Valdosta Daily Times

March 24, 2011

Jacque Wheeler wins Kennedy Center Inspirational Teacher Award

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — A Valdosta State University Theatre & Dance instructor is one of 10 teachers nationwide to receive the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards.

Jacque Wheeler won the prestigious honor for her “exceptional influence” on her students. Wheeler is featured on a website dedicated to inspirational students. She will also receive $10,000. She plans to donate a portion of the prize to funding professional theatre personnel to conduct workshops for VSU Theatre students.

“It’s amazing,” Wheeler said Wednesday of this week’s announcement. “I’m overwhelmed, so humbled when you read the level of dedication of the other teachers receiving this award.”

Wheeler and the nine other teachers were selected from hundreds of nominees. The awards were created in honor of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday. Sondheim is the genius behind music and lyrics for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd” and many more.

“Teachers define us,” Sondheim said in a released statement. “In our early years, when we are still being formed, they often see in us more than we see in ourselves, more even than our families see and, as a result, help us to evolve into what we ultimately become. Good teachers are touchstones to paths of achieving more than we might have otherwise accomplished, in directions we might not have gone.”

Former student Debra Fordham nominated Wheeler. Fordham is a VSU Theatre graduate and a three-time Emmy nominee who wrote for the TV comedy “Scrubs.” She also wrote the play “Holler Me Home,” which had its world premiere with VSU in 2008.

In her nominating letter, Fordham wrote how Wheeler pursued her to enroll with VSU Theatre. There, Wheeler encouraged Fordham to experience all facets of theatre: acting, directing, stage management.

In a playwrighting class, Wheeler realized Fordham had hit her stride. Wheeler declared to Fordham: “You are a writer.”

Fordham didn’t buy this conclusion. She didn’t think a “small-town Southern girl” could be a writer. Wheeler did not let it go: “Are you writing? You should be writing ...”

Even after Fordham’s graduation from VSU, Wheeler called every few months, pushing her to write.

“It took years, but her belief eventually became my own,” Fordham writes in the letter. “And two decades later, I am a three-time Emmy-nominated television writer, living a life I never dreamed possible.”

That dream became possible because Jacque Wheeler insisted it could be a reality. She pushed Fordham. She pushed her to write the play “Holler Me Home.” Fordham had explained the idea of a play to Wheeler. As time passed without Fordham having written the script, Wheeler provided the motivation. She placed “a play by Debra Fordham” on the VSU schedule. So, Fordham had to write the play, which the writer describes as “the most fulfilling journey of my professional life.”

Fordham doesn’t see the play as the end of this story. “You see, what makes Jacque Wheeler special is that she doesn’t just teach for a semester or a year. And her lessons don’t end at graduation. No, Jacque Wheeler is your teacher for life. And 22 years (later) ... she is still changing mine.”

Wheeler began her career with Valdosta State a short time after the theatre department hired her husband, Dr. Randy Wheeler. She held a master’s degree in drama and speech. Referring to the theatrical couple, Randy Wheeler said the late Ren Christie told him “that he considered hiring me as getting two for one.” Jacque Wheeler worked part-time three years before Valdosta State hired her full-time.

Though she has directed and acted in dozens of Valdosta State productions, her most recent work as a director was this past fall’s VSU production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The Times review of this show stated: “Jacque Wheeler proves herself a master again at directing these epic, period pieces. She understands the inherent cinematic pacing of Shakespeare. She keeps the show moving, from scene to scene, soliloquy to soliloquy. She fills this production’s first act with her signature choreographed pieces of physical humor and dancing.”

She also serves as artistic director of Peach State Summer Theatre, a professional summer musical program hosted by VSU. This year, she coordinates “Carousel,” Disney’s “The Jungle Book” and “Hairspray.”