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Extreme Sports: Lila Neugebauer on Directing, Devising, and the World of Living Playwrights

Lila Neugebauer has been awarded a prestigious Princess Grace Theater Fellowship Award. The awards are given for excellence and promise to emerging artists in theater, dance and film.The former Actors Theatre of Louisville directing intern (2008-09)  returned to Louisville last season to direct Mallery Avidon's "O guru guru guru, or why I don't want to go to yoga class with you" for the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Neugebauer's specific fellowship, the Robert and Gloria Hausman Theater Award, will enable her to work under the mentorship of Actors Theatre's artistic director, Les Waters, during the upcoming season. The fellowship will support Neugebauer's directing work and fund time she will spend mentoring members of the current apprentice/intern company on their artistic projects. In a news release, Waters says he believes that young artists need champions, and Neugebauer's award will help Actors Theatre continue its history of supporting emerging professionals. He also praises her work, calling Neugebauer  "one of the best young directors working in theatre in this country."  In the four years since she graduated from Actors Theatre's apprentice/intern company, Neugebauer has built a notable career for an emerging director, especially in the world of newer plays, which makes Waters a good match as mentor.  In addition to Avidon's Humana Festival debut, Neugebauer has directed the West Coast premiere of Annie Baker's Obie Award-winning drama "The Aliens" (San Francisco Playhouse), Eliza Clark's "Edgewise" at the Cherry Lane Theatre (2008), and the world premiere of Dan LeFranc's "Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatwright" (Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where Waters formerly served as associate artistic director). She also conceives original work as a co-artistic director of collaborative ensemble The Mad Ones, which she founded with fellow Actors Theatre apprentice/intern company alumni. I reached out to Neugebauer to ask a few questions about her career. I imagine it's difficult to attribute your success to one career strategy, but if you could point to one thing you've done that has helped open doors for you as a young director, what would it be? My instinct has been to forge relationships with artists with whom I sense a kinship, in terms of taste or sensibility. I wouldn’t call it a strategy, in that I didn’t know where these relationships would lead, but looking back, I see that my work has primarily arisen through writers, actors, other directors, or artistic directors with whom I had an initial relationship, who then brought me on board a project. For me, this endeavor has been about meaningful, ongoing relationships with like-minded collaborators. Did your directing internship at Actors give you the new(er)-play bug or did you always know you wanted to work with new plays?  I first developed and directed new work as an undergrad at the Yale Playwrights Festival – that sparked it. I knew I wanted to collaborate with living playwrights, but didn’t know the work of all that many; so I worked briefly in the literary department at Steppenwolf in Chicago, then worked in the literary department at Berkeley Rep (where I first met Les Waters), and then spent a year at Actors Theatre. Each of those experiences exposed me to new contemporary voices and fueled my interest in new work. You've worked with a number of exciting emerging playwrights who are also all quite different, like Eliza Clark, Annie Baker, Lucas Hnath, Zoe Kazan, Mallery Avidon ... what draws you to the work that you're drawn to? I’m drawn to plays that reveal something compelling, inchoate, and unapologetically honest about how people operate – plays that contain some insight that surprises me, challenges me, or just resonates with me deeply. And plays that communicate that insight without didacticism. Style-wise, I’m drawn to theatrical landscapes that are grounded in psychological realism, but are somehow tilted, abstracted, or askew – or so intensely detailed that they feel hyper-real. I’m interested in some level of formal, structural, or stylistic disorientation that encourages audiences to examine a situation they might otherwise take for granted.   How does your devising work with The Mad Ones complement your directing career, and vice versa?  Working with The Mad Ones has enabled me to deepen a set of core artistic relationships over a number of years. We’ve developed a shared vocabulary and aesthetic that’s unique and idiosyncratic. While I relish the opportunity to work repeatedly with particular writers, actors, and designers in my freelance life, that work involves a more constantly changing landscape of collaborators, who each have a distinct sensibility, point of view, and process. The intensely collaborative nature of the company's work – in which performers, designers, and I all play an integral role in a piece’s creation from the inception – has been like an extreme sport, in terms of the agility, discipline and patience it’s required. And those challenges have definitively influenced me as a director, no matter the room I’m in. Fundamentally, I think directing new plays and ensemble-created work both require a heightened elasticity and openness, but ultimate clarity of vision that isn’t all that different. What's next for Neugebauer Neugebauer just finished up a series of workshops with the brand-new class of Actors Theatre apprentices and interns. Her upcoming projects include world premieres of Lucas Hnath's "Red Speedo" at Washington, D.C.'s Studio Theatre (where she directed another production of "The Aliens" last season) and Zoe Kazan's "Trudy & Max in Love" at South Coast Repertory Theatre, where former Actors Theatre head Marc Masterson currently works as artistic director. (Hnath and Kazan are both Humana Festival alumni playwrights, too -- it's a small world, after all.)