Director Padraic Lillis on How He Directs Actors in Solo Shows
Actor Douglas Taurel interviews Padriac Lillis, a director inducted into the indie theater hall of fame and someone who is very well known for directing solo shows.
Doug Taurel: I am here with Padraic Lillis, a very dear friend of mine. He’s directed and developed over 20 solo shows. He’s worked on both Off Broadway and Broadway and won the Innovative Theater award for Outstanding Director at the New York Fringe. He is a member of Labyrinth Theatre Company, Founder of the Farm Theater, and induced into the Indie Theater Hall of Fame. More importantly, he’s someone I love talking baseball with and he’s the director of my solo show, The American Soldier.
Padraic, you’ve directed a lot of solo shows, do you have a secret sauce because they’re all very successful. How did you first get into directing solo shows? They are a very different beast than anything else.
Padraic Lillis: I think some of it was because I didn’t have time. I was consulting for non-profits, doing new play development and teaching at NYU. So the flexibility of being able to squeeze a rehearsal into my schedule was a challenge, having only one other person to schedule with, made rehearsals possible. One day I met Adina Taubman and directed her show A Line in the Sand and that really was my first solo show. Then I started taking on more solo shows and kept getting asked to do more.
I don’t know if there is a special sauce but the thing that I liked was the intimacy of hearing why the person wanted to tell the story. Also connecting and then finding the story the artist is trying to tell inspires me.
Doug Taurel: Do you find the “Why” is stronger in solo shows than multi-character plays?
Padraic Lillis: Yeah, they are strong in both but it is intensified in solo shows. You have to have a reason to say the words you are saying so that you commit fully and so that your why comes across. You’re never going to hide in the acting and you definitely can’t hide behind a coffee cup because it’s just you up there.
Doug Taurel: After a while you get found out.
Padraic Lillis: I always find the commitment level dramatically higher across the board with solo shows. It has to be.
Doug Taurel: I chose to do my solo show The American Soldier because I thought that it was financially cheaper. I’m thinking, “I’m just going to do a show with one person, me. I have less people to control, less people to manage, less money.” But it’s not, it’s actually more expensive and you have to manage even more.
So what do you think the advantage are of doing a solo show versus a multi character show?
Padraic Lillis: The flexibility is the biggest advantage of doing a solo show because you’re the only actor but some of the disadvantage can be quite big. You’re giving up a lot of your time because you’re doing everything and all the cost comes out of your pocket too.
Doug Taurel: When you say flexibility, what do you mean?
Padraic Lillis: Flexibility in scheduling. You’re not scheduling or rescheduling 6 people when you have conflicts. You have more flexibility to schedule things and are able to move things around where as a multi-character play can become a real hard thing to schedule and reschedule during conflicts.
The other advantage is that it really allows you to showcase your own talents. You’re able to put yourself in front of people and show what you can do as an artist.
Doug Taurel: It’s life changing because the level of confidence you gain as an actor is immense from doing a solo show. You just can’t put a value on that – your memory gets stronger, your craft becomes sharper and your endurance as a performer gets stronger.
Padraic Lillis: There’s no substitute for the work. It takes so much discipline. You not only have to learn the lines but you have to learn the intention of what you are saying. It’s just you and you can’t relax for a second.
Doug Taurel: You get those moments when you’re performing sometimes and you will be thinking, “Man, I’m tired right now, Shit, I still have 30 more minutes to go. There’s no one coming on. I’ve got to find some energy. This is it. It’s just me.”
Doug Taurel: How do you start shaping the show?
Padraic Lillis: Directing for 25 years helps you have the experience to understand the best use of space and how it helps tell the story. I’m also looking how can I differentiate one character from another character so that you are giving the audience clear clues as to who they’re watching.
Doug Taurel: And that’s because you don’t have the normal scene structure in a solo show, right?
Padraic Lillis: Right. You want to make the level of difference between the physical life of two characters equal to the emotional difference between the two characters, so that the audience can easily come along with you. For example: If one character has small movements and little physical activity, you want to make sure the second character has lots of physical activity and presence.
Doug Taurel: How do you grab and incorporate an actor’s style?
Padraic Lillis: The first thing I do is I read the script and then I meet the actor. Then I put the script aside and I ask them right off the bat – Why do you want to do the play?
Doug Taurel: Yep, that is such a great question to ask, always. Why.
