Great promise surrounds this month’s debut of the newly formed Theatre LILA (pronounced “lee-lah”) in Madison. In addition to its New York connections and local roots, the new group has chosen a timely opening production that features one of Milwaukee’s most popular actors.
The company, which takes its name from the Sanskrit word for “a sense of play,” presents Marti Gobel in No Child, Nilaja Sun’s 2006 one-woman play.
“This play is one I have been attracted to for years,” Gobel says. “Jessica (Lanius, who directs the production) and I have been trying to find a way to work together on this for a long time. When it became possible, we were thrilled.”
The subject matter of No Child makes it the perfect opening salvo for the new company, Lanius says. Former educator Sun, who spent eight years teaching in some of New York City’s toughest schools, wrote the semi-autobiographical narrative as a one-woman show for herself.
“No Child is a play about one teacher’s experience with a challenging group of at-risk high school students that illuminates some of the problems many schools, teachers and students face in this country and in this city,” Lanius says. “Marti is an incredibly talented performer, an authentic and bold actor who makes strong choices, and I knew she would be a great choice to take on No Child.”
In the play, the teacher’s methodology to reach her students involves leading them in a production of Our Country’s Good, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1990 play about a real-life lieutenant who led a group of Australian convicts in a production of George Farquhar’s 1706 Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer. In both cases, education-through-theater become the driving force leading to education and understanding.
“I think there are two major themes to the play,” Gobel says. “First, young minds need arts integration no matter where they live, and second, teaching is hard. We owe all teachers our respect and support because they are doing a phenomenal amount of work with our children for very little pay and sometimes no appreciation from the children they teach.”
The play runs for four performances Jan. 9-11 in Promenade Hall at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. It’s the first of several productions the company plans to offer this season, Lanius says.
Gobel, raised by a single mother in San Diego who also was a teacher, understands the play’s themes. In all, she plays 17 different characters, including the school janitor, several teachers and many of the students.
The difficult work of preparing for a one-woman show — this will be Gobel’s fourth — is worth the effort when the message is one that needs to be told.
“We must allow all children the opportunity to express themselves and be exposed to the arts, and for actors such as myself to have a place in the school system to share what they know about their discipline,” Gobel says. “I’d like the audience to understand that theater and arts integration is extremely important for the survival of humanity.”
Theatre LILA is the result of a collaboration that began in 2004 between Lanius, a native of Sauk City in northern Dane County, and Andy Arden Reese, an actor/director and friend of Lanius from graduate school at Rutgers University. Reese is teaching at New York University’s experimental theater department while Lanius develops the company back home.
“I am leading the way here in Madison, and there is potential to still have a New York City wing to Theatre LILA in the future,” says Lanius, who might look familiar from playing Midwestern moms in television commercials for Special K, V8, Claritin and other consumer products.
Theatre LILA plans to mix local actors with Equity performers “to create provocative choreographic theater that arouses an audience and stimulates awareness, compassion and change,” Lanius says. Madison will remain the company’s home base, but Lanius hopes to establish relationships with performing arts centers throughout Wisconsin to create projects that will include community outreach initiatives related to her productions’ subject matter.
Along with No Child, for example, the company will host No Story Left Behind on Jan. 11. The free, 50-minute performance of school-centric stories is designed to introduce educators to Theatre LILA’s work and its performance ethos, Lanius says.
Theatre LILA’s production of Nilaja Sun’s No Child runs Jan. 9–11 in Promenade Hall at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. For more information, visit www.overturecenter.com/production/no-child.