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Theatre LILA takes a unique approach in its first Madison production
Stories to tell by company recently relocated from New York City

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A dozen strangers, including students and teachers, lie on the cold wood floor of Madison Opera's rehearsal hall. Their bare feet are smudged with dirt after running around a makeshift stage for two hours. Their eyes are closed, and their chests rise and fall quickly. They have just performed an impromptu dance piece. Now a calm, reassuring voice urges them to find their breath and focus on it, much like a yoga teacher would. When they open their eyes, they'll receive a new assignment that feels like play but yields more than applause. It helps them tell personal stories in a physical, theatrical way.

This type of storytelling is at the core of Theatre LILA, a New York City project Jessica Lanius moved to Madison recently. Madison audiences may remember Lanius from her lead role in Forward Theater Company's 2010 production of In the Next Room, or the vibrator play. Or from the production of Anne of Green Gables she directed and choreographed for Children's Theater of Madison last fall. Or as someone who visited their living room to sell pain relievers, home-improvement supplies or a new car via national TV commercials.

Even though Lanius has helped advertise all sorts of everyday products, Theatre LILA isn't an ordinary acting troupe. It addresses tough issues such as the achievement gap through movement, drama and more, beginning with a performance of No Child... at the Overture Center Jan. 9-12.

"My hope is that this will be the first of many performances in Madison that explore the fusion of dance, theater, storytelling, poetry and movement," Lanius says.

LILA's leading lady

Lanius has an easy Midwestern smile, a warm and charming voice, and a gentle confidence. Her auburn hair frames her fine features and fair complexion, and she moves with the grace of a dancer. It's no wonder she has been featured in commercials for everything from Claritin to V-8, as well as Toyota, Special K, Lowe's and Babybel Cheese. Some of her defining traits must stem from growing up in Sauk Prairie, in a family full of artists.

"My dad and brother are industrial designers; my mother and grandmother are visual artists," she explains. "It was an environment that encouraged expression."

From an early age, Lanius found ways to express herself through performance. As a youngster she was "constantly dancing around" and creating stages in unlikely places.

"There's a story my mother tells of me silencing an entire diner with my rendition of Three Little Monkeys," she says with a laugh. On another occasion, Lanius' mother answered the door and was surprised to find a group of neighbors who'd been personally invited to a production in the Lanius family's basement. The friends were ushered downstairs, to a world-premiere puppet show Lanius had created.

Lanius was also inspired by high school teachers who directed her in show choir.

"For the first time, I was encouraged to take risks, to put myself out there. I began to see how powerful it was to connect with the audience and reach out to the community, to tell a story," she says.

These teachers also showed Lanius that majoring in theater in college was viable. This convinced her to shelve her previous career plan: becoming a psychotherapist.

Responding to crisis

While in the theater program at UW-Stevens Point, Lanius had another epiphany about the power of performance. While working part-time at a local Perkins restaurant, she got to know a fellow waitress who frequently came to work covered with bruises. Lanius realized the woman was being abused by her spouse but struggled to find a way to help.

"She was crying," Lanius recalls. "I'm only 20 years old [then], and I don't know what to do. Her husband is beating her up, but she keeps coming in to work."

At that point, Lanius was beginning to experiment with modern dance and choreography in her college coursework. The harrowing situation inspired her to create.

"I felt so passionately that I wanted to help this woman, to raise awareness about her situation.… I decided to compose a dance duet about domestic violence in hopes that she would see it and things would change," Lanius says.

The piece, 16 Women While You Watched, references the number of domestic assaults that take place in the U.S. during the time it would take to watch the performance. Not only was audience reaction to the duet overwhelmingly positive, but it was nominated for an ACDFA/Dance Magazine Student Choreographer award in 1996. As a result, Lanius had the opportunity to dance in the piece at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

"It was my first taste of success," she says. "Not just acknowledgement that people liked it, but people were moved. That's why I do what I do."

After college, in the late 1990s, Lanius decided to continue her theater studies in an MFA program near New York City.

"I always knew that I wanted to go to New York to get the training and the tools to do the best work I could and learn from the best teachers," she says.

