Theater director Lily Wolff’s career has rarely followed the traditional path. From her cosmopolitan upbringing, to her interest in Devised Theater, to her freelancing business plan, Wolff is carving out her own course in a city that appreciates unique trajectories.
Austin theater-goers are reaping the benefits of Wolff’s prolific talent. As she prepares for the opening of the second of three directed plays in 2018, I sat down with Wolff to learn more about her life, the Austin theater scene, and why the arts could benefit from our support.
Getting to Austin (by Way of Everywhere)
Wolff, who was born in Thailand but grew up in the UK and France, was always drawn to theater and performance. “I started my first theater company when I was seven,” she told me. Wolff studied in the United States during her junior year of high school, then returned later to attend The University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Theater and Dance.
It was in Austin that Wolff found her calling. “Part of me knew that acting wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. Wolff spent her last two years of college focusing on directing. After graduating, she began working as an assistant director for shows at UT as well Austin venues such as ZACH Theatre, Long Center for the Performing Arts, and Capital T Theatre. During this time, Wolff began to be drawn towards a new and exciting type of theater work.
Exploring the Boundaries of Theater
Devised Theater occurs when a group collaboratively creates a performance piece from scratch. “Those pieces always stood out to me,” Wolff recounted. “I wondered how I could do that.” She found her answer in a one-year program at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.
“That year helped me realize that I wanted to think about doing my work differently,” Wolff said. “I saw how you could change the experience, blurring the the boundary between theater and performance art, and confusing the audience/performer relationship.”
Once she grasped how to generate this type of work, she knew Austin would be the city to implement her learnings. “I loved the theater community here,” Wolff said. “At that time, Austin was such a ‘yes’ space. Everybody wanted to see anything that anybody was working on. People would always collaborate. It felt like a free, open, and encouraging space to make work.”
Wolff began implementing her methods in Austin as a director. Austin noticed.
Lily Wolff’s New Direction
In 2014, Wolff began receiving invitations to direct for small festivals, and her work always stood out. “It was kind of weird,” she admitted. “Both the working with me and the end product.”
But that weirdness gained her exposure, and soon theater companies were inviting her to direct new works. This, I learned, is not the way the process usually works. When directors also run their own theater companies, freelancing is a rarity.
“Coming out of college, I was told that no one does that,” Wolff said when describing her freelance directing. She hopes to encourage theater companies to work with directors and casts outside of their core company members, by showing how the model can work.
In Wolff’s mind, this is how the best art will get made. “I want theater companies to keep growing and stretching their audience, and challenging themselves artistically,” she told me. “I think the work will get better because of that.”
As Austin grows and costs go up, it’s important to support the arts and our artists. Theaters are being closed due to rent increases, and the life of an artist can be challenging. Many in the theater community hope the accessibility that once defined Austin arts will endure. Wolff is certainly doing her part.
Keeping Theater Weird
As her career continues on its weird, explosive trajectory, Wolff is modeling the behavior she wants to see in the community, advocating for the artist and reminding theater companies what is possible, when talent and drive meet a theater environment willing to take risks. Stay open; stay inclusive; and don’t be scared to blur the lines and be weird.
In 2017, Wolff received the Critic’s Table Best Direction award for “Lungs,” and 2018 promises even more success. With the opening of “Cry It Out,” produced by Theatre En Bloc at ZACH Theater, Wolff partners with an established theater company that has opened its arms to a new collaborator. The result? Go see for yourself between May 4-20, 2018!
Stay up to date about Lily Wolff’s theater work on her website, lilywolff.com.
@theAustinot wants to know:
Will you be seeing Theatre En Bloc’s “Cry It Out” at ZACH Theatre?