Single prop unpacks the program of ‘Suitcase Dreams’

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Theatre LILA’s production of The Suitcase Dreams runs Sept. 18–28.

Artists are often at their best when challenged by the limitations of a single idea, entity or concept. Such may prove to be the case with The Suitcase Dreams, a new and unusual collaborative performance work by Madison-based Theatre LILA.

Utilizing a single prop — a suitcase — a team of 14 actors, five writers, four designers and three musicians have created a series of vignettes that include dance, drama, music and poetry. The dozen or so scenes run from a minute to 20 minutes each, and range from the absurd to the dramatic.

The Suitcase Dreams, which opens Sept. 18 in Promenade Hall in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, features the work of Tony Award-winning actor Karen Olivo, Madison playwright Gwendolyn Rice, UW-Stevens Point theater professor Tyler Marchant, and Theatre Lila co-artistic directors Mike Lawler and Jessica Lanius.

“This is definitely a unique project for us,” says Lanius, who is directing the show. 

Although scene development began with the work of individual writers, the actors and musicians aided the creative process, Lanius says. Such cross-disciplinary collaborations have become a hallmark for Theatre LILA, which was founded in New York City in 2004 and relocated to Madison in 2013.

“The style of the piece and its vignettes lends itself to the style of theater that I tend to lean toward as a director — very collage-like,” Lanius says. “The collaborative idea of having numerous writers allowed us to play pretty hard creatively. It can be quirky, offbeat, and not so precious, and that’s kind of freeing.”

In addition to the performances, Theatre LILA is collaborating with area school districts to hold a series of free theater workshops conducted by Lanius and Olivo for teachers and students at Verona High School, Waunakee High School and Malcolm Shabazz City High School. Through movement and improvisation exercises, educators and students will devise their own short theater pieces inspired by the creative possibilities inherent in a suitcase. 

Lanius, a Wisconsin native who spent 12 years in the New York theater scene before returning to the Midwest, gave her writers limited direction, instructing them to focus on a single suitcase prop. After four months of work, The Suitcase Dreams took shape and the creative team went to work.

“The process has been inspiring,” Lawler says. “Jessica asked us to start by imagining a tower of suitcases. An actor pulls a case off the top and the story begins.” 

 Many of the scenes were workshopped in early summer with Theatre LILA’s Actors’ Lab 360, an ensemble of theater professionals who met once a week for 10 weeks to improvise, explore and practice their craft. During the formal rehearsal process, which began Aug. 18, the writers worked with the cast to develop the final content for the production.

“It won’t be finished until opening night,” Lanius says. “The challenge with a new work is it keeps evolving. You keep discovering new things and adding that to the performance. It’s both thrilling and terrifying.”

Theatre LILA’s 2014–15 Season

In spring, the company will collaborate with Children’s Theater of Madison in an original adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The production will run March 7–29 in The Playhouse at Overture Center.


Theatre LILA’s production of The Suitcase Dreams runs Sept. 18–28 at Promenade Hall in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St. For more information, visit

Ongoing throughout the season, Theatre LILA’s Actors Lab 360 will rigorously investigate and explore physical theater techniques and experimental ideas at the Madison Opera Center, 335 W. Mifflin St. The opera rehearsal space will function as a “theater gym,” allowing invited actors, designers, directors and writers to work out once a week, developing new ideas and theatrical concepts.

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