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Interview with Gidion’s Knot director Lily Wolff

3 February 2014

lily wolff

Cap T Artistic Director Mark Pickell had the pleasure to ask Gidion’s Knot director Lily Wolff some questions about herself, the new directions program and Johnna Adam’s powerful script. Here is what she had to say.

How did you hear about our New Directions program and what made you interested in the program?

I’d had my eye on the New Directions program for a few years. For the first couple, I never thought that I would be considered. Then I moved to London for a year and couldn’t commit to the commute… Liz Fisher, who performed in Dying City, listening to me moan about having no idea how to get my foot in the door as a director and recommend I take a look at this program. She was right in thinking that the program is exactly what I was after and it really is unique. It’s a dream. It’s the chance to direct, which is what I live to do, and it actually pays you to do it unlike so many internships and fellowships out there. It’s a gem. Capital T should have thousands of applications every year for this program – it’s bold, it’s brave, and it’s professional, just like Capital T and the work they produce.

Why did you chose to direct Gidion’s Knot

Quite simply, I think it’s the best play I’ve ever read. It haunts me.

What was the first thing you ever directed for an audience?

I was in 3rd Grade. I caught the Shakespeare bug and decided to re-write Romeo & Juliet to “make it better.” I cast all my best friends and made the executive call that I would play Romeo. The Allegro Theatre Company, hastily founded, performed the play at a school assembly a few days later to much acclaim. I choked on the poison in the final scene. Best acting I ever did.

When was the moment you got bit by the theatre bug?

Front row at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth. I was, maybe, 5. My Mom took me to see Les Misérables. The lights dimmed and it got very dark. Suddenly, out of the darkness: a row of filthy, terrifying convicts glaring down at me, smog rolling off the edge of the stage and into my lap (what is THAT?!), swinging hammers, rattling chains like dogs, music so loud it shook my bones and scared me even more than the convicts, and a man singing “How long, oh Lord, before you let me die?”

What are some playwrights that you admire?

Pretty much all of them. But, to keep it short(ish), here are some that I’ve been obsessing over lately.  There’s this one playwright, don’t know if you’ve heard of her, Johnna Adams? She’s pretty great. I love her work. One play is wildly different from the next, but they’re ALL wild.

I’ve also had the honor and the pleasure of knowing Gabriel Dean, a popular name in this town, I know. Qualities of Starlight is another favorite play of mine, I was gutted to be in London when it was produced at the Vortex. I hope to encounter it again one day. I mean, how often do you get to hang a whole deer carcass onstage?

I’ve also been reading a lot of English playwrights after my year back over there – and have to stay loyal to that part of my heritage, so, Simon Stephens (I adore his short one-man play Sea Wall), Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem), Nick Payne (Constellations and Wanderlust), and the two Tims (Crouch & Etchells), in particular. While in London I also got the chance to work with two brilliantly talented writers, Duncan Macmillan and Melanie Wilson, both of whom I think make riveting work. I’ll talk more about Duncan in a minute, but Melanie makes absolutely break-taking multimedia solo performances – be that for a sole audience member or solo performer. She’s also a sound artist and has worked a lot with Katie Mitchell on her projects in Berlin and is an alumnus of my MA course at Central. I found my time with her especially explosive in the way that it made me consider the presence of sound in theatre/performance.

Can you tell us a little about your background and studies?

I grew up in Cornwall, which is a very, very rural part of England and then we moved to France around when I hit double digits. I spent a year in Houston when I was 16 and that really turned me onto the idea of coming the US for college, as it is such a difference experience to higher education in the UK. I spent 3 years at UT in the theatre department, which was where my transition from acting to directing really occurred. After graduating, I spent a year and half away from academia, assisting directors around town who I admired including Steven Dietz and Gabe Dean, directed a production of Stop Kiss at UT in collaboration with two graduate acting students, and enjoyed directing fellowships with two fabulous companies (community-engaged Cornerstone Theater Company and the new-play centered Contemporary American Theater Festival). Then I started getting really curious about the process of devising new work in a company… I was really attracted to a lot of work I was seeing here by companies like the Rude Mechs and The Duplicates, and decided to pursue a Masters degree in devised and experimental theatre. Going to drama school in London was a childhood dream of mine that had never faded away. I graduated from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in December with an MA in Advanced Theatre Practice.

What has it been like to work with two actors that are so well respected in Austin like Rebecca Robinson and Emily Erington?

