to rehearse became an issue, as we usually rehearse in the evenings from 7 to 10 p.m. We could not rehearse indoors for three hours with the size of the cast and the singing and dancing required in ‘Mamma Mia!,’ so we reserved the outdoor area of the Art Barn and rehearsed with the noise of the wind turbine,” Wilson says. “Weather did not always cooperate, and our outdoor rehearsals often had to be shortened because of rain or cold. When we did return to Kelsey Theater one evening because of rain, we had to call Public Safety to capture a crazy bat flying around inside the theater. When we performed outside in front of Boe we had to deal with wasps, and one actor was stung twice during the final performance while another kept her epipen handy. I now have more weather apps on my phone than I ever knew existed. So, the entire process was an enormous challenge!”
Olson, who is studying music and pursuing an individually designed musical theater major at St. Olaf, played the role of Sophie. She also found the performance challenging, but rewarding.
“I was surprised at how well the show came together, mainly because we had such a halted rehearsal process. When we first returned to campus we had two weeks of Zoom rehearsal — which was interesting, to say the least! I spent much more time working on my own than I would’ve throughout a typical rehearsal process, because it was difficult to learn choreography over Zoom,” Olson says. “My biggest challenge was trying to stay socially distant on stage. Sometimes it felt incredibly difficult to try and portray certain relationships six feet apart! It was an acting challenge for sure. But I loved having the opportunity to perform with my castmates, especially after months spent apart. It felt so special to be back on campus and see everyone both on stage and in the audience!”
Mary Maker ’23, who played the role of Donna and who is majoring in theater at St. Olaf, also embraced the challenge of acting socially distanced on stage.
“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 see them enthusiastic to actually put up a show despite the fact that we literally had to relearn so much and put in considerations of ‘How far are you from your partner? How are you able to bring out emotions of love socially distanced?’” Maker says. “It gave us a new process to be able to jog our minds and come up with something different and something beautiful.”
Wilson was amazed by the cast’s ability to adapt to the many changes. In addition to rehearsing and performing in new spaces and with new choreography, the students also had to wear face shields during the performance and rehearse in masks. Despite all of these restrictions, they delivered a weekend of impressive, high-energy performances.
“The students were an absolute joy with whom to work. 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,” Wilson says. “I honestly believe that the challenges of COVID, anxiety about living in these challenging times, and the stresses of dealing with major events happening around us made us all realize the power of the theater and the incredible joy of being able to be together as a community, produce art, tell a story, listen to great music, and dance.”
I honestly believe that the challenges of COVID, anxiety about living in these challenging times, and the stresses of dealing with major events happening around us made us all realize the power of the theater and the incredible joy of being able to be together as a community, produce art, tell a story, listen to great music, and dance.Professor of Theater Karen Peterson Wilson ’77
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. Theater is a collaborative event, and this production certainly would never have come to fruition if there had not been an incredible team of faculty, staff, and students working closely together.”
Olson noticed this impact on not only the cast, but also the student audience members who eagerly gathered six feet apart on the quad to watch live theater.
“I heard positive comments from lots of audience members about how watching this production felt special after months of not seeing any live performance,” Olson says. “As a performance-based major, I’ve missed spending time on stage with others so much and I miss watching my friends perform! Theater and live performance bring people together in unique ways, and I think we will all happily return to a more performance-based lifestyle after the COVID crisis ends.”
Theater is about seeing. 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
For Maker, the production ultimately shed light on the role of theater during the pandemic era. The cast’s ability to finally interact with an audience after working on the show since February was a poignant reminder of how theater can provide healing and connection.
“Theater is about seeing. 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. And I think that is what we experienced,” Maker says. “On that day, after people have been locked in their rooms, not being able to actually see other bodies, and we give them this show and they are able to see other people, it wasn’t about us on stage anymore. With theater, it’s not about you on stage; it’s about what you are giving to those people who are seeing what you’re doing on stage.”