This week I have Allison Witham with me today. Allison is a director and Twin Cities performer, writer, deviser, and teacher. She is a core and founding member of Transatlantic Love Affair, company member of Umbrella Collective, and teaching artist the Guthrie Theater. She'll be talking about her role in the Fringe musical:
'Edith Gets High'.
Allison Witham (left)
Allison, what the planning for the physical movements in this musical?
I have a very strong background in physical theatre. I’m a core and founding member of Transatlantic Love Affair and teach physical approaches to acting at the Guthrie. Keith Hovis and I both attended the University of MN BA theatre program together and received a wonderful education in physical theatre. Keith and I knew we going to work together on a Fringe show as writer/director collaborators and when he was pitching initial ideas, he kept talking about the physical landscape of Edith- how he saw the world of the video game progressing forward in his head and we both decided that that idea would play to both of our strengths as makers.
For the rehearsal process, we started with about two weeks of devising movement while Keith was finishing up the script. So, the actors were hugely important in finding the physical language of the play. We also knew a few of the characters we were going to have for certain, so we all experimented with what those characters might look like/how they might move/how they might morph into other things.
We purposefully cast very playful, physical performers we knew would be able to lend their wonderful imaginations to the process in addition to killer vocals. Once we were in full rehearsals, Keith really wanted to have the chorus embodied on stage, so I spent a lot of time at home thinking of how to choreograph bodies on that narrow Arena stage. It would have been extremely difficult if we didn't have that pre-work and the cast we had to shape those ideas for the final product.
What are some aspects of the musical that you especially enjoy or appreciate?
I love Keith's writing. I think it is so smart, funny, and heartfelt. I also really appreciate that he has strong messages and themes throughout his work, but he trusts his audience that they will go along with the ride and catch all the little gems of lines in his songs. He doesn't "hit the b in subtle" as I like to say, meaning that he doesn't beat the audience over the head. This play was more direct in message, but I also think that reflects the world of chat rooms and gaming. I loved that we went with this bizarre theme and premise.
I am not a gamer, but I found the story empowering, nonetheless. I also adore the music. It is REALLY challenging music, and the cast fully committed to rising to the challenge and I think the actual music of this musical was incredibly impressive, and I'm very proud of Keith's music direction and the casts' ability to work together to find those beautiful harmonies. I've seen Lizzie Gardner perform in several improv shows and was glad she performed in this musical. How fun was it to work with Lizzie as well as other improvisers?
First of all, I LOVE Lizzie Gardner. She is such a delight as a person and performer. We met doing "Couple Fight: The Musical" in the 2018 Fringe and I knew I wanted to work with her again. Her husband, Bobby, was also in that show and is also an incredible human and performer. Lizzie lights up the room. She's so positive, and talented. She approaches work with joy and that really lifts everyone else up.
Lizzie Gardner (right)
And, her character work in this show was incredible. That weird little monster that she created for the first challenge evolved and evolved until it was a highlight of the show. She really is dedicated to working on character. It took a lot of playing around with Peg as we tinkered with the script to make sure Edith's trajectory felt right, but one day she dropped into this masochist character and we couldn't stop laughing in the room. I stopped rehearsal, and said,
"That's it. Don't change it. That's what it is."
Improvisors are such a gift, because they are programmed with "yes and..." I find that improvisors are very rarely scared or intimidated by the unknown, or the idea of "just play around, let's see what we get." I come from the school of devising and playing, so I get my best ideas for building and shaping from the people I have in the room. Our whole cast had at least some experience either with devising or improv, so it was extremely useful in creating the world of the video game.
Keith Hovis has written several other fringe musicals, have you assisted or been a part of his other works?
The only other Fringe show I've worked on with Keith was "Couple Fight: The Musical," which I performed in and he music directed and co-wrote many of the songs. Keith and I have known each other since I was a freshman in college (he a sophomore). He's one of my dearest friends and favorite people. The fact that he is a musical genius is just a lucky bonus.
Outside of the Fringe, I directed "A Morbid History of Sons and Daughters," which was co-written by Keith, Leslie Vincent (my fiance), Mandy Verstegen, Derek Lee Miller, and Gracie Kay Anderson. The show was a part of the 2018 Horror Festival and was really well received. Keith performed in that one, and it was also a very physical show. Despite what he would tell you, he's also an incredibly intriguing and compelling performer.
I think it is really useful that Keith and I have worked together from every angle of the table. I've directed him, he's directed me, we've performed in shows together, and been on the director/musical director side together. We both feel really comfortable being honest with each other and pushing each other. Because we're friends and we both are ferocious when it comes to caring about making the piece the best that it can be, we're comfortable having tough conversations, but also hearing each other out. I know working with Keith has made me a better, more honest director, and willing to take bigger risks for the betterment of the show.
Are you working on any projects at the moment and do you plan on coming back to next year's Fringe?
I've actually got a full dance card this season. Tonight, I'm closing "The Rinky Show: Rinky Dink Fights Back," a sketch comedy show I wrote for and am performing in at the Bryant Lake Bowl. I'm a company and board member of Rinky Dink and we focus on creating new, local comedy. I'm also feverishly memorizing lines for "OPEN" by Crystal Skillman with Walking Shadow Theatre Company. Open is a magic act that reveals itself to be a resurrection. A woman called The Magician presents a myriad of tricks for our entertainment, while attempting the impossible: to save the life of her partner.
After OPEN, I'm teaching a clown and physical comedy intensive course at the Guthrie in November, and then running into rehearsals for Transatlantic Love Affair's new show at the Illusion in February. We don't have a title just yet, but it is going to be something about a post apocalyptic world and rebirth. We all collaboratively make the show together, so it is still a work in progress. In the spring I'll be teaching and the University of Minnesota and devising a physical piece with the students on the topic of "fear." I'm really excited to see what they come up with and how we shape the show.
In terms of Fringe, Leslie and I are getting married this summer, so we made a pact to skip the Fringe as performers this coming year, but we'll be back from our honeymoon and in the seats, because it really is one of the most exciting theatre events of the year. But, we'll be back for 2021! I have no doubt about that.