‘As the Wind Blows’: Beltrami Area Theater Club produces original radio drama
The Beltrami Area Theater Club is bringing history to the airwaves this summer with an original radio drama.
BEMIDJI — The Beltrami Area Theater Club is bringing history to the airwaves this summer with an original radio drama.
The theater club, formerly known as the Beltrami Homeschool and Friends Theater Club, has done several productions since its inception a couple of years ago, including a "Mystery at the Movies" dinner theater show in February 2022 and a large production of “Swiss Family Robinson” at the newly renovated Nary School just a few months later.
The idea of doing a radio show started several months ago when club organizers Kate Riggs and Joy Paavola were discussing ideas for the upcoming season and what they wanted to accomplish as a theater group.
“When we were brainstorming last summer we came up with the idea to do a radio theater kind of thing,” Paavola explained. “We thought, ‘What if we took this family on a trip from the East Coast out West during the wagon train?’ We wanted to get into the family dynamics of it and explore what could have happened along a long trip like that way back then and make it a real family show.”
After much brainstorming, the pair settled on the specifics of the show, “As the Wind Blows,” which tells the story of two immigrant families, the McLanes and Huntlys, and all the other characters they meet along the way as they travel West as part of the wagon train.
“Our story begins in a little town in West Virginia called Blue Sulphur Springs in 1868, three years after the Civil War as America is slowly rebuilding itself,” the narrator reads at the top of the first episode. “Westward expansion is becoming popular again but it hasn’t fully affected everyone in our little town. We turn our focus toward two families, the Huntleys and the McLanes.”
Riggs mentioned that McLane is her maiden name, which helped inspire those characters, who are from Ireland.
“The McLanes are based kind off of my family, and I’m Irish, so even though it’s all a fictional story, (my heritage) sort of inspired it,” she added.
In the first seven episodes that have been written so far, there are 32 characters in the show and nearly as many actors with just a few voicing more than one character.
Main characters include Arden and Mabel Huntly and their children James, Raleigh, Isa Jane and Lil, their Grandma Ida, and the McLane family, Patrick and Audrey and their children Viktor, Jakob and Robert. Along with the narrator, there’s also a handful of townspeople and friends that will appear in various episodes.
“We named the show, ‘As the Wind Blows,’ Riggs explained, “because just like a leaf is blown in the wind, that’s kind of how it is for these families. They are going where the wind takes them and there’s no set way this story will go or how it will end. We are just kind of going with the flow.”
Paavola added that much of the story is written around 12-year-olds Robert McLane and Raleigh Huntly, played by Kate’s son Truett, 14, and Nathanael Kerr, 14, respectively.
Truett, who played the youngest son, Jack, in “Swiss Family Robinson,” said acting for radio has been a little bit easier than in a live show, but that they are both fun in their own way.
“It’s nice that I don’t have to go anywhere,” he joked, considering all the recording is done in a small room off the living room at his family’s home.
“And it’s nice that you don’t have to memorize the lines,” Kerr added, and though he hasn’t acted in any large plays in the past, he decided to try out for the radio show because he liked the concept and the added challenge of doing an Irish accent.
“I think this is just as fun as acting in a normal play,” said Gracen Foley who plays 14-year-old Jakob McLane, “and I like it because I get to meet new people. It’s been really fun.”
Though doing a boy’s voice in addition to an Irish accent has had its share of challenges.
“We ran out of older boy actors, so had to have Gracen do a boy character, but I took it down a pitch in post, just to help age her a bit, and it sounds just fine,” Riggs added with a laugh.
Why radio theater?
When asked what prompted the switch from live stage production to radio theater, Riggs said a lot of it had to do with simply trying to think out of the box.
“Our last show was a big production, 'Swiss Family Robinson,' and it was a real traditional show — people in costumes on-stage, singing and acting with lots of sets and props,” Riggs explained. “But before that, we did a dinner theater show and that was much more low maintenance — one set of costumes for each person, no set — and everybody really enjoyed it.”
So, when it came time to plan their next project, she said it led them to think about what they could do that would be more low maintenance, similar to how the dinner theater was, versus another large production.
“Swiss was a lot so we were really trying to think outside the box when it came to our next production,” Riggs said. “So we thought, ‘Well, what about radio drama?’ It doesn’t have a lot of sets or require any costumes, and we were trying to have some fun with it while being low maintenance at the same time.”
The other thing about radio that has been easier for the group has been the ability to rehearse over Zoom, as the actors are geographically spread out around the area with some living over an hour from Bemidji.
“It’s been a good option for people who live out of town, we have people from all over the place, but it’s fine because we just meet Tuesdays and Thursdays over Zoom,” Riggs said. “This week people had to come and be here in person and it ended up being more days because we are recording, but it’s just here and there and that makes it more workable for people to have that flexibility.”
Ashley McFarland, who plays Mabel Huntly and also acted in the dinner theater show, decided to join the radio production for the new experience it would bring.
“I’ve never done any kind of voice acting before,” McFarland said. “This works really well for my schedule and with my job because I’m not going to a bunch of rehearsals, I can just practice on Zoom and it’s been a lot more fun than I ever expected.”
Once Riggs has finished adding in sound effects and music, and the first few episodes are all polished up, the plan is for the show to be played on Q107.1 FM hopefully sometime this summer.
Though the theater club became an official 501c3 nonprofit organization in January and hopes to apply for grants to fund future projects, it was too recent of a time frame to get funds ahead of starting to record and produce this show.
So in the meantime, the club used some of the money raised from their previous projects to purchase the required recording equipment and other needed supplies.
“We had to buy the microphones, the condenser, all the sound effects — because those all come with licensing — the editing program, some egg crates for sound absorption in the recording room and we had to pay for a Zoom account,” Riggs said. “But all in all I think we figured we spent about $1,000 and were able to make it go a long way.”
In addition to production, the group’s next step is to find sponsors for the show to help cover costs and raise money for future projects.
“We will go around to businesses or people and have them sponsor episodes or a portion of an episode and then their commercial will be on the front or back end of the show,” Riggs detailed. “Depending on what level of sponsorship they commit to that will dictate how much of a mention they get in the episode.”
She added that though they don’t have the specifics ironed out quite yet, anyone who is interested in finding out more about sponsoring the show can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done to make this all a reality,” Riggs left off, “but it’s been really fun to see everyone so excited and willing to embrace something new.”