Five Questions with Lisa Clair & Shannon Sindelar

Photo by Maria Baranova

I recently had the chance to catch up with two of my favorite creators, playwright/performer extraordinaire Lisa Clair and director Shannon Sindelar, to discuss their upcoming show WILLA’S AUTHENTIC SELF. It runs May 11 – 26th at MITU580 and you can get tickets here.

Hi Lisa, Hi Shannon! I’m excited that you’re working on this together. Have you collaborated in the past, and what brought you together on this project?

Lisa Clair (LC): Hi Dan!! Shannon and I collaborated on Normandy Sherwood’s wonderful play ‘Gentleman’s Choice’ in … gosh …2015?! We were also both in the same 2020/21 New Georges Audrey Residency cohort and the brilliant ladies over at NG suggested Shannon as a director and I was like – OH YES! And luckily she also said yes.

Shannon SindeIar (SS): I think it was actually 2016 that we did Normandy’s play. And that’s where I also met Hanlon Smith-Dorsey, who factors in pretty heavily with WILLA, playing multiple roles. I remember that Lisa was added a bit late to the rehearsal process, and the first time I worked with her I was like, Whoa, this girl is so compelling and polished. Then four years later we found ourselves in the Audrey Residency working on different projects, and I was so delighted by WILLA the first time I read it. The political aspect especially tickled me. And that residency was such a lifeline in an artistically kind of desolate time.

I’m struck by the description of Willa’s Authentic Self as a “golem story.” What makes a story…golemesque, particularly in the year 2023?

LC: Ok so – a Golem : a creature conjured out of clay in times of need to help, guide and protect. (Damn if 2023 doesn’t fit that bill – I don’t know what does!). I’ve always been drawn to the golem myth, since I performed in (oh my god 2009!?!) the Theatre de La Jeune Lune’s theatrical adaptation of Gustav Meyrink’s retelling of The Golem of Prague. For ‘Willa’ I am particularly inspired by Cynthia Ozick’s retelling of a female Golem in her messianic short story ‘Puttermesser and Xanthippe’. Ozicks line of inquiry of the female golem as child rang true to me as I questioned my own creative potential – especially in regards to creating…. a life! My daughter Rafaela was born in 2022 🙂

SS: The idea of golem as child is so apt, and well-crafted in Lisa’s imagining—this thing that brings you so much and in the process takes over/destroys what you once knew. It changes you on a fundamental level—your identity, your desire.

Lisa, I was lucky enough to catch your previous work The Making of King Kong back in 2018, which I would describe both as a monster-based narrative and delightfully maximalist in style. Does Willa’s Authentic Self feel like a departure, or a continuation, or a little bit of both?

LC: Oh definitely both. As you’ve noticed I have a monster fetish – so that’s nothing new. And this will be the second project I’ve collaborated on with our lead designer Caitlin Ayer: the maximalist genius behind the visual magic for both projects. But ‘Willa’ is more closely related to my other work outside of ‘Kong’ in that it’s stemming from a deeply personal place alongside the monstrosity and mania. And also I’m performing in this one!

SS: I didn’t work on King Kong but I have to comment on how essential it’s been to have a developing but common language with Caitlin, and trust between all of us. It made it easy to ask the questions and be bold (too bold at times? We’ll see), vulgar and unapologetically drawn to whatever we felt was going to help tease out the world of the play, which is layered and heightened and pretty complex. I think this production takes some big swings visually and with its scale, that could only happen with an impressive artist and artisan in the position of lead production designer.

Amidst the ever-complex and shifting ecology of New York performance spaces, you’ll be performing at MITU580, which is a space I’ve not yet been to. What led you there? What’s been the most exciting part of working there so far?

LC: I love how the space feels both intimate and vast. It is an epic space with a neighborhood vibe. I saw a show there a few years ago and immediately felt a connection to the theater and hoped to work there someday. I feel so lucky to be working there now.

SS: It’s so clean and spare, and the Mitu leaders and staff are wonderful. The space is a converted garage and the risers have a very steep rake, a feature of some of my favorite venues in town. Dan, you say “ever complex and shifting:” yes–the landscape changes constantly. It’s a moving target planning partnerships as an independent artist or company, and I’m always excited by orgs that communicate clearly and have strong systems in place.

I hope your process has been full of happy surprises thus far. What is one (or more! No limits) discovery that has thrilled you.

LC: Well for this process – in a covid era / I’m a new mom world – we have been trying to rethink our process to be a bit more sustainable and care based. We created an iterative rehearsal schedule with short developmental spurts for the past several months and with growing time and intensity as we geared up for production. The surprising thing has been the fact that it has worked – so far anyway – by centering everyone’s well being as our main priority we have dodged a lot of the stress fest production drama that I had grown accustomed to especially when self producing. I feel like I still have much to learn and figure out in this regard but I am not turning back.

SS: Yeah, it’s been a good time I think for all. Caitlin and I were noticing the other day how happy and serene everyone’s being, and she wondered if that would change at any point, like a sudden stress explosion. But I don’t anticipate that for anyone (I sound so naïve, I’m sure), and this in and of itself is a happy surprise. Because of the iterative process Lisa talks about, it’s allowed for a longer timeline with more information along the way. There are happy surprises every day with the design work, but I’ve also been loving rehearsals—this cast is so funny, and able to access the more feral, vicious and tender moments, too. We laugh a lot, my favorite kind of process.

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