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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ten Years of Searching for Fertile Ground: An Interview with Looking for Lilith Artistic Director Shannon Wooley

Shannon Wooley (foreground) in Fabric, Flames, and Fervor: 
Girls of the Triangle. Photo by Michael Taggart.
By Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
This week Looking for Lilith celebrates their 10th Anniversary with two programs performing in repertory at The Bard’s Town:  10 Years: 7 Stories collects segments from the seven original productions that have been developed throughout the company’s history; while Becoming Mothers seeks to add to that number with a staged reading of a new play about motherhood.
The company’s mission draws inspiration from the rabbinical myth of Lilith, the first woman created by God and given equal importance to Adam. According to the myth, she was eventually replaced by Eve, a new partner created for Adam and intended to be deliberately subservient. As stated in the company’s mission statement: “Lilith's story represents to us an instance where a strong woman's voice was quieted, and her story lost.” In creating theatre that uncovers history largely forgotten, Looking for Lilith brings forward women’s stories that have been lost, just as Lilith was lost and rediscovered.
Recently we spoke with co-founder and current Artistic Director Shannon Wooley about the company’s origins, its commitment to education, and the creative process behind the unique Lilith vision.
Arts-Louisville: How was Looking for Lilith started? What was the original inspiration?
Shannon Wooley: A vision from God in the middle of the night – I know that makes me sound a little bit like a lunatic, but I’m telling you, that’s how it happened. I got my B.F..A from Southern Methodist University, which has a really cool theatre department, a conservatory program for two years – very intense work, a lot of freedom given to the students. While I was there I was a part of a project called 1968: Vietnam, which was interviews with women about their experiences with the Vietnam war: military women, Vietnamese women. Then we took the interviews and turned them into a performance piece. It was the most amazing piece of theatre I had ever worked on. Then I graduated and went out into the world and found that there really weren’t projects like that to get involved in. That had been “university,” but now I was out in the real world, with my resume and head shot – this was in Chicago. Then I was invited to join a repertory theatre in Denver called Horse Chart Theatre, which was all men. I was the only woman in the theatre, and we did a lot of David Mamet, and I was pretty unhappy. So I literally woke up in the middle of the night remembering the 1968: Vietnam project and voice saying to me, “Why aren’t you doing that? You could be doing that all the time!” So I called my dear friend Trina, who was living in Chile at the time on a Fulbright scholarship, and I told her I had this idea: I want to start this collective of women artists and we are going to create original theatre based on interviews with women. We are going to choose periods in history and interview from all perspectives and we are going to do devising and then we are going to make them into plays. We moved to New York, because I didn’t really know how to do this thing that I wanted to do. There was a great program at NYU – a master's in educational theatre which differs from theatre education – which is about teaching theatre in that it is about devising theatre that educates. While working on that master's I met Jennifer Thalman Kepler; and after graduating, Trina, Jennifer and I signed the incorporation papers for Looking for Lilith. We created our first play within a year.
A-L: The company was founded in New York City. When and why did you move to Louisville?
SW: I think it was important that we began in New York and learned to create and promote theatre where things are more…stringent. But New York is glutted with theatre. Not only were we one of thousands of theatre companies, but we were one of hundreds of women’s theatre companies. Every show we would create there we would tour to Louisville and play to packed houses and people were thrilled to see original work like this. Whereas in New York we were, just to be frank, spending thousands of dollars to produce plays that our friends would come and see. After five years of that, I remember the show was Class of ’70, we had a very successful run in Louisville first and then took it to New York and we said to ourselves, “Why aren’t we just doing this in Louisville all the time?” So I came back in 2005 and Trina came back the following fall and we have been using Louisville as our home base ever since. We still tour to other places, even returning to New York with Fabric, Flames & Fervor: Girls of the Triangle, but it has been much more profitable for us financially and artistically to be here. Louisville has a fantastic theatre community, and we certainly are not the only theatre company producing original work. But here we occupy a very specific niche that people get very excited about.
A-L: You have successfully produced scripts by other writers, but this commitment to developing original material has largely defined the company.
SW: That’s kind of our foundation. Usually once a season we produce an already published work, and we’ve even done some works by men, which has been fun. We did House of Bernardo Alba last fall; and Frederico Garcia Lorca’s viewpoint of the oppression that was going on in that family of women was profoundly touching, and it definitely fit within the Looking for Lilith mission. He knew women and he wrote pretty well for them.
A-L: The original pieces are designed to educate as well as entertain. How important is the educational mission and how do you continue to develop it?
