Jan Williams is soon going to be taking her last curtain call as a teacher in the DeForest Area School District.
After 30 years, Williams is retiring from her position as a high school English instructor at DSAD at the end of this school year. The spring play “Arsenic and Old Lace” could be her swan song as the high school play and musical advisor, as well as the Drama Club advisor.
Some, however, are trying to convince her to stay involved in theater at the high school, Williams said, and she’s preparing for the upcoming DASD Summer Drama Camp. Needless to say, Williams plans on staying busy.
“I might even go back to waitressing,” said Williams, with a laugh.
That was one of three jobs Williams held when she went back to college to become a teacher, as she served customers at Ishnala Supper Club in Wisconsin Dells for more than 20 years. She also worked as a church youth director and put in hours at Cisco Foods. At the same time, Williams was raising her daughter.
“I was always busy, always working,” said Williams,
The same could be said of the school’s drama groups. There’s the fall play, the one-act competition, the holiday plays, the student-directed winter play and the spring play, plus the mock car crash that takes place in May. And then there the Summer Drama Camp, which keeps growing. About 20 students help run it.
“We had so many kids last year, we had to put on five plays,” said Williams.
There were about 110 kids that went to Summer Drama Camp last year. The camp was founded by Williams.
With all of her students, no matter what the setting, Williams lets them take some of the reins.
“My goal is to make my kids as self-sufficient as possible,” said Williams. “I had teachers who did that for me in high school and college.”
Drama at DASD has come a long way since Williams arrived.
“When I started, there were no sets, no costumes,” said Williams. “There was a lady who did a musical with no help. She sold candy bars to raise money.”
Williams started the Drama Club. Five years later it was formally recognized as a club at the school.
In addition to teaching English, Williams also coaches forensics and serves as the advisor to the senior class and to Students Against Drunk Driving. Leaving teaching won’t be easy for her.
“What I’ll miss most, I think, is the discussions I have with kids,” said Williams. “I absolutely love talking to high school kids. They say amazing things and their energy is fantastic. I’m not as worried about the future when I see the classes coming through.”
Some of her students have returned to see shows or even donate their time to help. Brett Price is one. He is now the director of the Performing Arts Center. Price even developed an internship program for students who want to learn about theater tech.
There was no PAC when Williams started. Instead, there was a little theater next to her classroom. She had to rent five storage units to store costumes and other material.
The first play she directed at DeForest was “As You Like It.” That nice lady who put on musicals stayed to help her.
Through contacts with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the UW-Baraboo and the Children’s Theater of Madison, all involved in drama at the high school learned about costuming, makeup and how to construct better sets.
Williams remembers doing some dangerous things while building sets. The first time she had a set built by someone else, it was when they put on the “Wizard of Oz.” The construction company, unfortunately, built the castle 4 ½ feet too tall. It was supposed to be 7 feet. It ended up being closer to 12, making it impossible to see the witch.
Still, it was a huge success. Williams remembers that at one point in the show, they had 110 kids onstage.
“It was unbelievable the way everything flowed together,” said Williams. “It was really cool.”
Williams is most proud of their production of “The Laramie Project,” a play created as a reaction to the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepherd, in 2009. Their production won several awards at the state competition. One of the beautiful productions to Williams was the musical “The Little Mermaid” they did two years ago. “Arsenic and Old Lace” promises to be just as interesting. Williams said she likes doing murder mysteries, and her students enjoy them, too.
The community and parental support for theater has been incredible over the years, said Williams. She has had students go on to work professionally as performers, but she’s been careful to tell her students how tough it is to make it. She advises those who want to go for it to get training in design or to get certification in education as a back-up plan.
Williams grew up in Pardeeville. She did a lot of babysitting as a teenager and was involved in church youth groups. She is worried for the kids of today, however.
“They’re spread way too thin,” said Williams. “The push for jobs, for money … they’re in so many sports and activities. They’re a lot more stressed out.”
Williams is going to be 66 when the school year is over. She still wants to teach and have those discussions with students that she’s enjoyed.
“I’ve had such a love for English and theater, and I wanted all of my kids to feel the same way,” said Williams, who added she knows that’s impossible.
Looking back, she’s enjoyed her time as an educator, though.
“I’ve had a lot of neat experiences because of this place,” Williams said.