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Tracy Frank, Published November 27 2012

FMCT’s Wilhelmi seeks to build relationships through theater role

FARGO – For Jean Wilhelmi, theater is a family affair.

Wilhelmi, who works part time at the Fargodome as the group sales coordinator, also directs shows at the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre and is currently working on the theater’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Wilhelmi met her husband, David Wilhelmi, through theater.

He is the technical theater coordinator for Fargo Public Schools

They met working on “The Merchant of Venice” together in Ohio.

“It’s so great to share that passion of theater,” Wilhelmi said.

Even Wilhelmi’s children, 11-year-old Joey and 9-year-old Elizabeth, are both involved in theater.

“When they were little, I tried to kind of shield them from the chaos of it all, and I didn’t do shows when they were really little because David was doing shows for his job,” Wilhelmi said. “This show, I’m really excited about it because both of my kids are doing it with me.”

Elizabeth is playing Janie Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Joey is an assistant stage manager during rehearsals and will run sound during the show, Wilhelmi said.

“It’s been a really big part of our family life,” she said. “You learn so much about interpersonal communication and working together as a team.”

When she directs a show, Wilhelmi tries to foster that spirit of familial closeness in her cast as well, she said.

“I think in our world today, people are looking for ways to connect in real life instead of online,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to allow yourself to be a little bit vulnerable to getting to know new people and working with people. It’s a collaborative art.”

Scott Brusven, FMCT artistic director, said when Wilhelmi brings a cast together during rehearsals, it comes across on stage during a production.

“There are several reason why I have had her back over and over, but the biggest one is that she has an uncanny ability to connect the community cast members to each other,” he said. “She develops more than just the play. That for me as a community theater director is something that’s really important to what we do.”

At the end of a production, the cast members leave as a family and maintain their relationships outside of the theater, he said.

“I love theater with all my heart, so to introduce people to that is so much fun for me,” Wilhelmi said. “That’s part of the inclusivity that I create because I’m just so happy that they want to be there.”

Wilhelmi said she tends to focus on helping each actor develop their character, no matter how small a role they might have.

“It ends up being really fun for people who have a small role to expand in their own mind what it is,” she said. “And then it comes across on stage. You can really tell when everybody is engaged versus when some people are standing.”

Wilhelmi didn’t plan on a career in theater when she went to the University of Mount Union in Ohio. In fact, she was majoring in math.

But because it’s a liberal arts school, she had to take arts classes and she signed up for theater arts. Then she auditioned for a show to fulfill a class requirement and was hooked.

“It was so much fun. I had never done anything like it before,” she said.

Wilhelmi had always been a straight-A math student, but during her theater involvement she got a B on a test and her math professor told her she would need to think about her priorities.

“I thought, ‘You’re absolutely right. This is who I am. I found myself in theater.’ So I became a theater major right after that,” Wilhelmi said.

She worked professionally in theater for five years right out of college as an actress and puppeteer in a children’s theater company and a managing director for a community theater.

Then she got a job in business selling tires and found a good balance between making a living and continuing to pursue her passion.

“Then I could enjoy theater more by not having to use it as my way of making a living,” Wilhelmi said.

She and her husband moved to Fargo from Ohio in 2000 after David was offered a job with Fargo Public Schools and Trollwood, she said.

Wilhelmi started directing shows at the FMCT in 2007. She also directed a one-act play at Fargo South High School, and she has directed and helped write productions for Nativity Church in Fargo.