SW: We have a Community Outreach Department that does educational outreach from kindergarten through post-graduate level. We have some projects at the adult level, particularly in Guatemala, so we try to have our outreach accessible to children of all ages. About three years ago our program really exploded when we were commissioned to create Choices: An Interactive Play on Cyberbullying and Suicide, which is a theatre of the oppressed piece about cyber-bullying. And in this piece the audience meets a 15-year-old girl named Hannah who is progressively and viciously cyber-bullied through the computer, through the phone, through IM (instant messaging), to the point where she withdraws from everything in her life and she decides that the only way out is to kill herself.... The play ends with her dumping a bottle of pills into her hand. But with theatre of the oppressed work, you see a play that ends with what Augusta Boal calls the “point of brutal rupture,” where things can’t get any worse. But then you stop and the audience begins to work. One of the actors begins to speak to the audience in the role of “The Joker” and asks the audience: "Did the play have to end this way? Were there times that you wanted to see the main character do or say something differently?" Usually they say “Yes,” and then we start again from the beginning except. This time they are invited to stop the protagonist at any point – they are only allowed to stop the protagonist; if they could change the bully’s behavior it becomes beside the point.
Jefferson County Public Schools got so excited after the first show that they asked us to do it in every school, so we’ve been performing Choices a lot and doing a lot of educational work on the high school level, which has been fun and is kind of new for us. We are also very active with the Kentucky Arts Council and they subsidize in-school residencies, so we do get invited into the schools fairly often on KAC grants. We love to work in social studies classes and have the students look at a particular event in history and develop a process drama about that event where the students are living out the roles of the people in that history.
A-L: Yet Choices doesn’t really draw from history…
SW: No, it is very of the moment, and while cyber-bullying certainly affects young women more than young men, it is definitely not just a young woman’s issue. We frequently have young men in the audience say, “No, she should be doing THIS…” and they are brought up onstage. We change the name and do it as a boy. What’s interesting is that I think the young men see different ways to deal with the conflict than the young women do, some positive and some negative. It’s often, "She needs to find out who that is and kick their ass after school!” – which allows us to make the point that Hannah does not necessarily know who is bullying her on the computer and she might (inadvertently) choose to brutalize the wrong person; and now she becomes the one who has committed a crime.
A-L: You put so much energy into the outreach. What are the challenges for LFL in maintaining its public profile in such an active theatre community?
SW: I feel like what we do is so unique – just as what Le Petomane or Pandora does is so unique – that we’re not going to lose audience for Lilith plays because they are seeing other great plays in Louisville. Because what we do is pretty different, so, no, I don’t really think it is a challenge. I think that Louisville is unique in the support that the independent theatre companies give to each other. I did not really have that experience in New York. It’s more competitive. Here we share more resources, and not just people and materials but resources of wisdom as well, which I think is kind of unusual.
A-L: This retrospective of scenes from past LFL productions is running in repertory with a staged reading of a new piece, Becoming Mothers. What can you tell us about that?
SW: I would say a lot of the energy goes into the outreach and a lot goes into the show creation. When we create something new, like Becoming Mothers, which we are unveiling as a reading this week, it is six months of research and interviews and another six months of transcribing and playing with the interviews and rehearsals and figuring out what’s theatrical and performative. It’s interesting because in the end you do have the two-week run with eight performances, and there is so much work that goes into it. But I enjoy the process of creating it as much as I do the sharing of it.
Looking for Lilith plays never die: they live on and on. Part of that has to do with the specificity of the plays. What My Hands Have Touched deals with the oral histories of women during World War II, and during Women’s History Month the Blue Star Mothers might bring us in to do that show because it is specific to their community. Same thing with Crossing Mountains, which is about the Hindman Settlement School. We’ve been invited to come to Big Sandy Community College, which is about an hour and a half from Hindman in the Cumberland Mountains. They keep being reborn, and we sometimes recreate them to a certain degree to fit the community that wants to see the work.
A-L: You spoke at the beginning about the creative freedom you experienced in the educational environment of college. Do you feel the educational foundation and collaborative process of Lilith capture any of that energy?
SW: I think so. The seven excerpts have been rehearsing separately, and last week we brought them together for the final rehearsals. Suddenly the room was filled with all of the actors, directors and designers who have worked on Lilith shows over the last 10 years. And people started talking about how working for LFL is so unique – the creative freedom and the nurturing and support that we have for one another – and that was so touching to me because that IS what I always wanted to create. I don’t just want to create exciting and dynamic plays; I want to create a community where female and male artists are excited about exploring a topic through theatre. Together we have created this fertile ground that is similar to what I felt at SMU. So maybe you don’t have to leave college.
Shannon Wooley (right) in What My Hands Have 
Touched – Women of WW II. Photograph by Michael Taggart.
10 Years:7 Stories- May 31, June 2, 7, 9 at 7:30 pm • June 10 at 2 pm
Tickets $15, $10 students/seniors
Becoming Mothers- June 1, 8, 10 at 7:30 pm • June 3 at 2 pm
Tickets $10, $7 students/seniors

Two-Show Pass: $23, $15 students/seniors

Birthday Party!!!
Come June 10 to see both shows and celebrate our 10 years with a reception at 4:30 pm.
    $30 (both shows & reception)
    $25 (10 Years: 7 Stories & reception)
    $20 (reception & Becoming Mothers)
    $15 (reception only)
 
For reservations, call 502-638-2559

Looking for Lilith
At The Bard’s Town
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205


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