Over a decade and a half ago, Shannon Woolley Allison, co-founder and one of the current heads of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, was in a position familiar to most women actors: She was playing a crap role in a play written by men, starring men, directed by men. It was pretty unfulfilling.
From that moment of frustration came the formation of Looking for Lilith, an unabashedly feminist-forward, social-justice focused, community-oriented theater company that turns 15 this year.
To celebrate, Allison — along with the other co-founders, current company heads, company members and a host of other collaborators — are throwing “UNHEARD [outloud],” an ambitious and exciting theater festival featuring six plays as well as script readings and workshops from July 13-23.
Insider caught up with Allison about some of the highlights Louisville can expect.
The fully produced shows are split between Lilith-led production, and shows brought in by community partners, including Pandora Productions, the newly formed Resonant Light Theater Project, and guest artist Adanma Onyedike Barton.
Lilith’s “Crossing Mountains” is actually a remount of its first show, but the other two productions Lilith is mounting are original creations.
“I’m Wearing My Own Clothes!” — a play the company commissioned and is written by local playwright and frequent Lilith collaborator Nancy Gall-Clayton — is about Dr. Mary Walker, who saved lives on the battlefields of the Civil War while also fighting the assumption that she shouldn’t be on those battlefields.
“One of the things she did to facilitate being able to treat men on the field of battle was, of course, she wore pants, because that was more practical,” says Allison. “And she was often accused of wearing her husband’s clothes, hence the title.’”
The production, like many of Lilith’s show over the years, sheds light on an unheard voice or perspective from history.
“Dr Mary Walker is someone … unless you’re a deep Civil War scholar or a deep women’s history scholar, you’re not gonna know much about her,” says Allison.
She also points out that the Civil War is an era in our collective history that is generally told from the point of view of the men involved.
“When you think of the women involved in the Civil War, you think of Scarlett O’Hara,” she says.
The second new production from Lilith, “Defining Infinity,” is an expansion of a 10-minute play.
“Trina (Fischer, another Lilith co-founder) actually started working on this project about 25 years ago as an undergrad, and it started as a 10-minute piece, based on interviews of people who identify as bisexual,” explains Allison.
At the time, and even now, the LGBTQ community sometimes had problems including bisexual voices and other folks who weren’t in an easily definable place on the spectrum of sexuality. Since then, the issue has become even more complex as the community struggles to address and include an array of sexualities and gender identities.
“We talked with a lot of trans folk, people who identify as non-binary and people who identify as queer in all of the many manifestations of what that can be,” says Allison. “The spectrum can continually be divided and sub-divided into tiny little fractions of light.”
The productions from guest artists broach other topics — some political, some personal.
“Look Me in the Eye” is devised by the newly formed Resonant Light Theatre Project and uses monologue and sketch comedy to address sexism, consent and interpersonal relationships.
Guest artist Barton presents a one-person show, “Lost and Found,” that lifts up the voice and story of a woman who has suffered multiple miscarriages — a conversation and viewpoint with which people still struggle.
And finally, Pandora Productions’ cabaret “Still I Rise!” is an exploration of the women composers of Broadway.
For a company as involved in outreach and community work, the workshops and staged readings are just as important as the fully produced shows. One of those workshops is an exploration of the techniques of Theatre of the Oppressed, a political theater movement started in Brazil in the 1970s led by organizer and activist Augusto Boal.
It’s a technique Lilith uses in a variety of projects, including its trips to Guatemala to work with women’s groups there.
“One of the principles of that is generosity of pedagogy,” says Allison. “It’s not a pedagogy that any one person owns; it is meant to be shared, and we believe really strongly that theater is a means for revolution and that theater is a means for rehearsing for life.”
Devising tools is another skillset Lilith will be offering to the community.
“Devised theater” is a term that can get thrown around a lot, but some of the more casual theater-goers aren’t familiar with the process. Basically, instead of starting with a script and then hiring actors and a director, devised theater starts with a bunch of artists in a room and a basic idea. From there, the actors and director — and anyone else involved — create a script.
But it requires concrete and useable tools to help the devisors.
“We’re one of the few companies (in Louisville) that produces primarily devised work,” says Allison. “We’ve got 15 years experience in developing skills and structures for doing that, and we’re eager to share them.”
Other “UNHEARD [outloud]” offerings include workshops on gender, racial justice, theater for middle-school girls, and staged readings from other local playwrights who are still fine-tuning their plays.
The festival promises to be a jam packed 10 days of theater, social justice and community organizing.
For a complete schedule of “Unheard [outloud]” and prices for tickets and ticket packages, visit Lilith’s website. All performances, workshops and readings will be held at the Clifton Center, 2117 Payne St.