Looking for Lilith opens its 15th anniversary season on Thursday, Oct. 27, with Karen Zacarías‘ “Legacy of Light.” The play follows two women scientists, separated by centuries, who struggle to understand the universe, and in doing so illuminate the human condition.
Insider caught up with director Kathi E.B. Ellis and company founder and actor Shannon Woolley Allison. They talked about the production, how the play serves Lilith’s mission, and some of the tools they’ve used to stay together for 15 years.
Ellis originally brought “Legacy of Light” to Lilith’s attention after viewing a previous production.
“I thought it was absolutely a Lilithian piece,” she says. “It lifts up the story of a pretty phenomenal woman scientist whose story got lost for almost two centuries, and it has a parallel story in the present, and deals with life and love and science and relationships.”
That scientist is Émilie du Châtelet, who advanced Newtonian physics in the 1800s, predicted the existence of infrared light, paved the way for Einstein, and did most of her work in secret because women weren’t allowed to practice science in France at the time. She, incidentally, was Voltaire’s mistress, which is not as important as the science stuff, but he does show up as her love interest in the play.
Lifting up the names and voices of lost women in history is integral to Looking for Lilith. Not only is it in their mission statement, it’s in their name.
“I came up with the name of the company before I founded the company actually,” says Woolley Allison. She learned the story of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, and became fascinated with the idea that this proto mythical figure had been either removed or demonized from Judaeo Christian religion due to her insistence that she be Adam’s equal.
So a play about a scientist whose name is mostly forgotten, despite her huge contributions to the modern world, is perfect.
Woolley Allison was quick to mention “Legacy of Light” doesn’t just lift up the name of historical ladies of science. “It’s not just Émilie du Châtelet who’s lost in the sauce, female scientists in 2016 are also consistently lost,” she says.
Woolley Allison plays modern-day scientist Olivia Browning. She’s not the only Lilith founder to appear in the play, she’s joined by founder Trina Fischer, as well as company member Karole Spangler and three additional actors. Lilith functions as an ensemble company, which means they have a number of actors who commit to appearing on stage and taking on other roles off stage in service of producing a season of theater.
Ellis spoke to the method Lilith uses to assigns roles.
“As we set our season, it’s really important for us … to reach out to our company members and say, ‘How many shows can you do this year? In a perfect world, what role — and I don’t just mean on stage — what role do you see yourself being involved?’” says Ellis.
She’s pleased “Legacy of Light” includes so many members of the ensemble. “It’s a tremendous way to start our anniversary season, to work with almost everybody in some aspect on stage or off stage.”
Woolley Allison gushed about the script, and not just because of its historical elements.
“(Playwright Zacarías) takes a concept that is traditionally thought of as ‘male,’ the lifting up of rational thought, and a concept that is traditionally female, which is the lifting up of magical storytelling, and marries them really beautifully,” she says.
“We have the two dynamic stories that happen two-and-half centuries apart, (but) what has become increasingly apparent is the skill with which Zacarías has embedded elements from each story in each time period,” she says, noting as the rehearsal process moved forward, her understanding of those parallels deepened. “There have been many sort of ‘A-ha’ moments in rehearsal, where all of us have sort of locked into that echo, that resonance.”
Zacarías’ structure also brings some science to the script. “The way in which she does it brilliantly suggests some of the science, the numbers, the math that Émilie figured out back in the 18th century,” says Ellis. “The way the playwright has dropped all that in reflects the big ideas Émilie brought to (Newtonian physics) and eventually led to Einstein’s view of the universe.”
“Legacy of Light” reflects the way people — artists, scientists, mathematicians — are all seeking to do the same thing: understand the universe and our place in it.
Looking for Lilith presents “Legacy of Light” Oct. 27-29 and 31, and Nov. 3-5 at 7:30 p.m. There is also a 2 p.m. matinee on Nov. 5. Tickets are $20. All performances are at The Henry Clay, 604 S. Third St.