I was, initially, incredibly intimidated to work with these two fabulous actors and notorious friends. Ok, I was scared. I was pretty scared. Yeah. What if they don’t like me?? What if I’m not cool enough to join their club?? They were so absolutely perfect at the audition. I could have sat and listened to them read the whole play (I think we only got about half way through…) So, I just thought, ok, here it goes. Emily and Rebecca are quite simply astounding. They are two of the most incredible women I have ever known and their work humbles me every day. They make mine better (thank god.) Their existing rapport makes the rehearsal room such a happy place for me, full of delicious moments and all-important silliness. I look forward to seeing them everyday and making mischief together. They’re funny, they’re smart, they’re collaborative, they’re unbelievably generous and hardworking. I trust them unconditionally with the play. I’m a very lucky director.

The playwright, Johnna Adams, is coming down to see the production during the run and do a talk back. This seems exciting and nerve-racking, how do you feel about her coming to see your production?

I am thrilled that I get to see her again and that she’ll be able to see her play come to life in her hometown! Johnna is brilliant. I desperately wanted to spend more time with her when she was working on Gidion’s Knot at CATF, but that was the only show I wasn’t working on. I’m really excited that our audience is going to get to put their questions to her and experience the thrill of meeting the woman behind the work. Yes, sure, it’s absolutely nerve-wracking, too, but my favorite way to direct is in collaboration with the playwright, so the notion of the playwright seeing the work is kind of a no-brainer. Johnna is also not a “scary” playwright figure, she is very easy-going, her presence is positive and supportive. While there is the constant desire to honor the writing, I know that what we all believe in is the magic of the live theatrical moment. After all, in performance, it’s OUR work. It ceases to be just their play or just my show or just the actors’ performances. I’m not nervous about the “challenge”, as it were, of authorship or ownership. I think we’re both just thinking about the people who will shortly be experiencing this story live with us for the first time.

If you could direct any show here in Austin what show would you love to share with the Austin community?

This one. So. Great.

I pitched another play to Mark as part of the New Directions interview process called Lungs. It’s by a young British playwright called Duncan Macmillan who also happens to write some of my favorite titles ever (The Most Humane Way To Kill A Lobster; Every Brilliant Thing; Don Juan Comes Back From The War). Lungs is next on my own personal list. It’s a stunning piece about a couple contemplating adding another life to our overpopulated planet, in all its terrible beauty. It exists in its own little world and the form is quite experimental. I’m hungry for an intense collaboration with a design team and Lungs is absolutely the show to do that with – it’s a world that needs to be built. It plays by its own rules and it’s going to take a great team to figure them out, a fusion of direction, dramaturgy and design. To hop back on the Johnna Adams train, there are several of her plays that I would love to get my hands on. The brutal drama Sans Merci (another all-female two-hander) and the equally brutal, though somewhat funnier, southern gothic murder mystery, Rattlers.

What’s next for Lily Wolff?

Well, I’d really love for one of those to be next! I hope that they can be next. At some point I need to decide where I want to live or if I care about owning a house ever in my future. Or having savings. Or getting to go on fancy holidays. But, all that can wait. Right now, I want to tell stories. So, as usual, my answer to that is: I don’t know.

What do you hope the audience is talking about when they leave Gidion’s Knot?

Well, firstly, I hope they’re not talking. I hope they’re very quiet. This play feels, to me, like witnessing a slow motion car-crash. Involving an 18 wheeler. And a school bus. I think there’s an initial shell-shock, followed by a very internal, emotional processing of the events – the mystery, really. THEN, once you’re on the other side of that, you get in a heated argument with your boyfriend or your best friend or the person sitting next to you, because you fundamentally disagree about what happened, or who’s to blame and why, or whether or not a story is dangerous. Part of what attracts me to the play is that, in my experience, it denies me any moral certainty. I have absolutely no black and white answers here. If only we lived in a world where the grey was more explored, more respected, more embraced, as we spend so much of our lives living in it. That’s what this play does for me. I hope it does the same for others!

  • Bruno Wolff

    I am very prejudiced being Lily’s oldest uncle, and her father’s oldest brother. I am also a Shakespeare devotee who only wishes he cloud remember more than four lines at once. In high school I played bit parts in a half dozen or so plays, including the Falstaff scenes from Henry IV, Part I. I say this to confirm that we are a family of dramatic devotion and are very proud of what Lily has accomplished. She really also follows her father footsteps as he has been in movie making for some 45 years.

    As you Brits say, good show, Lilly.
    Uncle B