October 01, 2020

Day 1: Sydney Cheek-O'Donnell and Christopher DuVal

 "Bob Week" is a weeklong celebration in honor of Bob Nelson, on the occasion of his retirement. "Bob Week" runs from 10/2/2020 to 10/9/2020.

Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell:  Interim Chair, Department of Theatre  |  Asked & answered via email  


What have Bob Nelson’s contributions meant for the Department of Theatre?

Bob is extremely generous and kind to faculty, staff, and students—remembering birthdays and anniversaries you didn’t even realize he knew. He is someone who always thinks about how he can be useful to others, offering help in big ways and small—from getting our RPT document through a byzantine approval process to carpooling with a colleague (me) and her 4-year-old to attend a post-graduate fellow’s site-specific performance outside Moab.

Quite simply: Bob shows up and does what is needed, when it is needed. He offered to teach the MTP’s Intro to Studio, in which the students learn how to analyze musicals from a performer’s point of view. And despite the fact that it was not required of him, he regularly attended the MTP’s Performance Lab on Fridays—just to support the students and observe their progress. When I was burned out by teaching the most daunting of our academic courses—Theatre History—Bob stepped in and taught it to give me a break. And, of course, he faithfully attended all our department productions for 15 years. Not to mention responding to productions at other schools in our region for KCACTF.


What is your favorite memory of working with Bob?

Knowing that I was the Department’s flaming feminist, Bob forwarded me an email from the activist group Ultraviolet. I can’t recall what it was about, but I was both tickled and moved that this rather buttoned-up, older male colleague was a subscriber to the Ultraviolet newsletter, and that he would share it with me, signaling his desire to be an ally to people who have traditionally been marginalized in academia. He seeks connection, common ground, and a common purpose with others in everything he does.


What do you admire about Bob’s approach/teaching? 

Bob is very humble and he remains open to learning new things—to me these are essential qualities in a teacher.


How did Bob affect your own teaching?

Bob’s way of being in the world reminds me of two things that I find useful (see that? Useful!) in my own teaching (and other work): 1. in general, offering praise for a job well done pays more dividends down the road than does constant negative criticism, and 2. sometimes the best way to get the attention of a noisy, somewhat rambunctious group is to remain still and calm.


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Christopher DuVal: Associate Chair, Department of Theatre  |  Phone interview with Aaron Swenson


Aaron: Shall we start with a Cliffs Notes version of how you met and what your first impressions were?

Christopher: Well, Bob was here already when I arrived—had been here long before I arrived. And I just always found him to be a tremendously gracious, generous colleague. Always willing to chat about career and academic questions, and I just enjoyed hanging out with him and chatting in our offices about life in general, and Shakespeare in particular. So it was really lovely to have Bob here as a close colleague in our Department. Just a good friend, and a great senior member of the faculty that was always willing to provide advice and support and friendship. And he’s just been a rock of a colleague, and a chair, and a calm influence on…I think on the entire Department.


Looking back between when you started [in 2013] and now, what’s your favorite memory of Bob—your favorite memory of any sort of interaction with Bob?

Well, when we were in PAB we shared one of those hallways, you know? We didn’t share an office, but my office was across the hallway from him for a couple of years. And what I remember is us having lunch together and chatting about…about motorcycles. [Laughter] That was sort of a shared interest between the two of us.


Really? So was it riding, repairing, restoring…what specifically about motorcycles?

You know, he had bought one of those electric bikes. And he had always talked about, showed some interest in the electric-powered motorcycles. So I was trying to talk him into buying a motorcycle together, and we would share it. And store it at my house. [Laughter] It was banter between the two of us, but it was also just part of a wonderful, friendly relationship that continues to this day. And we would talk a lot about…he has a deep interest in Shakespeare, and we would talk about the history of performance of Shakespeare’s productions, the history of the actual structure of Shakespeare’s theater…we would just have a lot of wonderful discussions about William Shakespeare. And motorcycles. [Laughter]


Did the motorcycle plans ever pan out?

No, no, I’m really hoping now that he’s retired, he’s going to finally, finally go in on that deal with me.


Outstanding. Maybe we can use this as leverage to hold him accountable to that. Switching gears…when you think of Bob, what comes to mind? Or how about this: if you had to do an impression of Bob, how would you make it convincing?

Uhhhh…gosh, what would I do? An impression of…well, first I would grow my beard very long. And I would always come to school on my bicycle and park it in my office. And then I would also work to be the most gracious, generous, and compassionate person I could possibly be. Honestly, that’s how I would try to do an impression of Bob. And he also always had in his office the sort of expensive, collectors’ version of Far Side cartoons.


Oh—that’s good.

Yeah, and he always had a bust of Shakespeare on his desk. And his bicycle in his office. Ummm…those four things, I think: his beard, his bike, Far Side cartoons, and Shakespeare.


Perfect. Last question: what do you see as Bob’s legacy, or his impact on the department? Assuming it’s not something we’ve already talked about?

Yeah, it’s something we have kind of already talked about. But what I do think that Bob has in spades as a human being that really—it’s just so admirable and lasting and something that I would like to emulate more in my career and life—is real humility and kindness. He’s a doctor, he’s had a long career: a Chair and full professor at BYU, a Chair and full professor here at the U. You know. An outstanding record. A really exemplary, significant record in all three areas: research, teaching, and service. Yet at the same time, he just…he is absolutely, without a doubt, one of the most humble individuals I’ve ever met, and one of the kindest.

So it’s just another example to me that oftentimes the most successful, the most brilliant, and the most accomplished individuals I run across…oftentimes that all goes hand in hand with being the most humble and compassionate.


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