Padraic Lillis: If I start with the why, then I start to see if the script is ready to be performed or if we need to work on the script. Also when you ask them the why, you hear the person talk and start to see their personality and feel their energy.
Doug Taurel: That tells you what direction the person will lean. You can’t make a funny person be aggressive and vice versa, right?
Padraic Lillis: Yea, actors don’t sign up to do the solo show because they wanted to become a different person.
Doug Taurel: What compels you to say yes to a solo show? Is it the story or the actor?
Padraic Lillis: The story and why the actor wants to do it. When I start to hear that, then I start to see how hard the person’s going to work.
Doug Taurel: That’s vital, right?
Padraic Lillis: Incredibly vital. They have to be willing to work hard and commit to the process, because if I write the script then it won’t be their show. What I am passionate about is the directing aspect so I want to get underneath it the script and the story and listen to the story and the actor’s passion.
However if the actor doesn’t listen, then it isn’t an enjoyable three hours. For me, do I want to spend time with this person and their personality? When you do a solo show, you are invested in the person as well as the story.
Doug Taurel: The most valuable thing Padraic you did for me and my show The American Soldier, was to ask me, Why. I had been working on my show for a long time and felt lost but once I knew the why, I had a clear focus to make the writing and editing easier
The editing was the hardest part because you are vomiting so much material that you don’t know what’s good and what’s not good. The why just crystalizes everything.
Padraic Lillis: You want the show to have an impact and you want the audience to learn and take away something from the show’s message.
Doug Taurel: Where do you find the most satisfaction when you’re directing the show? Do you find it in at the opening? Or is there a point in the rehearsal period where you’re like – this is going to be really nice.
Padraic Lillis: I’m always excited early in the process when we discover what the story is really about and then the most exciting moment is when the play is in the rehearsal room doing a final run through. That’s when I’m most excited because you can’t control the audience but in the final run through the play is alive and it’s pure. That’s when I feel the best.
Douglas Taurel: The audience does change things in a lot of different ways.
Padraic Lillis: The hardest thing for a solo person to learn is that the audience become their new scene partner in a very visceral way. They tell you what is landing and what is having an impact, which forces you listen to them.
I love hearing the audience after a show talk about the experience with a show. The audience become an advocate for the cause of your show and they start to believe in why you are doing the show. That is when you know you are having an impact.
Doug Taurel: You hit it on the head. When I did the show in Houston which was almost after 30 runs, that audience was very invested in that show and they shaped the show in a very lasting way. I found moments that I thought didn’t exist. And after the show the response was so personal and intimate that I could definitely could feel the impact the show was having on them.
How do you think solo shows have changed in the past 20 years?
Padraic Lillis: I think they have gotten simpler. The simpler the show is, the easier it is for you to travel with it and perform it in as many places as you can. You also have to remember that every prop you put in your show, you have to carry it around during rehearsals and performances. So keeping your show simple will allow you to book the show in as many venues as possible. That is key because you want to be able to make the show your calling card.
Also, you should try to keep the show at about an hour in running time. If the show’s over an hour, you’re putting yourself at risk of not being able to book the show at many festivals.
Doug Taurel: You helped me so much in forcing me to keep my set simple. I believe all your shows are staged fairly simply which is great because it forces you and the audience to focus on the story, not the set or light change.
When I picked to have an army turns in my show, I didn’t think about carrying the trunk to and away from rehearsal, to and away from the theater so definitely choose your props wisely.
Padraic Lillis: I love what we did with your show. The flag in your set as the backdrop is very clean and simple. I am sure the trunk for you was bit of a pain but all your pops fit in the trunk which allowed you to take the show anywhere.
Doug Taurel: What’s the biggest problem you face when you’re creating a solo show with an actor? Is it preparation?
Padraic Lillis: People who don’t realize the work involved in the technical aspects of the show and the emotional parts too. You have to be willing to be honest and truthful with facts and story. You have to be willing to talk about the things that are hard for you and go places that are emotionally not fun.
So, when I find people aren’t willing to be honest, then I’m like, well then we’re stuck because you don’t have to expose everything but you do have to expose a lot. You have to reveal something. You can’t tell me you have a compelling story and not be willing to reveal your wounds that has brought you to the stage. It’s a lot of work.