Her search led her to Rutgers University, where Maggie Flanigan, Will Esper and Loyd Williamson (former pupils of theater legend Sanford Meisner) were central to the graduate curriculum. In this immersive, intensive training program, "the floodgates opened" for Lanius. She also met theater director and fellow grad student Andy Arden Reese during this period. The two found they shared an aesthetic and a passion for "expanding the theatrical terrain with visually stimulating performances...entering into theater from a physical place."

From Manhattan to Madison

To keep pursuing their own projects and their unique creative process, the kindred spirits co-founded Theatre LILA in New York City, in 2004, after they had both graduated. The company's mission was to create performances using the "360° actor," a physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional being, in a fusion of drama, dance, music and sound.

But this approach didn't just spring from a grand concept of multidisciplinary performance.

"The truth is, I'm terrible at being an actor," Lanius confesses. "I'm not passionate about getting parts. I don't like sitting around waiting for a job."

Admiring the work of such prominent female directors as Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses), Anne Bogart (co-founder of SITI Company) and Julie Taymor (The Lion King; Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark), she was much more interested in creating her own projects than being cast in others' work. Living in New York City and starting a theater company was expensive, though, so Lanius waited tables, taking theater and TV roles when they were offered. She also found work in national commercials to fund her pursuits.

Lanius used her residuals from this work as seed money for Theatre LILA. Soon the group gained a following off-off-Broadway, attracting more trained actors and designers who would work collaboratively for up to six months on a project. From 2004 to 2008, Theatre LILA mounted a dozen productions, often adapting classic works such as August Strindberg's Miss Julie, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and William Shakespeare's King Lear.

As the decade came to a close, Lanius considered returning to the Madison area. She had a young son she wanted to raise near the rest of her family. Theatre LILA had made great strides, but it was hard for one small company to make an impact in an arts-saturated market like New York City.

"Madison was primed for the kind of theater that we do. I thought it would be a great artistic home. And it was my home," she says.

Performance meets policymaking

Lanius chose Nilaja Sun's evocative, award-winning No Child... for Theatre LILA's first Madison production. She directs, while Milwaukee-based actress Marti Gobel stars. (Full disclosure: When I worked for Forward Theater Company, I met both Lanius and Gobel when the troupe staged In the Next Room.)

Based in part on Sun's experiences working with at-risk youth in New York City schools, the one-woman play examines the challenges facing the public education system in the wake of No Child Left Behind legislation. The story follows a struggling actor who tries to inspire the "worst class" in New York City's Malcolm X High School by casting them in a play. Over the course of the performance, Gobel portrays teachers, students, parents, administrators, janitors, security guards and more.

Lanius says "staggering" statistics on educational disparities motivated her to take action.

"I was really caught up in discussions about the achievement gap over the past several years," she says. "Unfortunately, they echo what's happening in schools across the country. I wanted to add to the conversation in my own way, to keep all the stakeholders talking about solutions."

The play is food for thought rather than an indictment of the system, Lanius adds.

"No Child... really demonstrates the impact one teacher can have," she says.

Beyond the script

Inspired by elements of the No Child... script, Lanius reached out to local schools in 2013. This included organizing in-school workshops for students at Malcolm Shabazz City High School and coordinating low-cost matinee performances of No Child... for other area students in conjunction with the Overture Center's Community Arts Access Program.

Through movement and improvisational exercises, educators and students created short theater pieces based on their own experiences in school, from forging a special bond with a teacher to getting into a playground fight. Titled No Story Left Behind, this collage of funny and poignant stories will come to life in a free performance at the Overture Center on Jan. 11.

Like much of Lanius' work, these workshops emphasize movement-based exploration. She says her unique rehearsal process is also essential. Like improv comedy, it's "physical, fun and allows for exploration of ideas without a script," she notes.

Lanius spends much of her time doing this type of outreach because she knows everyone has stories to tell, including people living on the margins.

"I love watching people's stories from the workshops, and I love sharing them," she says." When you watch someone take that brave step to open themselves opens up the audience. In the end, we're more connected to each other and to the community."

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