New teacher Allison Witham has second job as actor

Laura Turner, Staff Writer

Most students are comfortable living with the belief that our teachers do little more with their lives than teach. I tend to imagine teachers’ evenings not consisting of much beyond the diligent grading of papers and maybe a cup of tea or a tasteful novel.

My romanticized misbelief is certainly not the case for South’s newest English teacher, Allison Witham. Witham’s evenings include not tea and novels, but her second career as an actress.

Witham started acting nine years ago, in her junior year of high school. Involved in theater all through her freshman and sophomore years as the house manager, her speech coaches pushed her into the acting side of theater. Her first role was in “The Crucible” as Prisoner #2.  “I named her Trudy Caw,” recalled Witham.

For most of high school and college, Witham acted in “straight plays,” traditional plays with a determined script and auditions. During college, she got into experimental theater. She became involved with the artists’ collective known as 1419, the address of the abandoned building on Washington Avenue that the group rented out. “We would just go, come up with an idea, and make something,”  said Witham.

Currently, Witham works with a theater collective known as Transatlantic Love Affair (TLA).  TLA is a collaborative company. The scripts are produced by the people involved in play production.

Collaborative theater generally involves a lot of improv as well as much more personalization of characters and scenes. “There’s a lot more input on what these characters could be like.”  Witham explained that when students see her shows they often recognize things she says in class in her character’s dialogue.  This similarity is due to the role that Witham can play in the development of her character; the character becomes like her.

These similarities are generated from the collaborative process. The beginning, Witham explained, is “a lot like school,” with assignments and a lot of group work.  Each person plays the part of each character at some point during the production process. It’s helpful when developing a character “[to see] someone else be this person.”

The advantage to being a collaborative company is that “our process has sped up.” The actors at TLA know how to work together. A joke that comes up during production “sometimes works its way in,” said Witham. The best part about working in a collaborative company, though, is that “you get to hang out with your best friends and make something and call it art.”

TLA’s productions are further individualized by their employment of physical theater.  According to their website, “We believe the human body to be the ultimate theatrical instrument.” There are no sets, props, or even costume changes. Communication is absolutely reliant on the actors telling the story.

“[Physical comedy is] the opposite of realism,” said Witham.  “[You] purposely do things because you’re going to get a reaction.” Acting, she expanded, is “all about playing.”

TLA is currently in the throes of producing “Red Resurrected” at the Illusion Theater, and they are about to enter tech week. Tech week, often referred to as “hell week,” and happens when “ideally, the show is ready,” Witham laughed, but is practiced for the first time in costume, makeup, and with sets and props.

She recalled crazy tech weeks in college. Because of the busy schedule, often things weren’t ready. Sets fell, costumes had seams pop. While the prospect of tech week might cause South’s student actors to experience a mild panic attack, tech week at TLA is not what they might imagine. Because they don’t use sets, props, or pre-recorded sounds, they only have to worry about light and costumes during rehearsals.

Not that Witham doesn’t have her fair share of mishaps during plays. She recalled a man yelling at her character during a performance. The play was “super hyper liberal,” she explained, comparing Reagan to Hitler and AIDS to the Holocaust. He caught Witham after the show and argued with her. “Part of being an actor is research… it gave me some English teacher critical source material.” She explained that a benefit is talking to people you’d never get to talk to.

Witham’s advice to student actors is to “just keep doing it. Never get discouraged… I’ve been in plays [that get] absolutely ripped apart.” But, she explained, “having a strong opinion coming out of a theater lobby is exactly what you want.”

“Go and see a lot of theater, especially theater that you don’t understand,” she said. “The Minneapolis theater scene is so vibrant.”