The past 11 months have been challenging for Daniel Weinhagen, a music major at Bethel University without a way to perform.

But this past weekend, he stepped in front of a live, socially distanced audience in Bethel's student production of "The 1940's Radio Hour," the university's first since the pandemic began.

"It's something that's been missing from my life," Weinhagen said. "To have live music again and live production has just been incredible."

College theater departments across Minnesota have been forced to get creative during the pandemic that has shut down shows from Broadway to local stages in order to keep actors and audiences safe. Shows are being staged outside or in theaters with small audiences, cast members pay particular attention to social distancing, and sometimes, as Bethel's students did, they even work face coverings into the script.

But not all productions are taking that risk, opting to create something to be consumed digitally instead.

"It puts the students in a position where they have to take more risks than what they're used to," said Henry MacCarthy, co-chair of Gustavus Adolphus College's theater and dance department. "We're still to learn much, much more about what we've gained taking advantage of this situation."

At Bethel, "The 1940's Radio Hour" was part of a class called "Producing and Performing a Musical," which students take during their January term. Six students took the daily, two-hour class this winter with five others joining the group for rehearsal every night. Nine of those 11 students were performers and the other two were stage managers. A jazz band was also added for the live shows.

The cast and crew emphasized social distancing, smart decisionmaking and staying in mini-bubbles for the past month.

"They're making a real point to go to their classes, go home, come to rehearsal, go home," said Meg Zauner, the musical's director and teacher of the class.

They also made changes to the musical itself, including adding dialogue to establish the show's setting as very cold. That provided a thematic reason for the performers to wear scarfs to cover their mouths and noses.

Minnesota State University, Mankato has produced four shows since the start of the school year with 25% capacity crowds.

James Van Oort, a third-year graduate student, directed Minnesota State Mankato's first show of the school year. But right before opening night, the lead actress tested positive for COVID-19 and two stage managers had to quarantine after their roommate tested positive.

Van Oort found replacements in time for the show to open on time, but then it immediately closed for three weeks due to the outbreak before reopening. Other than Gov. Tim Walz's November increase in COVID-19 restrictions, that has been the only major hiccup for Mankato's show schedule.

"Basically we redoubled our safety efforts," Van Oort said. "Fortunately, we've been successful and we've had some good shows and we've been able to carry on."

St. Olaf College is attempting an indoor performance in March of a two-person show directed by senior Matthew Humason. But other than that show, the college has done strictly outdoor productions.

Gustavus has not done any in-person performances since the pandemic started, but it has produced different shows via online formats such as radio broadcasts and filmed productions. It plans to have a spring dance recital performed outdoors.

Macalester College had its fall production debut digitally but is planning on having its two spring productions be outside. At the University of Minnesota, most student productions have been digital, but a few smaller ones have been in person.

Kyra Rahn, a theater arts major at the U, hopes the digital aspect of theater does not end once the pandemic does.

"It's just made theater so much more accessible than it has been," Rahn said.

No matter if they are doing plays on outdoor stages, filming productions for online release or acting in front of an audience, students across the state have been grateful for the opportunity to do what they love.

When it was time for the final curtain call at Bethel, Weinhagen took in the bittersweet moment. He was relieved to have the show finished with everyone staying healthy, but he also knew it would be awhile until he is on a stage like that again.

"I really, really forgot how much I loved being in front of people and loved performing for a live audience," Weinhagen said.

Peter Warren • 612-673-1713