This story refers to the Feb. 13 violence the Michigan State University community experienced, which may be difficult for some to read. Resources and assistance for students and employees are available through multiple MSU programs.
Step into the captivating world of A Tale of Many Faces: A Francis Gyres Mystery, the final project in this year’s Soundwriting and Rhetoric (WRA 350) class led by Bump Halbritter, Associate Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. Against the backdrop of an unforeseen tragedy, the Tale of Many Faces production provided the class with a source of resilience, uniting students in a supportive and unwavering community.
“It was right in the middle of our second project that we experienced the shooting on campus,” Halbritter said. “That really knocked us for quite a loop. It felt like we lost our steam, we lost our momentum, we were falling apart at the seams.”
To salvage as much of the remaining semester as possible while still creating content and fostering a sense of unity and collaboration, Halbritter sat down with the class to discuss their options.
“We had a conversation, and they decided they wanted to do a big project with some group work,” Halbritter said. “I’ve always been a fan of group work because I find that’s a place where students, especially when you’re taking on a big project, rely on each other. And they don’t want to let each other down. And, so I said, ‘yeah, let’s do this thing.’”
The class decided to produce a radio drama. With a mere seven weeks remaining after spring break, the students faced an ambitious timeline to craft a compelling script, record a series of actors, secure a recording studio, and finalize the project through meticulous editing.
“I drew up a schedule and I presented it that first week when we got back from spring break,” Halbritter said. “I said, ‘Here’s what I’m looking at. It’s aggressive. We have an awful lot to do. Are you in?’ And they said ‘sure.’”
Alex Grendze and Sovann Hyde took charge of the scriptwriting process, pitching their ideas and quickly delivering first drafts. Following a read-through, the class gravitated toward Grendze’s murder mystery concept. Inspired by the works of Agatha Christie and other mystery legends, Grendze poured her passion for the genre into the Tale of Many Faces story.
“A Tale of Many Faces, which was created by the entire class of WRA 350, is about a retiring mystery author, Francis Gyers (voiced by Grace Wennerberg) who is invited to a dinner party by Duchess Julia Abernathy,” Grendze said. “However, things don’t go as planned as the guests are stormed in, and one of them is murdered. It’s up to Francis to act as a stand-in detective to find the killer before any more guests become victims.”
Grendze’s writing process involved immersing herself in a flurry of ideas and characters, later refining the narrative to its essence.
“The first draft is typically mind vomit with a somewhat comprehensive plot,” Grendze said. “However, the idea itself usually is created starting with the theme first, the main character, the general story centralized around that character, and the other characters that can influence the story.”
During the initial read-through, Grendze, Hyde, and another student, Noah Morrison, took notes on problems and opportunities the class found in the first draft. Collaborating with Hyde and Morrison, Grendze swiftly polished the script. The class, happy with the revised draft, gave the production the green light.
“One of the things that I was really impressed with, with Alex, was her willingness to allow the group to take this script that she had created and really work it and change it and shift it and adapt it and give feedback,” Halbritter said.
Beyond acting, the students embraced various roles as recording engineers, directors, and writers, converging their talents to breathe life into the project. Transforming Halbritter’s office into a makeshift recording studio, the class continued their collaborative journey. Trenten Kraemer, a gifted recording engineer and musician, helmed the technical aspects, ensuring pristine audio quality and employing innovative techniques such as Dolby Atmos to create a mesmerizing 3D sound experience.
“My process during recording was to make sure there was no background noise that got into the recordings and to make sure each actor was a consistent distance away from the microphone,” Kraemer said. “In the mixing stage, I spent a lot of time trying to bring the scene to life with audio. For example, I wanted to make the music in the background sound like it was coming from a 1920s gramophone. I used subtle filtering, vibrato, distortion, and compression to intentionally make it sound worse.”
Grace Wennerberg assumed the lead role of Francis Gyres, the retiring mystery author who becomes entangled in the enigmatic cast of characters at the dinner party. Stepping out of her comfort zone, Wennerberg meticulously portrayed Gyres, taking on the challenge of playing a character who spends half the story masquerading as a man.
“That one was definitely a little out of my comfort zone,” Wennerberg said. “I had to practice that; I was around my apartment and my friends would ask: ‘Why are you talking like a man?’ Now there was still room for improvement, but it was definitely fun to practice, and recording was cool too.”
Throughout the production process, the class rallied around one another, providing unwavering support and fostering a sense of camaraderie. Wennerberg acknowledges the collective effort, stating, “It was cool to see how people supported each other. We were all just very supportive and trying to have fun while doing it.”
While completing the radio drama within a tight deadline was an accomplishment in itself, the true essence of the course’s success lies in the profound sense of community it fostered. The lasting impact of this project transcends its academic and artistic achievement. It serves as a testament to the resilience, collaboration, and unwavering support that emerged from the challenges the class faced.
“We all needed each other,” Halbritter said. “I really appreciate how these students had my back this semester. I deeply appreciate it. They made this thing that’s so cool and it surprised all of us that it got done. And I think that’s magnificent. But the thing we’ll remember most is that we were there for each other, that we helped each other. We held each other up. They held me up. I can’t thank them enough for that. I deeply appreciate it. And I’m especially grateful that we were able to work together to do a project that was good for us intellectually and emotionally.”
You can listen to the complete A Tale of Many Faces: A Francis Gyres Mystery radio drama on SoundCloud.