Talking to Padraic Lillis, founder and artistic director of The Farm Theater, I feel a surge of familiarity. Maybe it’s something from my family’s Midwestern farming past, but when he talks about his work I recognize an honorable reticence, cautious hope, and, maybe most particularly, the steady commitment to action that makes things grow. This is somebody who is going to keep doing what he’s doing, whether or not it is noticed—who thinks things out with the goal of being of service. As his plans and purpose roll out in the course of our conversation, I am sold.
The idea for Lillis’s company, The Farm, came from his great love of baseball and takes as its inspiration the farm system—the metaphor being that early-career writers and theater artists could be brought together in a conscious system that would develop them as players, with eyes toward the big leagues—whatever that means for each of them. A place of intergenerational mentorship. A place to take apart strengths and rebuild them, to break down weaknesses into manageable parts, to provide insight and experience and time on the field. The company’s name may not be a reference to agriculture, but the goal is growth all the same.
Time on the field—that’s what catches my heart more than anything else, especially in an environment of new play development in which producers are squeezed, space is scarce and expensive, and where a writer’s “successful” beginning in the field might mean having up to twenty readings of a play that doesn’t ever get produced. In my experience, both as a parent and as a theater producer, time on the field—getting your hands into a game or into the dirt, thinking on your feet, making decisions and dealing with the physical consequences of them—is where lasting learning and growth happen. Any theater community that is alive and kicking has nothing to lose and everything to gain from this kind of development of artists.
The Farm’s College Collaboration Project embodies Lillis’s vision in a unique and visionary way: an early-career writer (someone with at least two full productions of plays of any length under their belt) is chosen to participate and guaranteed three distinct productions at three colleges across the nation over the course of one academic year. The playwright writes for a theme suited to college production, aiming to keep the casts young and the topics engaging. The directors, designers, and cast will be different each time. There will be time to collaborate with students, time off to rewrite, chances to see the work up on its feet, and guided methods to process feedback from collaborators and audiences alike.
The process starts with a commission for the playwright and with three colleges agreeing to produce the play, sight unseen. It’s a big leap of faith for an institution—especially since most college departments tend to be slow and methodical in their programming, while new play development has to have a certain amount of chaotic flexibility to thrive. So far, Lillis has arranged the productions in places where he knows the head of the theater departments, or where a faculty member with whom he already has a close relationship will direct the production. Because each collaboration is built on an existing professional relationship, there is a baseline of trust and shared sensibilities. Colleges are often looking to add new work to their curricula, but if they aren’t in the heart of a thriving theater scene—say in Chicago or New York—they oftentimes have no idea where to begin and don’t have the resources to wade through the work of early career writers to see what might fit their program.
The playwright then picks a theme, and starts a process of interviewing actors who will be involved in the production about that theme. Last year’s writer, Lindsay Joy, wanted to explore social media; she ended up with a drama, In the Event of My Death, about eight small-town twenty-somethings who come together to mourn and celebrate after the suicide of a mutual friend. Micheline Auger, the current commission playwright, has done a series of Skype interviews about gender with students from all three schools she’ll be working with. Her inciting question is: When did you first become aware you had a gender? Throughout the early stages, Lillis checks in with the writers, asking, “Do you need anything from me? Can I help you?” Otherwise, he stays out of their way, and writers are free to explore in any way they choose.
I ask Lillis about the notes process with so many cooks in so many production kitchens. This very question, he tells me, came up at one of the talkbacks they hosted at a school: Who protects the playwright, when each director and three different teams of designers and actors are all needing something from her? Lillis (who does not direct any of the college productions) sees himself as an advocate for the playwright and has the added advantage of getting to be an outside voice for the writer. He adds, “Privately, my job is to push the playwright.” He’ll help weed through the notes and say, “Listen, you have to investigate that, that’s a really interesting question. You can go deeper. There’s something more.” He’s there to support and make sure it’s the playwright’s play and voice, but also push them for growth in line with his metaphoric farm-team vision. Both he and playwright Joy talk about a decisive moment in working on her play when she chose to cut a joke from the opening moments. They both saw that her writerly bag of tricks included the ability to get an audience on her side through laughter, an exercise that had worked well and was reinforced in a reading format. But it wasn’t necessarily serving the play in production, and Lindsay was glad she could let go. “I tend to use humor as a portal to something a little deeper and darker […] but sometimes, you just need to let the characters sit in the deep dark stuff without a reprieve.”
In email exchanges with playwright Auger, who is in the interview/first draft stage of the process, I note that when writers start a new play, they are usually writing for themselves—at least in the beginning. I ask if she feels any shift in focus, or responsibility, as she begins this project. “I’m definitely thinking about the students and the communities,” she responds. “I’m thinking about the conversations about gender. I’m thinking about what was said but also what was not said, the ‘thing’ that was in the room as we spoke.” The process seems to be highlighting, for her, this elemental presence—this “thing” that exists with and between collaborators, audiences, even in rehearsal and theater spaces. It’s like in therapy, when there is the client, the therapist, and the room. It is, she explains, “the thing that connects us all, even as I go about my day, and the play works on the back of my mind or shows up on the subway or in passing conversations. I trust that thing is serving all of us, and my job is to listen, show up, and try to serve back.”
