Small town prof brings love of theatre to SDSU

Todd Vanderwerff

Todd Vanderwerff

For almost her whole life, Nancy Wheeler has been a teacher in one way or another.

This assistant professor of communication studies and theatre has taught everything from speech to English in the classroom. She even teaches after hours, directing plays and showing students how they can use their talents in theatre to entertain and inform audiences.

Above all, though, she loves the process of creation, be it in a classroom or on a stage.

“For me, the most fun is the very first part of rehearsal (for a play) when you’re exploring the script and watching people develop,” Wheeler said. “The creative process and working with creative people is always a challenge and it’s always fun.”

Wheeler’s latest production, “The Shadow Box,” is up and running in the Larson Studio Theatre in the Performing Arts Center. She estimates that she has directed 80 to 90 productions during her career. She got her start directing as a student at DSU, when Dr. James L. Johnson (who just retired as SDSU’s director of theatre last year) selected her from a senior level class to be a director. She then directed at O’Gorman high school and at SDSU.

Wheeler grew up in Montrose and Sioux Falls, making her a lifelong South Dakota resident. Her high school days were typical for an ambitious small-town student.

“I was involved in music, competitive speech, student government,” Wheeler said. “It was a very typical small town school. If you’re in one thing, you’re in everything.”

Wheeler said she first got the inspiration to become a teacher in high school because of the quality of instructors she learned from. In particular, she remembers her high school English teacher.

“He demanded a lot of us and we learned a lot from him,” Wheeler said. “In all areas of curriculum we had some outstanding instructors.”

Wheeler then went to DSU to obtain her undergraduate degree. She majored in education with an emphasis on English and minor in speech. While there, she met Ray Peterson and Johnson, two men with whom she would work with at SDSU for decades.

“We’ve been friends for a long time. There is a level of comfort working with people you know. … I have always had such respect for both men and their abilities,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler’s initial plan at DSU was to be less involved than she had been in high school. She wanted time to focus on college. Then, after her first semester, the president’s office called and asked her to serve on a sounding board. Soon, she was just as involved as she had been in high school.

In that second semester of her freshman year, she also became involved in the DSU theatre program, mostly backstage. After graduation, she became the English instructor at O’Gorman. There, she directed 25 productions over five years before she was even contracted to do so.

“Really very honestly even when I started at the high school level, I worried that people would find out I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said with a laugh.

In 1978, she came to SDSU to get her graduate degree in rhetoric and speech with support areas in English, theatre and education. She has been here ever since.

She continues to work here because she loves teaching and she loves directing. Indeed, for someone who had never tried theatre until college, she’s come to be quite immersed in it.

“I love it. I love working with theatre because it combines literature and performance skills … . It has put me in contact with some awfully interesting people,” Wheeler said.