Jennifer Thalman Kepler, Trina Fischer, & Shannon Woolley Allison.
From Conversations WIth Co-Founder Shannon Woolley Allison
By Keith Waits
Photos provided by Looking for Lilith
Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Lilith is a legend, Adam’s first wife in Eden, who was created at the same time and from the same clay as Adam, but who was cast out because she was not subservient but willful and independent in her thinking. Later, patriarchal structures found it convenient to characterize her as a demon, a greedy succubus threatening male supremacy.
Many see her as the symbol of the centuries-old misogyny and oppression of women, evidence (at least mythically) of the inherent equality between males and females. So when you hear the name Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, the mission should be clear.
To witness more direct evidence of it, the company will celebrate its 20th Anniversary with a retrospective performance in Central Park featuring the entire company performing excerpts from past productions.
If memory serves, the first Looking for Lilith production I attended was Fabric, Flames, and Fervor: Girls of the Triangle. A telling of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that happened in New York City, it exemplified the Lilith mission: untold or little-known stories of women in history presented in a semi-documentary, oral-storytelling approach, characters enacting the tragedy while narrating it.
The production was available for touring, as were several others with a specific educational intention, plays designed to travel light and work in any classroom. The company, formed in New York City in 2001 by Shannon Woolley Allison, Jennifer Thalman Kepler, and Trina Fischer, relocated to Louisville in 2003. From an interview with Woolley Allison for Arts-Louisville in 2012:
“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.”
Unlike the traditional paradigm of selecting plays to produce, Lilith was committed from the very beginning to original scripts developed through a devising process in which cast and crew were given a stake in the creation of new work. Equity and representation were built into the company at a fundamental level.
Yet they were not the first or only Louisville company devoted to theatre about women. When in 2006 Kathi E.B. Ellis, who had been working with the now extant Pleiades Theatre (another feminist mythological reference), called to suggest a collaboration, Allison, Thalman-Kepler, and Fischer had found a new partner, one who would become an essential part of Lillith until her death in 2018.
Ellis was an educator and director for hire who worked for other companies, but whose devotion to Lilith was unshakable. As the company grew, so did its representation, with attention to African American and Latinx women and LGBTQA+ characters in productions such as Becoming Mothers, Luz, and Orlando.
Robin Rice’s Alice in Black & White was arguably something of a watershed moment for Lilith, a world premiere in the 2012-13 season, it was remounted in NYC three years later before another revival back in Louisville for the 15th anniversary season. In her review of the initial production for Arts-Louisville, Kate Barry described it:
“…a play about Alice Austen, a very important woman in the history of art who was unknown for quite some time. Looking for Lilith’s productions is beautifully simple and fascinating. In case you aren’t familiar with Austen’s work, her photos hang from the rafters of the MeX Theatre and create a backdrop for the performance. Photography is used as a motif as scenes create snapshots of Austen’s life complete with period costumes and historically accurate cameras. Jennifer Thalman Kepler plays the free-spirited Alice Austen. With joy and wonder, she portrays a woman who was ahead of her time, independent and strong.”
However triumphant the return trips to NYC have been, Looking for Lilith’s home remains Louisville. Again from 2012. Woolley Allison expressed the difference:
“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.”
That feeling of camaraderie remains true today, which is why when the plans for a 20th Anniversary event in The Mex at The Kentucky Center had to be reassessed in the wake of the surge in COVID due to the Delta Variant, an agreement could be reached with Kentucky Shakespeare to use the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre in Central Park.
“Looking for Lilith is so grateful. We just didn’t want anyone to feel that they have to choose between celebrating our anniversary and being safe, and we are expecting perfect weather!” enthuses Wooley Allison. In a conversation with her just a few days ago, she reflected at length about this moment in the company’s development.
“Our 20th anniversary season has been focused on more personal stories. For the past year, we have been conducting story circles with different groups of people about their experience of 2020; with the pandemic, Breonna Taylor’s murder, the Black Lives Matter protests, and what it has been like to live in Louisville during all of that. And these quiet stories have become six short films, and we will be taking these to The Mex in November as The Story Circle Project, and there will be devised, live theatre that interacts with the films.”
The season winds up next spring with even more personal stories. “Our own Liliths; our own ancestral forebears. There are 19 members of the Lilith ensemble right now and we all have our own ancestor’s histories that we are currently exploring under the working title The Ancestor Project – I feel certain that title will change before it gets mounted in April 2022.“
“I feel like in the last two years we have gone broad and deep, with The Kentucky Suffrage Project going back 100 years to tell those women’s stories, and We Are Here, which was a response to Donald Trump’s election, so right now is a time to come in and do something more personal and current to this moment.”
A milestone anniversary also calls for consideration of the future, as well as a taking stock of how successfully Lilith has stayed true to the mission and principles upon which it was founded. I asked Woolley Allison about this:
“That’s one of those things where you constantly work yourselves into an evolution of your mission. If our mission is to lift up underheard voices, then as the voices society has been censoring come to the forefront, we are able to move our focus to other voices. These Gen-Z kids that are a part of Lilith now will be reading scenes on the 18th, and that joining of old and new in the river of time is exciting to me. Izzy Keel, Clare Hagan, Ellie Archer. Tierra Bowman first worked with us when she was 14 years old and now she has returned after college to work with us again. And then there is Morgan Younge, who is a different generation but has become a very important part of the company and who has so much to offer!”
And what about the next twenty years? As the company engages these new generations of artists, Woolley spoke about the concept of horizontal leadership and the passing of the torch.
“Jenn and Trina and I have been doing this for quite a while now, and none of us are looking to retire just yet, but I am not sure I want to keep working 60 hours a week all the time. So it is not imminent, but it is necessary. As a company that has always strived for intersectionality, and that has always tried to know better and then do better, we have grown in the intersectionality of our stories and in the intersectionality of the artists who join us, but LFL was founded by three middle-class white women, and as we share and relinquish leadership, we need to share with women that more diversely reflect the community and the stories we strive to tell.”
Many companies are centered around one or two individuals who are the driving engine, but the companies who have been around long enough to build a true legacy; think of Bunbury Theatre (30+ years) and Pandora (20+ years) and you realize that this ability to demonstrate history along with a plan for the future and new leadership is why, for example, those two companies, along with Looking for Lilith, were brought into the circle of arts nonprofits that are eligible to receive Sustaining Grants from the Louisville Fund for the Arts. Whatever else, Lilith is here to stay.
September 18th, 2021 – 5:00pm
C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre
in historic Old Louisville’s Central Park
1340 S. 4th Street, Louisville, KY 40208
FREE! – Donate-If-You-Can: Suggested $20 donation, in honor of the 20th Anniversary.
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.