Another of Lillis’s stated goals with the college collaborations is expressed in his decision to find colleges that are far flung across the nation. So many theater artists, he says, left somewhere else for a reason and came to New York. There are ways that writers prioritize New York audiences—we can all, he says, write for a familiar downtown theater crowd through rhythm and habit. Going out of the city—to Ohio, Kentucky, Wooster, Upstate New York, Western Florida—affords emerging writers the experience of being somewhere where they can experience being an outsider. Kentucky is going to laugh in a different place than Ohio, and yet some things are going to be universal. The three productions on each others’ heels is a kind of laboratory for dissecting a writer’s own cultural affinities and habits. Take it apart and put it back together, farm-team style.
When a solid draft of the play is written, Lillis brings the writer to do a workshop, spending three days around the table in New York (with New York actors reading the roles) in August, before the school year gets into full swing. Faculty and students from all three colleges are invited to come. And they do. For Joy’s play, Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, sent two faculty members and three students. The other two schools, Ashland University in Ohio and Clark University in Massachusetts, couldn’t participate in the full three days, but one of them was able to come to the reading at the end. This year—the second year of the project—all three schools (SUNY Brockport, Centre College, and the University of West Florida) are planning on coming, and two are bringing students who will act in the plays when they come to their respective schools.
Joy felt the power of this early engagement—from interviews through rehearsal and finally performance—particularly with the students for whom she was creating the roles. “I had expected the students to like/be excited by the characters. Meaning, I knew they would be into playing people their own age, dealing with issues they really deal with,” she tells me. “But I ended up taking so many of their direct stories as nuggets for inspiration that they ended up being these bottomless pools of knowledge on their characters. I can point to specific emails/calls that I had with students that helped me clarify the story. I didn’t think it would end up feeling so collaborative, but I’m so thankful for it.”
Lillis concurred that the investment the students had for the entire duration of the process was truly impressive. The students who participated in the workshop in New York, in particular, he tells me, “got the most out of it and were the most connected to it. They matured more than I ever could have imagined.” He describes one student, who started on day one of the workshop very shy, and by the third day was running the conversation. She had wanted to be a dramaturg, and now—with real world experience under her belt—she’s going on to Portland Center Stage to intern as one.
For Lillis, this is further proof that college students need to work on new plays as part of their education, period. As they transition from an educational environment, which favors stability in an effort to build a body of knowledge, they need to be thrown into the messiness of how theater is really made: through change, process, failure, and give and take. In the transition from student artist to working artist, these commissions provide a truly unique framework that honors students and where they are in their lives—in theme, point of view, and process.
After the workshop, schools dive into productions. Lillis found in the initial year that it worked better for the playwright to fly out during the first week for a couple days of rehearsal to answer questions and help set the tone (communicating by phone and email for the rest of the rehearsal process), and then have them back at the end to see the performances. After the three regional college productions, the project culminates with a reading in New York, coming full circle with a cast comprised of a mix of students from each of the three productions and rounded out by professional New York actors.
For Joy’s play, Lillis invited NYC’s Stable Cable Lab Company to this final reading, on a hunch that they would like this play and might be interested in working on it themselves in New York. They were. The company signed on to produce it at IRT in Manhattan this summer with members of the company acting, and with Lillis himself directing. It seems like the perfect culmination for the long-term collaboration.
Joy, who is understandably nervous and excited about the upcoming New York production, is in the midst of rewriting—again. “I’m really digging into the second act,” she tells me. “The three productions were so vital to this—nothing brings text into sharp focus like the crisis of production.” In the normal circumstance of an indie theater production, she might be in the same state, but would absolutely be diving in without the knowledge and experience of three full productions under her belt. She is grappling with questions from deep inside a process and building on hard won answers from over a year’s worth of digging.
As he heads into year two of the College Collaboration Project, Lillis is adding a second college-based endeavor, a partnership between four community colleges called the Barnstorming Project. Christopher Gabriel Núñez will collaborate with students and faculty to create a new piece with the subject of race at its center. The work of the Farm and this organic growth seems so full and engaging, I wonder again about his goals for a metaphorical theatrical farm team. If the majors are Broadway, or big regional or Off-Broadway theaters (which they may be for some writers and not for others) does he think he can get them there? “I can’t guarantee the majors,” he says, “but when you walk into the interview at Juilliard—you have a sense of who you are, that you belong. Being a great writer at your desk is different than being a great writer in three dimensions.”
As we wrap up our conversation, almost as an afterthought, Lillis shares that he has a goal, secret and unspoken, a promise to himself. He plans that the College Collaboration will feature women playwrights for the first three years, at the very least. There’s that modesty again, that farmer on the farm team. No fanfare, just setting things to right through action; putting his money, time, and commitment out on the field—and seeing what happens.
Stable Cable Lab Co. presents IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH by Lindsay Joy, directed by Padraic Lillis. August 6 – 21 at IRT Theater. Produced by Margaret Santa Maria and featuring Lisa Jill Anderson, Lillith Fallon, Breanna Foister, Cory Kosel, Ian Poake, John Racioppo, Samantha Strelitz, and Kara Young. Sets by Doss Freel, lighting by Katy Atwell, sound by Andy Evan Cohen. For tickets and more info: www.stablecablelabco.org.
For further information on Padraic Lillis and the Farm Theater, visit www.thefarmtheater.org.
ContributorAddie Johnson Talbott
ADDIE JOHNSON TALBOTT is an actor, producer, and theater mom. She is an artistic associate of Rising Phoenix Rep, with whom she has produced numerous plays regionally and in the Off-Broadway and Indie Theater.