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DWU theatre program 'has grown dramatically'

Jason Zehr, at left, playing Inspector Javert and Clint Desmond, playing Jean Valjean, rehearse the bedroom fight scene for "Les Miserables" on Feb. 6 at the Patten-Wing Theatre at Dakota Wesleyan University. The show will open March 21 at the Sherman Center in Mitchell. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

More students, a new theater, bigger shows -- and Dan Miller is just getting warmed up.

The Dakota Wesleyan University assistant professor of communication and theater, and director of theater, said the school's theater program has grown from just three student majors in 2003-2004 to 11 currently.

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In his eighth year at DWU, Miller said soon after he joined the program he started the school's bachelor of fine arts in theater. While Miller credits the growing program to a number of factors, he said the BFA is definitely one.

"Since I started the BFA program, the program has grown dramatically," Miller said with emphasis on "dramatically." "Pun intended," he added with a chuckle.

With a growing program and increased collaboration between DWU and the Mitchell community, something Miller is passionate about, the once-small program has grown to support sprawling productions like "Les Miserables," which opens in March.

The program has been building for the last decade. Numbers held steady with three majors in 2003-04, 2004-05 and 2005-06. Another joined in 2006-07 to bring the total number of theater majors to four. It rose again slightly in 2007-08 to six, where it remained through the 2008-09 academic year before rising again to seven in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 academic years. It continued to rise over the next three years, adding one in 2011-12 and another in 2012-13 to bring the total to nine, before hitting double digits — 10 — at the start of the 2013-14 academic year; it's since risen again to 11.

"The great barometer of how well I am doing is seeing who auditions for me," Miller said. "When I first started, I would get a couple people -- usually all women. As time goes on here, we are getting more men, more women, more community members, more students, even non-theater students."

He said when he first started at DWU, theater majors could graduate without ever having been on stage in a production. He quickly sought to fix that.

"I did not feel that was right," Miller said. "If you want a true theater degree, you need to do theater."

That's why the BFA program appealed to him, he said -- it gives students hands-on experience in every area of theater, from acting to directing to sets to sound to costumes.

"To get a full understanding of the full realm of theater in the world today, a BFA is exactly what students need," Miller said. "At Dakota Wesleyan, I give students as much experience as possible. What they will find during their time at Dakota Wesleyan, one of those aspects of theater will strike a chord with them, and that is where they will find their passion."

It's also why in just the last year, Miller facilitated the new Equitem Theatre-in-the-Round, which featured its debut in November, to provide students a different type of staging venue to work with.

It's paid off.

In her four years as a theater major, senior Megan Reimnitz said she's had the chance to work in every part of a production, from the technical aspects to costumes and makeup to acting. She's directed a couple of one-act plays and has acted in numerous productions, including playing one of the main characters in "Five Women Wearing the Same Dress," the inaugural show at the Equitem.

"You're able to take part in every aspect of theater you could possibly want to," she said. "I learn more being in a play and part of a play than I do in a classroom sometimes. Here you get the full experience of everything."

But what can you do with a theater major?

More than act, Reimnitz said. She's not certain what her post-graduation plans are, but she said the more she researches, the more she discovers the usefulness of the skills she's learned.

"Putting on a production is like running a business," Reimnitz said. "Most business students don't get that hands-on experience."

It's another reason Miller said he's proud of the BFA program -- because of the way it prepares his students for graduation, whether they work in theater or not.

"Theater touches on all disciplines," he said. "There's no direction you can't go with a theater degree."

Passion for theater

Miller said the bachelor of fine arts in theater is offered at just two South Dakota institutions: the University of South Dakota, in Vermillion -- Miller's alma mater -- and DWU. That makes DWU the only private BFA theater program in the state -- and also the smallest. But Miller said he sees the size of the program as an asset, not a hindrance. Every student, he said, gets as much hands-on experience as he or she wants.

"When you look at the other BFA program in the state, you can tell students, 'you can go be part of a BFA program with 90 students, or you can be part of a BFA program with 12 students,' " he said. "That is where this program appeals to students -- because if they want to do theater, they are going to do it."

Students, past and present, agree with Miller's assessment.

Reimnitz said it was a combination of the program and Miller that drew her to DWU. Not only was the Corsica native originally planning on attending USD, she did not plan to be a theater major. Then, she met Miller, and he persuaded her to take a look at DWU.

"I fell in love with it," she said. "I went to Dakota Wesleyan to be a theater major, because of their theater program."

Leading that program is Miller, whose one-on-one attention with his students and passion for the program is the main reason Reimnitz chose DWU, she said. That passion has permeated throughout the program, and even draws in the most unlikely of candidates -- like Chris Ferera, a football player from California who majored in history. Ferera graduated in December 2012, but stayed involved with the program, even directing "The Woman in Black" in December. After graduating and having the chance to work with another theater and other directors, Ferera said DWU's program is special -- and Miller is at the heart of why.

"I love this program Dan's built," Ferera said. "I could sense his passion for theater. There's just this passion in Dan that just spews out into everybody he's working with."

Modest in his response, Miller said he's grateful for the support he's received from students -- and they are part of what keeps his passion kindled.

"I have an incredible passion for theater, but I also have an incredible passion for teaching," he said. "I have had, and still have, some very talented students, who I absolutely love working with."

'Now we're doing huge shows'

As the program grows, Reimnitz and Ferera are proud to have been part of the program when it was just a handful of people working together to deliver great shows -- and are excited to see it build.

"We were doing shows with like four people," Ferera recalled of his early involvement with DWU theater. "Now we're doing huge shows."

He referenced the planned production of "Les Miserables," which boasts a cast of approximately 70 people. The renowned musical, adapted from Victor Hugo's classic French historical novel, includes involvement from DWU students, faculty and staff, as well as community members and Mitchell Technical Institute students.

Miller attributed the success of productions like "Les Miserables" to the passion and growth of the theater department, the theater department's partnership with the music department and the bridges and relationships created with the Mitchell community -- another of Miller's goals.

When he first started at DWU, he said it seemed like there was "Dakota Wesleyan, and there was the community." Since he's joined the program, he's sought to bridge that gap.

"I think for a Christian university, for a university that prides itself on service and compassion, that the two really need to be one," Miller said. "Theater is a world of collaboration, and that's exactly what I believe the university and the community need to be -- partnering and collaborating entities."

The school's growing music department is a factor as well. Clint Desmond, director of choral activities and the department of music chairman at DWU, said a 12- to 15-person live orchestra will accompany the show -- something that would not have been possible in the recent past.

"Four years ago, there would be no way we could have done that," Desmond said.

As the two programs work together and with the community, Miller said it's a chance for people to see the talent and dedication of people they live, work and socialize with.

"I think this show is a great example of collaboration and teamwork, and the richness the arts can bring to the community," Miller said.