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Life Arts    H3'ed 7/13/11

Lookingglass Theatre's "The Last Act of Lilka Kadison"

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My guests today are Abbie Phillips and David Kersnar.  Welcome to OpEdNews! [I'm not quite sure how to refer to you two - you're co-writers, but there are others,too.  And David, you're both writer and director?] The Last Act of Lilka Kadison opened at the Lookingglass Theatre in June. This is a brand new work, never before performed. What can you tell our readers about it?

 from Lookingglass Theatre website

David: Yes,we are co-writers.

Abbie: And I'm a co-producer.

David: We also have Heidi Stillman, Andy White, and Nicola Behrman as co-writers on the team!

Almost six years ago, I was commissioned by Abbie Phillips and Johanna Cooper to conceive of a theatrical version of the audio series they produced, One People Many Stories - a collection of tales of Jewish origin from around the world. Johanna imagined it could be like a Jewish Arabian Nights!

One People Many Stories sounds like a great audio series! So, is The Last Act of Lilka Kadison what you came up with? Part of what you came up with? A single theatre piece that represents the entire series? I'm a bit confused.

Abbie: Johanna and I had created this series that was a global trek through the classic Jewish children's stories.  Jerry Stiller was our narrator (a travelling bookseller) and the stories were read by everyone from Joan Allen to Al Franken. We then applied to The Righteous Persons Foundation for a grant to try to "theatricalize" these stories. We needed a theatre company to work with and I had worked with Lookingglass before, on two previous projects. Lookingglass is unparalleled in their workshop approach to developing new work, and in their community outreach and innovative ancillary programming.  Lookingglass proved to be the ideal partner for what we had envisioned.

Soon after we began to workshop this project, our partner Johanna Cooper was diagnosed with breast cancer, and soon was unable to fully participate. She died about two years later.  In the meantime, we continued to attempt to wrangle a series of stories into an interesting theatre piece, and the Kersnar family had a baby girl.  As life went on, people joined our work, and people left. We began to realize that the play was taking on a life of its own, still celebrating the need to tell and hear stories, but it was becoming a story itself, taking on a life of its own. We also realized that stories are not interchangeable - a story is only meaningful if it can be utilized at just the right time.  Thus, the Last Act of Lilka Kadison was born, and we say that the play is inspired by the life and work of Johanna Cooper and the radio program, One People, Many Stories.

David:  There were many framing devices we tried at first to tell these stories. The current story of Lilith Fisher, under the care of Pakistani-born hospice worker Menelik Kahn, remembering her life as Lilka Kadison in 1939 Telechan, Poland, became the main story. Her memory of theatre visionary Ben Ari asking her to write a play about Solomon and Sheba  and the intimate relationship that developed became such an engaging plot line that many of the original stories we intended to tell did not make it to the final draft. This is the story of the power of storytelling itself. The power of remembering and telling one's personal stories - that one's life is just as engaging and perhaps even more inspiring then the world's great fiction.
The play begins with the midrash of the Angel Lailah who gives us all the stories (life's truths) before we are born, but casts a shadow over our memory at the moment of birth, so we spend a lifetime remembering all we already know. Lilith must recall some of her darkest and most difficult or most protected memories so she can bring light (truth and peace) to her final days. We tell a lot in a 90-minute play! 

A few months ago, I was part of a pre-production reading. Several scenes were read aloud and we were invited to give input. I found the process fascinating. Is this an unusual practice? Is it unique to Lookingglass? Why did you do it?

David:  Lookinglass thrives on a very collaborative environment. Lilka has been in development for several years. We have held many workshops that have generated dozens of drafts. Many of the actors hired have generously given their ideas for the characters and storyline. More recently, we've invited members of the Chicago community to see what we are up to and have polled them for their feedback.  When developing new work, this process is key to success. 

Lookingglass is not your average  theatre company housed in your average storefront. Can you tell our readers a little about your venue? 

Phillips and Kersnar at rehearsal; photo credit: Jonathan Green

David: For our first 15 years, Lookingglass was an itinerant theatre company. Because we produced new work and were obsessed with getting the exact right theatrical image, we would choose the exact right theatre venue to tell the story of the play we were making. We would perform in the Steppenwolf upstairs space or the old Goodman studio...sometimes we would build out a performance space in an old warehouse - whatever fit the bill. In the late '90s when I was Artistic Director with Heidi Stillman, we were approached by the Mayor's office and the Department of Cultural Affairs to put in a proposal to build a theatre in the Water Tower Water Works. Our bid won and we raised money to build a flexible space to match the eclectic needs of our shows. 
It is a true "black box" theatre where everything can go be removed all the way to the walls. We have high ceilings with a cat walk, a trap room for special effects and can reconfigure the space into any layout we imagine - from proscenium style to theatre in the round.We can even make it rain in there. Every time you come back to Lookingglass, our theatre will have been transformed into something new. That is half the fun of a visit to Lookingglass and what gets us repeat customers. Plus the shows are pretty good. I hope that is why we got nominated for the Tony this spring. Lookingglass plays are told in an innovative way in an innovative theatre space. 

I love the way you casually dropped that Tony in the conversation, David. Tell us more!

