The Definition of Whirlwind

You could say that Ann Wilkinson’s journey to the Central College theatre department was a round-trip. But she had a lot of delays, layovers and reroutes. Her whirlwind life—including working in LA, acting around the country and co-owning her own casting company—has been fueled by the improv mentality she learned in college.

“Just say yes,” Wilkinson says. “In improv, you learn you always have to say yes.” She says it’s necessary to keep the act moving. It has certainly kept her life moving.

The voyage began in the early 1970s when Wilkinson graduated from Pella High School. Having developed an interest in theatre, she enrolled at Knox College to study directing. Ann Wilkinson had officially departed Pella.

During her time at Knox, Wilkinson continued to pursue directing, but she wanted to make herself as well-rounded a theatre student as possible. After realizing that many directors didn’t have the acting knowledge to effectively communicate with their cast, she decided to take an acting course. Apparently, it went well.

After spending the summer after her graduation working with a stock theatre company, she received an offer from Universal Studios to travel to Los Angeles and audition as a contract player. “It wasn’t anything I intended to pursue,” Wilkinson says of acting. But remembering her improv training, she accepted the offer. She was to travel to California and try out at fall auditions.

Unfortunately, her passage from the Midwest to the West Coast was mysteriously delayed, and she arrived in LA over a month late. Wilkinson remains tight lipped about that intermittent month. “I was busy goofing around,” she says with a cryptic smile. Perhaps saying yes to something caused some small trouble after all.

Luckily, Universal agreed to enroll her in their acting classes, in preparation for the next series of auditions. So she settled down in Los Angeles. “Then in December, they cancelled the contract players,” Wilkinson recalls. Suddenly she was an out-of-work actress.

Like so many in that situation, Wilkinson worked at restaurants and did odd jobs while looking for acting gigs. She slowly gained a reputation over the next 10 years by working in soap operas and doing commercials and voice-over work. The project from this era her students love to hear about is her voice work on the faux-horror film “Killer Klowns from Outer Space.”

Wilkinson also did a significant amount of stage acting, work that took her around the country. In the late 1980s, she was working on a travelling show when she began to feel road-weary. When the show ended, she signed up for a commercial audition workshop in LA to sharpen her commercial acting skills.

The workshop was hosted by a company advertising that all of their instructors were also casting agents, the kind of people commercial campaigns hire to find actors. After the first class meeting, the instructor approached Wilkinson with an odd offer.

“He said, ‘You should be teaching this class,” Wilkinson recalls. He offered her the job on the spot. Taken aback, Wilkinson replied that she wasn’t a casting director. She couldn’t teach the class.

“So he asked, ‘Well, do you want to be a casting director?’” says Wilkinson. When the opportunity was offered, she had only one option. Just say yes.

Within a year, she was the co-owner and vice-president of the company, Tepper-Gallegos Casting.

Over the next 10 years, Wilkinson and Tepper-Gallegos casted actors for television, film and commercials. They became known for their work with what industry insiders call difficult characters: starts and children.

During her time as co-owner of the company, she worked on several big projects. She cast children for the television series “Cheers” as well as movies in the “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” series. Her company also provided casting for major commercial campaigns with Huggies, Welch’s and Michelin Tires. “My job as casting director is to listen to the director, the writer and the producer. Take what they want, synthesize that and then find the actors who will fit,” explains Wilkinson.

By the late 1990s, Wilkinson was splitting time between Los Angeles and Pella, visiting her mother during as illness. While back in Iowa, she made the decision to sell the majority of the shares she owned in Tepper-Gallegos and pursue other interests. As she settled back into the routine of Iowa life, she noticed an unusual change in herself.

Wilkinson gives notes to Central students at a rehearsal.

“People were coming to me with projects, and I was saying no,” she recalls. Realizing that this was not in line with her philosophy, she made the decision to change things. “I said to myself, ‘The next thing that comes up I’m going to say yes to.’ Well, the next thing that came up was Central.”

While on Central’s campus to attend a theatre production, she was approached by theatre professor Mary Jo Sodd, who asked if she would be interested in teaching while another instructor was away on sabbatical.

Wilkinson just said yes.

After two years, her adjunct work led to a full-time position as an instructor of theatre. Although Wilkinson teaches full time, she still works on numerous side projects. She owns another casting company, casting regional actors for various projects. She still keeps up with the national film industry, as well; she recently cast local actors for the blockbuster “True Grit.” With her unique blend of experience, Wilkinson has been able to present a unique perspective.

“It hasn’t been a really well-directed life,” Wilkinson laughs. “I don’t consider it to be a good example for students.”

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