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Theatre arts will miss Schelhaas's imprint

By Sally Jongsma

Jeri Schelhaas always has been a teacher. As a young girl, she would play school with whoever she could round up. And she always played the role of teacher. The only time she even thought about becoming anything else was when she dreamed about being an actress for a brief spell while at Dordt College. But opportunities for students at small Christian colleges weren’t there in theater in the sixties, and she soon returned to her original goal. She has not regretted that choice, and over the years she has found an amazingly varied array of opportunities. She has taught elementary, high school, and college students, and she has found that teaching cycles blend well with family life. Teaching also gave her the opportunity to read, write, and perform—all of the things she enjoys most.

Jeri Schelhaas

Jeri Schelhaas

At Dordt for the past twenty years, Schelhaas has taught both part-time and full-time in the English, theater, communication, and general education programs. She often filled in for others on leave but was always more than a fill-in. Pressed to pick a favorite area, she chooses theater.

She attributes her interest in theater to her mother who, unlike most women born around the turn of the century, graduated from high school. Her mother thrived on participating in “Declamatory Contests” and plays, retelling those experiences with such enthusiasm that Schelhaas couldn’t help but share her mother’s excitement. In high school, she became involved in plays and participated in state speech contests, for which Iowa was known in the middle of the century. At Dordt, she regularly had major roles in theater productions. As a high school teacher, she led forensics teams and coached students to excel in speech contests and debates.

“Students learn so much from speech,” she says. “Confidence, thinking skills, how to research.”

Her favorite course has been “Fundamentals of Acting,” the introductory course for theater majors. She’s enjoyed working with students who have focused primarily on the outward expression of acting, helping them find the motivation and inner life of their character and make it believable. “Doing character analysis is great fun,” she says.

Schelhaas is just as enthusiastic about helping her students think about theater from a Reformed kingdom perspective. She challenges them to think about the contribution theater can make to culture, how it can ask questions of an audience, help influence the choices they make, and give them fresh and unforgettable ways to look at the world.

“So many students have benefitted from her guidance in both theater classes and in productions,” says Dr. Teresa Ter Haar.  “Jeri has been a thoughtful teacher, encouraging her students to understand what it means to be a Christian and a theater artist.  She is passionate and has always pushed her students to see and feel more deeply what theater can provide to a broken world.” 

One of the things Schelhaas likes most about theater is that “everybody needs everybody.” “It’s a collaborative art,” she says. Those with minor roles or behind-the-scenes roles can make or break the production just as much as those with leads. Everyone needs affirmation and encouragement and all have to value each others’ contributions, she continues.

That approach to her work has earned her respect and appreciation.

“One thing that she has always taught me is to believe in myself and always push myself to greater goals,” says senior Melissa Schans. “She challenges all of her students to always reach for their goals.”

Her colleagues have deep appreciation for her, too, and nominated her for the Gold Medallion Award she received this year from Region V of the American College Theatre Festival.

“Jeri is creative, always trying to think of innovative ways to present the production’s subject.” says costumer Sue Blom.

“Jeri throws everything she has into the productions she directs and raises those participating in the production to unbelievable levels of excellence. The numerous ACTF awards and nominations prove Jeri’s great skill in directing and her passion for theater. She bubbles over with enthusiasm for her craft and generates wonderful ideas for future endeavors,” says Professor April Hubbard. “Students, faculty, and staff in the theatre department and college-wide appreciate her devotion to serving Christ through her teaching and production work. I have had the honor of working with her and learning from her example how to work tirelessly, inspire students, and give the glory to God at all times!”