Most arts organizations operate under structures that are indistinguishable from what you might expect to find in any conventional corporate or bureaucratic setting, with an easily-understood organizational chart (even if it’s never actually charted) and a clear understanding, even in a culturally egalitarian environment, that at the top of that chart is an individual with clear decision-making authority.
Most. But not all. From its beginning — 20 years ago — Louisville’s Looking for Lilith Theatre Company has always operated with multiple artistic co-directors.
Truly collaborative leadership is a rare thing to achieve and sustain. But over its two decades, the company has built a compelling body of work that stands as evidence that melding a genuinely collaborative leadership model with a deeply collaborative sense of mission is not only workable but a powerful way to create art that matters. The three people who founded LFL in 2001 are Shannon Woolley Allison, Jennifer Thalman Kepler and Trina Fischer (years later they were joined by Kathi E.B. Ellis, who served as a artistic co-director until her death in 2019).
Jennifer Thalman Kepler described the core of the mission as, “Lifting up women’s voices to interrogate historical events and different topics from women’s points of view. But over time that has evolved to become even more inclusive. We’ve always worked from an intersectional point of view, but as we’ve grown, we’ve grown and evolved — and now we walk through more intersections. So now, we think of our mission as lifting up underheard and underrepresented voices and being a space where there can be multiple voices that may or may not be women’s, but reflect class, gender, race, and all of those different facets.”
As Allison tells the story, the impetus to found the company emerged during a frustrated late-night phone call with her life-long friend Fischer. Fischer, at the time, was living in Chile on a Fulbright Fellowship, and Allison was living in Denver, working for a theater company that consisted of eight members — seven men and her.
“I was miserable,” she recalled in an interview. “We were doing a lot of David Mamet, and I was playing nothing but prostitutes and ballbusters. I called Trina in Chile in the middle of the night and told her I wanted to leave that company and start something where we could create our own work. Trina was, like, ‘cool’… But we didn’t have any idea how to do that.”
But they discovered that NYU offered a graduate program in applied theatre — they applied, and were admitted. In that program, they found a like-minded partner, Kepler, a native of Northern Virginia.
And, in 2001, the trio founded Looking for Lilith and staged their first production in New York.
From that first production, “Crossing Mountains,” LFL has shown how its sense of mission models its working practices to create art of enduring value. It’s a play that recounts the history and impact of the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, Kentucky. And to build their story, Fischer and Allison went into the community, conducted oral interviews, delved into letters and written records and found a way to tell the story in the voices of those who had lived the experience.
“Crossing Mountains” has endured as a play, with a number of revivals over the years (I saw a superb performance in 2017, as part of LFL’s 15th anniversary festival).
Five years after the New York premiere of “Crossing Mountains,” the company relocated to Louisville, and that technique — devising plays by going into communities and allowing people to reveal their stories in their own voices has become one of the company’s signature approaches, and furnished a powerful voice to people in this community. The stunning 2015 production “Prevailing Winds,” which explores the human impact of environmental degradation on the “chemical corridor” in Louisville’s West End, was an extraordinary creation – and the credits listed nearly 20 people as authors. It’s a technique that inspired works about the lives of Iraqi women, about cyberbullying and teen suicide, and a bilingual work rooted in the company’s long-lasting Faith Stories Project partnership with rural Guatemalan women (a project initiated by Kepler).
But a typical Looking for Lilith season might offer three types of productions, including devised plays, revisionist approaches to iconic works (like an all-female production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” and contemporary scripted works, mostly by regional playwrights like Diana Grisanti or Nancy Gall Clayton.
And LFL’s history of collaborations is impossible to quantify, and includes local schools and a rich array of community organizations
Last year — the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States — should have been a capstone year for LFL. The company had planned to stage a full production around the centennial. But then theatres went dark.
Still, Looking for Lilith persisted and pivoted. First, they adapted their Kentucky Suffrage Project into a series of eight streaming videos called “From Bardstown to Broadway: the Road to Votes for Women.” Those videos, filmed at historic locations in Louisville, tell the story of the fight for suffrage as experienced and reported in accounts from Louisvillians who were part of the suffrage movement. (Looking for Lilith’s Youtube channel is a treasure trove of content).
Then, more recently, the company started doing something new with that project.
“From Bardstown to Broadway: The Suffrage Driving & Walking Tour” offers an in-person piece of moving theater where LFL narrators and actors lead audience members to still existing historical sites and share the stories of Louisville Suffragists in the places where they lived and worked.
The next round of tours runs Aug. 27-29. For information and to make reservations, go to the company’s website. It’s a “pay what you can” event, with a suggested ticket price of $15, and each tour is limited to 15 people (so make your reservations early).
Looking ahead, Allison says that the company has ambitious plans to celebrate its own 20th anniversary. On Sept. 18, there will be a party and performance at the Kentucky Center that will feature the 19 members of the ensemble performing selections from across the company’s history. In November, the company will offer a hybrid live/virtual Story Circle project that originated during the pandemic with funding from the Kentucky Foundation For Women. And, as you might expect, it’s an intensely collaborative project that brings together small, diverse groups to explore how the pandemic affected them in a mix of digital and live storytelling… including stop-motion animation.