Stephen F. Austin State University

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SFA School of Theatre plans memorial service to honor Nielsen

April 27, 2018 - Robbie Goodrich
Dr. Alan Nielsen

NACOGDOCHES, Texas - A celebration of the life of Dr. Alan Nielsen, theatre professor emeritus at Stephen F. Austin State University and former creator and director of The Original Cast, SFA's cabaret troupe, will be at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 6, in W.M. Turner Auditorium on the SFA campus.

Nielsen passed away on Monday, March 26, 2018, in Nacogdoches. He was 72.

Hosted by the SFA School of Theatre, the memorial service is designed to give former students and colleagues, as well as community friends, an opportunity to share memories of the ways in which their lives were influenced by Nielson, who was affectionately known as "Butch" and respectfully described as "a Renaissance man."

Although he never met Nielsen, Cleo House Jr., director of the School of Theatre, said Nielsen's "presence at SFA is strong."

"To hear the stories that faculty and students tell about him is inspiring," House said. "He really was a tribute to the 'Students Center Stage' philosophy of the School of Theatre."

Nielsen was born on Jan. 26, 1946, in Oakland, Nebraska. As a young boy, his dream was to be a cartoon animator, but his talent for writing and directing musicals and composing music and lyrics soon emerged. He earned degrees from Concordia Teachers College, the University of Nebraska and City University of New York and went on to teach and become a puppeteer while he continued to perform, write and compose for performance venues such as EXIT (Experience in Theater), Nebraska Repertory Theater, the Chautauqua Tent Tour of Nebraska, NY Choral Society, the Minnesota Musical Workshop and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

He began his 21-year career SFA in 1990, directing more than 25 plays and creating the traveling musical troupe The Original Cast, for which he both composed and produced their shows.

"In almost 40 years of being in higher education in the arts, I can truly say that Dr. Alan Nielsen was one of the most talented people I have ever known," said Dr. A.C. "Buddy" Himes, dean of the SFA College of Fine Arts. "I came to understand this, not through flashy aggrandizement or overt ambition on his part, but through my own realization that he was responsible for one of the most original, creative, artistic and entertaining performance groups I have ever witnessed, The Original Cast. He was an actor, a director, a musician, a puppeteer, an educator and a friend. And through these things he inspired countless students at SFA who have gone on to great achievement after graduation. We have missed him since he retired, and now with his passing feel a great sense of loss."

The Original Cast attracted many of the School of Theatre's best performers, and Nielsen's legacy lives on in the hearts and talents of the many students that he mentored, according to CC Conn, associate professor in the School of Theatre.

"He touched many lives with his beautiful smile, big heart and unlimited creativity, and he inspired many young artists to go forward into careers as actors, directors, teachers and designers, spreading the love of theatre that he instilled into them," Conn said. "His work as a teacher, advisor, mentor, director, actor, composer and puppeteer was unparalleled. He was greatly loved, and he is greatly missed."

Rhonda Simmons has many fond memories of working with Nielsen. She was both a contributing colleague and co-actor on stage and a student in his classroom.

"I was honored to assist him in forming The Original Cast," said Simmons, who also taught as an adjunct while pursuing her master's degree at SFA. "It was a wonderful way to knit singing and acting, and I think he was the precursor for getting the theatre department ready for musical theatre."

The Original Cast performed throughout the community at civic club functions, festivals, special events and fundraisers.

Simmons appeared with Nielsen and then SFA President Dr. Dan Angel in "Murder at the Howard Johnson's." "Butch was a hilarious performer and a very good actor," said Simmons, who also appeared with him in "The Merchant of Venice" and was directed by him in "Gypsy."

"I always kidded him about missing an entrance in 'The Merchant of Venice' because he was grading papers," she said with a laugh.

But her fondest memory of Nielsen came from "his prowess in the classroom."

"He was one of the best instructors, best academics I have ever known," she said.

Nielsen was the first hire Dr. Clarence Bahs (now retired) made as chairman of the SFA Theatre Department in 1990.

"I never in my long career as an administrator made a better hire," Bahs said. "Dr. Nielsen came as close to being a Renaissance man as anyone I have ever known. He was a director, an actor, a puppeteer. He was a musician, a composer, a lyricist. He was a publicist as well as a manager of box offices. He was a historian, an author and a playwright. But, in lieu of all his many talents, he was first and foremost a teacher - his first love was teaching."

Bahs will always remember walking into Nielsen's office, which was "piled high with books, papers, music, prompt books, clutter everywhere," he said. "But he knew exactly where everything was. And in the midst of all that clutter was a chair sitting in front of a computer/keyboard where Alan spent endless hours composing unique music for The Original Cast. I remember the first time I entered his office and went to sit down in that chair, he stopped me, a bit alarmed, and said, 'be careful, it is missing one of its casters and tilts to one side.' I realized that this was a chair Alan sat in for hours writing music and writing scripts. And when he did, the chair more frequently, or not, was askew. When I offered to get him a new chair, he said he 'didn't need it.'

"It was then that I realized that Butch saw the world differently from most us," Bahs said. "He didn't look at it straight on; he saw the world slightly askew and through a fresh pair of eyes, which brings to mind a famous quote by Schopenhauer: 'Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see!'

Creative artists sit clearly in a chair missing one caster … and leaning to one side," Bahs said. "They see a target no one can see, and they hit a target no one else can see."

For additional service information, contact the School of Theatre office at (936) 468-4003.