I’ve been meaning to write about Liesl Tommy since I saw her speak at the KCACTF Region 2 Festival in the winter.
She was the keynote speaker at the festival. And she was amazing. She’s from South Africa, and she talked about what it was like to come to the US, how she found theater, the work that she did on her way.
So many things she said made me feel like I’m on the right path. She talked over and over about how the most important thing is showing up, constantly, for other people. Supporting their work. Encouraging people to do their true art. Challenging the structures that say that bodies have to look a certain way or only certain people have the right to tell a particular story.
She talked about taking every class and workshop and opportunity that came her way–and as this was the beginning of an undergrad theater conference, she set the right tone. Workshop attendance was fantastic at the festival, and I’m sure it’s because she challenged and encouraged the students to show up for these opportunities.
She described finding work as a director as capturing a unicorn: It’s hard, when it happens, you can’t quite break down how, and you can’t quite tell someone else how to do it. I felt a bit better about my own life/career track when she said that; like, there’s at least not something I should be doing that I’m failing to do. I’m just still looking for my unicorn.
I loved how she talked about collaboration, about being present and alive with people in the room. When she described learning the truth of a story from how an actor approached it, I thought I know that feeling! And as much as I know that’s a feeling many directors have, it’s also one I’ve never talked about with anyone. I felt the same when she described falling in love with the work and the workers, the way the people who join me in the process become extraordinary and the space becomes holy.
I’m trying to describe how I felt, listening to her speak, and I’m frustrated at how I’m failing. I should have written this that night. There were thousands of people in that room, but I was in the front row, and I swear she was talking just to me. I started crying at one point, I was so moved by her story and the way she talked about the work.
Over and over, she quoted Nelson Mandela: “Free yourself. Free others. Serve every day.” If that’s not a perfect mantra for an artist, I don’t know what is. And I saw it in the way she treated the students after her speech. She was jetlagged and had just spoken for an hour, but she took the time to talk to each student who came up to thank her afterward. Every single one. She looked into their eyes and thanked them for the stories they shared with her. She said, over and over, “I’m so glad you were here,” and I know she meant it. Every time.
I was in line to shake hands with her, but it’s a student conference, and so I kept letting students go ahead of me. By the time she got through all the students, she looked like she was about to fall over, so I left before I made her deal with one more person (me). I waited in line for the elevators, and, again, kept letting students go ahead of me. I wasn’t in a hurry. When I finally got on an elevator, as the doors were about to close, I heard someone shout to hold the doors. I pushed the button to hold them, and in rushed the host college faculty member in charge of handling Liesl Tommy–and Liesl Tommy herself. Well, it was a tall building, and we didn’t have anything else to do for 16 floors of elevator time, so I gushed at her and got her to take an elevator selfie and I swear I could have floated up to my room without the aid of the elevator.
After hearing her talk (and directors, as we know, are good talkers), I was eager to see her work. And now I’m going to have an opportunity! She’s directing a production of Macbeth at Shakespeare Theater Company in DC. They have an open rehearsal on Sunday that I’m going to attend. I’m going to see the show in a couple of weeks. I can hardly wait.
As much as I’m excited to see Liesl Tommy’s work for its own sake, I think what I found the most intensely compelling about her was the way she reassured me, through her words and her actions, that the kind of director I aspire to be is just fine. That I don’t have to come in with a big concept or be bossy or have a big presence or impress people much. That I can fall in love with the story and the tellers and let that drive the work. That as long as I am freeing myself, freeing others, and serving every day, I’m on the right path. That one day, I’ll find my unicorn.