Rapid City Journal State’s first female pilot the focus of Journey play
(This story is from Feb 11, 2011)
Playwright Kristi Thielen explores the life of South Dakota’s first female pilot, Nellie Zabel Willhite, in “Nellie Takes to the Skies!” The play, which opens today at The Journey Museum, was written to augment the current exhibit in the Adelstein Gallery, “South Dakota’s First Century of Flight,” which will be open before and after each performance.
Thielen created the script based on Willhite’s life and the history of the times.
“Scenes from her early childhood I obviously had to take a certain amount of dramatic license, because although she was interviewed many times in her life, all of the questions were the same thing over and over again, primarily about her flying,” Thielen said. “The overall contours of where she went and what she did and what her relationship was with those people, those things are all based on history.”
Thielen said the play came about last year when she met with Norma J. Kramer, the woman who curated the flight exhibit.
“She mentioned that one of the hallmarks of her exhibit was going to be photographs of Nellie Zabel Willhite and Nellie’s plane. And I said, ‘Who’s Nellie?’ And she said she was the first female pilot in South Dakota and not only that, she had to conquer a hearing impairment to do that, and I said, ‘There’s my show.’ It just hit me immediately and I realized, ‘What an inspirational story,’” Thielen said. “It’s something that connects to South Dakota and something that connects to this exhibit.”
The group of actors in “Nellie Takes to the Skies!” had much to learn regarding the history of the early 20th century, which included everything from historical events to music, Thielen said.
“We’ve got some songs from the era that we’ll play as background music, and the kids got to come up and hear them, so now I’ve got kids who laugh and sing the words to ‘Lucky Lady,’” she said.
The cast also learned what it was like to be deaf during a time when the hearing impaired were taught to read lips, rather than sign, which was seen in a negative light.
“One of the most interesting acting challenges was that Nellie was deaf, but learned to lip-read … the idea of the time was that signing was inappropriate because it immediately marked you as somebody who was hearing impaired. So what they taught people was to lip-read. They could move through society and people wouldn’t even realize that they’ve got an impairment,” Thielen said.
As a group of actors, this meant they had to be certain to always face Nellie, played by Eden Sauley during the early portion of the play, and by Heather Biehl in the adult portion.
For Heather, who has performed in 11 of Thielen’s 13 plays at the Journey, playing the role was a learning experience she enjoyed.
“I like having the opportunity to grow and learn in every play. With Nellie, since she was the first female pilot in South Dakota and overcame so many obstacles to get where she got, it’s very inspiring to play her. She overcame her deafness and the death of her mother — so many hardships. And she persevered and she made history,” Heather said.
The seventh-grader said that as one of the veteran actors of The Journey Museum theater, she is interested in continuing to act as she gets older, but her passion is in following Thielen’s footsteps.
“She is such a wonderful writer and a wonderful director; it’s just a joy to work with her,” Heather said. “She probably doesn’t know it, but she’s my mentor.”
Thielen recently gave a workshop on playwriting, and of those who came during a snowstorm were 11 adults — and Heather.
“She is very interested in going on to become an actor and she is really hard-working. She has something like 89 lines in this show, and for a one-hour show, that’s a lot. So she has worked diligently,” Thielen said of the 13-year-old.