LiLiA!

As a child, I listened for hours as my grandmother told remarkable 
stories of her life, always emphasizing that with God all things are 
possible. She had become the first female architect in Austria, and 
then a stage star in Max Reinhardt's theatre, touring with him and 
other theatre companies throughout Europe. 

In 1939, she was forced to flee Austria from Hitler's onslaught, and 
became a political refugee in America.  She arrived in New York 
penniless and without a knowledge of the English language.  There 
she began attending night school while working in a zipper factory 
during the day.  Convinced that she had a God-given talent to share 
with the world, within two years she was cast in her first Broadway 
show.  For the next five decades, her career in the theatre, film and 
television flourished.  

As a teenager, when I began studying acting, my grandmother passionately worked with me on the different scenes and monologues I needed to perform for class.  When she "demonstrated" how to perform the ingénue roles, she transformed so completely that I believed she was sixteen years old more than I'd ever believed anyone was sixteen.  To this day, she was the greatest actress I've seen.

In 1995, while living in Seattle, I came upon a wonderful improvisation and acting workshop taught by Gary Austin.  During the improvisational work in class, Gary asked each student to talk for five minutes about someone either real or fictitious who we found to be interesting, compelling or fascinating.  I spoke of my grandmother, and he put me in a scene in which I played her as a refugee working in the factory.  In that moment, the "Lilia" character based on my grandmother was born.

When Gary Austin learned who my grandmother was, and about her remarkable life, he said, "You've got to write a one-woman show about this woman!"  Over the next couple of years, he involved my "Lilia" character in many more improvised scenes, sometimes involving the entire class in the scenes, and the "Lilia" character continued to evolve within me. 

At this time, I began attending week-long summer improvisation retreats organized by Kristine Niven, actress/playwright and founder of Artistic New Directions.  She brought together many exciting teachers for the retreats including Gary Austin, Carol Fox Prescott, playwright Jeffrey Sweet, and Michael Gellman.  During the sessions, each of them added their insights nurturing my development, as I worked on the play. 

In 1997, after moving to New York City, I performed excerpts of the play with The Performance Cooperative.  Soon after, Kristine Niven invited me to perform excerpts in Artistic New Directions' Works-In-Progress Evenings, directed by Gary Austin.  

Several individuals were instrumental towards the growth of "Lilia!".  Gary Austin's belief in the project inspired its development.  Carol Fox Prescott, a wondrous acting teacher, helped to move me to the heart and essence of the material.  Playwright/teacher Jeffrey Sweet, also, was of great help in illumining the show.  Artistic New Directions provided a community of artists and fellow students who supported and inspired my process.  

In 1999, Molly Lyons invited me to perform "Lilia!," for the first time in full-length as a work-in-progress at the Greenwood Studio in Seattle.  Until then, it had only been performed in 10-15 minute increments.  This led to an invitation to debut "Lilia!" in Kelowna, British Columbia shortly afterwards.  

In April, 2000, "Lilia!" performed in New York City in entirety and received additional direction from mime artist/director/teacher Gregg Goldstein.  

Gabriel Barre began directing the show in 2001 for performances at The Players Club in New York, the Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival, The Cape Cod Theatre Project (assistant-directed by Steven Yuhasz) and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  His insights were invaluable.  Together, we took a fresh look at the material which prompted many rewrites that eventually led me back to a clearer and deeper sense of the original text.  

As "Lilia!" moves forward, I continued to plumb the depths of each nuance and life lesson to be gleaned from my grandmother’s experiences.  Lilia often said, “I’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of what’s inside me - what I can give of myself to mankind.”  She was constantly trying to teach and guide me, but I wasn’t always receptive.  Well, it's never too late.

The lessons continue as I have the privilege of performing this play - not only as a tribute to my grandmother, but as an ever-evolving experience between actor and audience.

Libby Skala


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