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    Posted January 27, 2012

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DAVID WHEELER, Father Of The Boston Theatre Scene

By Donna Sorbello

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Back in 1963, at thirty-eight years of age, David Wheeler was the founding Artistic Director of the now legendary Theatre Company of Boston. Almost fifty years later, as recently as a week ago, David Wheeler, still directing, was preparing for his next project. David Wheeler's name is synonymous with the rise of independent regional theatre companies in New England and a movement that spread across the states. When Mr. Wheeler, a veteran of World War II and a graduate of Harvard, started the Theatre Company of Boston, one wonders if he had an inkling of the kind of fame those actors who started out with him and reaped the benefit of his heartfelt directing skills would achieve. Larry Bryggman, known on Broadway and for television and film roles, Blythe Danner, of stage and film, the late Paul Benedict of stage and televison, Al Pacino, who went on to become a "father" figure of his own on film, and who continued to work with Mr. Wheeler on films (Local Stigmatic) and stage productions, are only a few of his theatre-children. Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Stockard Channing, Robert DeNiro, Spaulding Grey, Paul Guilfoyle, Jon Voight, Ralph Waite and James Wood are a few more from those early theatre days. David Wheeler, a family man married to the beautiful, blue-eyed actress, Bronia (Stefan) Wheeler, and the father of his devoted son, Lewis-- a gifted, accomplished actor--believed that theatre--original, progressive theatre--could exist in his hometown, Boston. Ultimately, his skill matched with his love of the theatre world, took him many other places. Born in Belmont, he always returned to his home and family in New England.

Boston had always been known primarily as a pre-Broadway try-out town--but not after David. What started in the 60s as a kind of unique venture, progressed to the current, thriving Boston theatre scene with new companies added to the roster every year. New, exciting, daring work such as his original undertakings of Shepard, Bullins, Genet, Ionesco, Beckett, O'Neill and Pinter, have blossomed at small and medium-sized theatres in New England especially, in large part, because of David Wheeler.

A graduate of Harvard, he taught in many universities from New England to California, including Brandeis, Boston University and University of California, Long Beach. It was when teaching at Harvard that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck brought some scenes into his class for his critiquing, from what would eventually become Good Will Hunting. Ben Affleck's father, Tim Affleck,a stage manager had staged managed and acted with Theatre Company of Boston. David Wheeler was a resident director at ART during the l980s and l990s, though his association with ART continued beyond that period. He has directed over two-hundred plays, working at regional theatres across the country including the Guthrie, Trinity Rep, The Alley theatre and many others. His many awards include the Theatre Critics Award and the Elliot Norton Award for outstanding Directing.

At his funeral, his son Lewis talked of the incredible energy his father had and of his genuine love of theatre. The night before he died, Lewis told the large crowd of people gathered to pay respects to David Wheeler, that he gave his dad a couple of scripts to read. "I'll have them read by tomorrow morning," his father told him. "No rush," his son said. Typically enthusiastic and eagerly open to discovery, David Wheeler replied, "No, I'll read them tonight." His lust for good theatre, good plays, good actors, his boundless energy, his humorous and appreciative theatre stories, his quick, insightful mind and his eagerness to always take on the next project right up to the end, is why, at age 86, no one was prepared for David Wheeler's passing. David not being a part of theatre, and especially the Boston theatre scene, was something no one really ever pondered. He was too vital, too young at heart. Despite his own ongoing work schedule, he was present at countless productions, seeing new work, learning, viewing and supporting the work of actors. Lewis said that after the war, his father's chosen outlook was always one of happiness, delight and gratefulness. He appreciated each day.

It is appropriate that the last production Mr. Wheeler directed, along with his son, Lewis Wheeler as Assistant Director, was at Company One Theatre. The theatre, under artistic director Shawn LaCount, is a small, established company, much in the spirit of Theatre Company of Boston, as it's known for tackling new, challenging material. THE BOOK OF GRACE, by Susan-Lori Parks, was an apt title for Wheeler's last production this past year. Many actors and theatre colleagues mourning his death on January 4th, spoke consistently of his helpfulness to actors, his unique skill and understanding as a director, his openness to others' ideas, and basically…his grace. Many actors considered him a mentor and a father figure and though he's decidedly Boston's own father figure, his encompassing, enlightening spirit stretches far beyond his family in New England.

Donna Sorbello is an AEA Actress/ NE AEA Liaison Committee Member, and writer/playwright.

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