In 1518, a strange form of what some theorists believe to have been mass hysteria gripped hundreds of residents of Strasbourg, France: uncontrollable dancing, to the point of exhaustion and even death for some of those afflicted.
The phenomenon became known as the dancing plague, and is the inspiration for this year’s KZMU radio drama, which is titled after another term for the phenomenon: Choreomania.
The show will air on 90.1 FM and 106.7 FM on March 19 and 26 and April 2, after the 7 p.m. news. Miss an episode? They'll be available to listen to online at kzmu.org.
The show’s author and director and self-described history nerd, Jenna Whetzel, learned about the dancing plague on Youtube’s Weird History Channel.
“It struck me as one of the most unusual instances of group hysteria I've ever heard of,” Whetzel said. “I thought it would be a perfect plague story to compliment what the collective unconscious is experiencing right now.”
Whetzel, who also wrote and directed last year’s radio drama, used the framework of the historical plague to craft a lighthearted show with 11 characters who “must open their minds in order to solve their dance dilemma and end the plague,” Whetzel said, adding that the plot “definitely parallels the world we live in.”
“One of the functions of theatre and all art is to help people deal with reality, and comedy specifically helps make the heaviness of the world more bearable,” Whetzel said. While she acknowledges that people dancing themselves to death certainly wasn’t funny at the time, she hopes that 503 years of distance from the event justifies a comedic treatment, especially in light of the current pandemic.
“I hope listeners will find the show a humorous way to escape, for at least three acts, from the plague we are facing right now, which is not humorous in any way. A dancing plague is more fun, right?” she said.
The show also has more serious themes relevant to current times, like the importance of discerning fact from fiction and coping with stress.
“Historians have called 1517, the year before the dancing plague began, the ‘bad year,’” Whetzel said. “There were famines, smallpox, wars, death—despair was everywhere!”
Whetzel said that those alive in 2020 could perhaps relate.
“Let's face it, it's been a rough year to be alive,” said Whetzel. “The characters in Choreomania feel our pain! Hopefully when it is safe to congregate once more we can celebrate with wild, raucous dance!”
She speculated that the weight of the gloom may have prompted the compulsive dancing.
All 11 characters in the show are voiced by a cast of just five actors: Doni Kiffmeyer, Lisa Grady, Sam Newman, Kik Grant and August Granath.
Jessica Retka, who composed the music for last year’s drama, is the musical director and also composed background music for this year’s show. She will play piano accompanied by Jack Hanley on the drums. The show also includes four musical parodies sung by the cast and backed by Retka and Hanley.
Kate Lloyd and Josie Kovash will be creating live sound effects, referred to as Foley work, for the show. Bob Owens is the sound engineer and KZMU Radio Station Manager Serah Mead is the show’s producer.
Normally, KZMU’s annual drama is both a radio broadcast and a live performance at Star Hall, but the creators decided to skip the in-person performance this year due to COVID-19 concerns. Even rehearsals were conducted with caution: Whetzel intentionally kept the cast small, and they wore masks at all practices, which were held in a well-ventilated room at the Moab Arts and Recreation Center.
“It is bittersweet to not be able to perform in front of a live audience because the theatre experience is magical,” Whetzel said. However, the broadcast-only format means that Whetzel can direct from among the actors and crew members, something she wouldn’t be able to do in a stage performance.
“There is also a certain satisfaction in performing this play as a true radio show,” she said, “where our audience listens to the story next to their radio or computer and must paint what the story would look like with their minds.”
This year there will be an alternative way to experience the radio drama visually: in comic book format. Local artist Jon Gottschalk is creating a full-length graphic interpretation of Whetzel’s script, scheduled to be released on April 2. Limited copies of the comic book will be available at Back of Beyond Books for $15, the usual price for a ticket to a live KZMU radio drama performance.
Meanwhile, at live rehearsals, the chemistry and creativity of the cast and crew evolved Whetzel’s original script into its final version.
“Every piece of theatre evolves throughout the rehearsal process,” Whetzel said, noting that actors have thrown in funny lines and voices and the sound effects crew has added their own flair. “I love how everyone adds their own personality to the show and makes the production their own.”
The radio broadcast and companion comic book will illustrate how a narrative can be shaped by the interpretation and creativity of its storytellers.