That’s the other thing I’m learning as a director is that I can’t do the work for the actor. I can inspire, I can cajole but I can’t do the work. You have to do whatever process you need to do to learn those lines and whatever else is required.
However, it is very important for me, as the director, to always bring energy into the room. It is unfair if you’re working and I’m not giving back. I’m your scene partner and I have to have something in my mind to help you and the story come alive. I have to be directing, I have to be thinking critically, and I have to be making sure the story is happening. I have to be watching and engaging back.
Doug Taurel: What’s the main piece of advice you would give an actor starting to work on a solo show?
Padraic Lillis: Have something you’re compelled to talk about. You have to have a deep passion for your story, the thing that lights the fire in you.
Do the thing you’re passionate about because when you’re on stage no matter what the story is, you’re going to have a strong relationship with the audience because they will know that you care, anything else won’t hold up for an hour.
Doug Taurel: What is the biggest mistake you see actors make when they’re doing a solo show?
Padraic Lillis: The biggest mistake is that they start the show and they don’t know why the are doing it. They haven’t found their passion. Say it’s mildly successful. You’re going to live with the play for a year, minimum.
Doug Taurel: I know. I’ve lived with mine for almost 4 years now.
Padraic Lillis: We had a great moment on our first public presentation which was on Memorial Day that was when we knew we had a strong magical show. All of the sudden, you realize, we’re doing this play on a Monday night, Memorial Day – who is going to come? Who cares? And now you’re still having people book the show and you’re still in a relationship with the audience. That would not happens if you didn’t know why you were doing it and were passionate about it. Or if you were just singing 10 songs.
Doug Taurel: It is exhilarating to know that we took an idea, letters I had researched and we turned it into an evening of theater. It’s an amazing process and it was one of the first things you told me you cared about was that we would create a process together of creating and building the show and I believe we definitely had that. When I run to other solo show artists you have directed, we talk to each other with a level of kinship and respect because we all went through the same process together. We all feel blessed that we were directed by you Padraic.
Padraic Lillis: Well maybe not all of them feel that but maybe some of them feel blessed.
Doug Taurel: A lot of them were, Padraic. So, that’s a tribute to you.
What advice would you give a director who’s starting to work on a solo show? Or who wants to direct a solo show?
Padraic Lillis: You have to like people. I know that sounds obvious in theater but you have to like people and you have to be innately interested in who they are. And the biggest skill I think, for the solo show director is listening, being able to listen and hear what’s valuable, why they’re doing the show and what’s valuable in the material. This will tell you what their story is, is it a love letter or whatever, and more importantly, it will tell you if you want and can work with the solo show artist.
Doug Taurel: I think all directors have to have a level of kindness in the rehearsal process which you have in spades because that’s what the artist needs. They need to feel a kindness and a level of optimism and encouragement. That would be my advice to a young director, don’t be negative, don’t talk down to your actor and be supportive of the work and the actor.
Padraic Lillis: When you are kind with your actors, that is when you find things that are surprising or wonderful.
Doug Taurel: Is there a director that has inspired you the most?
Padraic Lillis: It’s Peter Brook. I read his book The Empty Space and I think he’s inspired every director after the 1960s. I just like the essence of the immediate theater. It’s really a book that all actors should read
Doug Taurel: Can you tell me a piece of advice that you would give to yourself 10 years ago?
Padraic Lillis: I would tell myself to let everyone know that I am working. Let people know that you working and are staying busy. Don’t be afraid of letting people know that.
Doug Taurel: What would you say to an actor who wanted to find a director like you?
Padraic Lillis: I believe in community and I have a theater company called The Farm Theater, www.FarmTheater.org. We do these things called Bullpen Sessions and they are great to come to because you meet talented people who have your same values and who have the skills you want to work with. So it is a great place to ask for names of people who might be able to help you. Like directors, agents, press people for whoever it is you are looking for. Just don’t be afraid to ask around.
Doug Taurel: Don’t be afraid to ask. It’s how I found you. By asking actors I worked with in the Alec Baldwin workshop. They bounced me around to a few people and eventually I came to you. All because I asked around.
Padraic Lillis: Don’t be afraid to ask. Theatre is a community and nobody does this without help. Everybody needs help.
Doug Taurel: Last question I have is, if you could put a message on a billboard for actors and directors to see, what would it say?
Padraic Lillis: Just do it, don’t question it. Just do whatever it is you want to do.