Not sure what else to say.  I and the rest of the company could not have been more surprised to have heard the news about getting the regional Tony, an award given once a year to one lucky single company. My phone started blowing up that  Tuesday morning, I had about 200 emails and Facebook messages. I got so excited I nearly drove halfway downtown without dropping my daughter off at daycare. We are the fifth company in Chicago to receive the honor, making our city the most recognized. That part is no surprise since the best theatre comes out of Chicago hands down. But when I think of Lookingglass, I still see us as the little engine that could trying to chug up the theatre hill with a tiny budget but a lot of passion and energy fueling us. Our productions look big but we are still scraping together to make ends meet and are very lucky to have so many generous supporters keeping us afloat. Frankly, after getting to the rehearsal room, my first thought was we need to all calm down and get back to work because Lilka needs to be extra good now!  Classic Lookingglass workaholic behavior. 

Congratulations! That is pretty exciting. Abbie, what would you like to add?

Abbie: For me, the process of discovering, layer by layer, The Last Act of Lilka Kadison, was both personal and circuitous.  Originally, we were going for an anthology approach to the great canon of stories from Jewish culture.  What we discovered was that stories become most powerful if they are used in a specific context -- curated, as it were.  Some stories give our lives meaning, some stories make us laugh when we need it, some stories heal us, and some give us courage.  With that discovery in mind, we set out to create a kind of fantasy.  A fantasy of who these four characters could have been, who we dreamed that they could be, and how they could evoke two very different times and places.

I started this project with my favorite quote from Hannah Arendt pinned above my desk:

"Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it."

With this in mind, we set out to create a very truthful play.  However, we didn't want the "factual details" getting in the way of our discovering the truth about these characters in the play.  We did do a lot of research in an effort to get all of the history correct, but from the beginning, we set out to write a play that would suggest not what was, but what could have been both on the personal and the global landscape.   We were most interested in exploring the ways in which young people of that time and place (Poland 1939) might have lived, not how they died.   It's not a play about what was, but rather what could have been.   What has always been most striking to me, is that "they" were "us".  These were modern, dynamic, passionate people, struggling with many of the same questions that we struggle with today: identity, what brings us together and what sets us apart, artistic expression versus tradition, and how religions treat women.

Which brings me to another personal revelation about this play:  A lot of Lilith's personal story and journey was drawn from the life of my own mother, who was a young pianist who had suffered not one, but several great personal losses in her life. There's no question that the women (and men) of that generation were galvanized by history and their own particular circumstances.  I also grew up in a section of the San Fernando Valley when our neighborhood was filled with survivors and refugees of many stripes, any of whom were artists or musicians or dancers and all aspired to work ancillary to the film and music industry.  As a result, a lot of that very specific, yet universal experience made its way into the play.  In fact, this project has confirmed my long held artistic approach that in the specific, is the universal.  In fact, David Kersnar recalls his grandmother's strength and humor when he reflects on his creative input to the character in the play.  Now that we have quite a few performances under our belts, the most inspiring feedback we get is that so many diverse people have said, "That's my mom!"  "How did you get it so right?"  "How did you know?"

It has also been gratifying to speak to so many different caregivers and to read our blog on the LG website.  A young caregiver, often from a completely different tradition and culture will bring a unique and intimate experience to their work.  We as a culture need to know more about their experience.

Lastly, music plays an integral role in the connective tissue of the play.  It relates past and present and evokes both memory and emotion.  We selected the music with particular care, and in a sense, just like Lilith's living room reflects her internal landscape, the music provides the lexicon of the play.  We have re-imagined several classic Yiddish melodies and we used them in new ways to evoke memories both real and imagined (for both the characters and the audience as well).  We introduce tango, both for good fun and for giving us a tangible taste of the cultural soup of the time. Leo Sidran, a young composer friend, has written a new and unforgettable version of Woman of Valor that fits quite nicely into the Jewish tradition of each generation reinventing sacred texts in order to give them added meaning.  In that context, we have used both Beethoven's Ode to Joy, and Ernst Bloch's Schelomo to evoke a time and place.  Long time Lookinglass composer and sound designer Rick Sims has sampled from all of these and added his own musical magic to create a soundscape unique to Lilka.

The creation of the play has been, by and large, a generous and successful collaboration. From designers to writers, we all shared stories of our parents and grandparents, young loves and struggles with tradition and modernism.  We were fortunate to be able to share a great amount of dramaturgical research and experience with cast and creators, as we all took on together what the very complex Polish Jewish experience might have been, the physiological and psychological experience of aging and death, what creative avenues of storytelling we could employ with toy theatre and beyond - what Kersnar and Lookingglass so excel in. Usman Ally (Menelik) was extremely open and generous in sharing with us what the experience of a post 9/11 Pakistani immigrant could be.  All of these things, experienced together, had an enormous impact on the development of the play.  Given the level of collaboration, what is most astonishing to me is what a singular, clear vision The Last Act of Lilka Kadison has turned out to be.

Thank you both for talking with me at what is surely a very busy time for you, Lilka, and Lookingglass. It was fun getting the inside scoop on the play. Good luck to all of you!

Abbie: Thank you for asking, Joan! 

Breaking News:  Lookingglass Theatre Company in association with Abbie Phillips is extending The Last Act of Lilka Kadison through August 21st. 

Lookingglass website

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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