Theatre may be dark, but we are turning the spotlight on! NLT wants to celebrate theatre creators and change makers that we admire, that inspire us, and that we think are acting as a light in their community. Join us each month as we uplift the voices that are working to positively impact our industry and our fellow humans.
Eli Lynn is a multi-disciplinary theatre artist based in Philadelphia. In addition to their performance work as an actor, singer and dancer, Eli is a Barrymore Award nominated fight director, combatant, and teacher with Arte Violenta. They are also a Certified Intimacy Director with Intimacy Directors International and Intimacy Directors & Coordinators. Eli's breathtakingly stunning stage combat and vital work in intimacy direction has been seen on stages across the Philadelphia area, and we are consistently in awe of their bottomless well of talent. Outside of the theatre world, Eli is also a visual artist, working in paint and digital mediums. We are grateful for Eli's work, voice, art and leadership in the community!
NLT: When did you first get involved with theatre, and when did you know it was going to be something you dedicated your life to?
EL: I was extremely shy growing up, but my little sister was the polar opposite - super outgoing, super excited to perform for people - and so she started doing community theatre and singing when she was very young. When I was 13, she was one of the orphans in a production of Annie, and I ended up helping with props backstage. It was really ideal for me because I got to wear all black and not speak to anybody, which were two of teenage Eli’s favorite things. But then partway through the run, I remember looking out at all those little girls rolling around on the stage with mops and thinking to myself, “That doesn’t look very hard. I bet I could do that.” So I started theatre out of sheer vindictiveness, I guess is what I’m saying. My first ever role was as a literal drop of water in Alice in Wonderland, so I take comfort in knowing I can only go up.
I started doing dance and singing in my later teens and got deeper and deeper into theatre, but never really considered doing it for a living until it was suddenly time to choose what to major in in college. My mom advised me to choose a thing that I could do all day every day and not get sick of, and the only thing I could think of that fit that criteria was theatre.
NLT: Of all the roles you’ve filled, on and off-stage, which one has challenged you the most?
EL: By far the most difficult role I’ve ever held in theatre was as a Technical Director, which I’ve done a grand total of twice. I’ve done a lot of work as a carpenter and I do a lot of crafting and making at home, so when someone approached me about being a TD for a show I thought it would be right in line with those skills. What I didn’t realize is that being a TD involves SO MUCH MORE than just enthusiasm for making stuff! I did the best I could, but my eyes were really opened to all the skills and experience that a good TD needs.
NLT: Is there a part of yourself that you see recurring in your work?
EL: This is a very tricky question. I don’t know if this is quite the answer you’re looking for, but it’s the only thing that really feels like an answer. When I was first learning Intimacy Direction, I had a mentor say to me, “You can really see you up there with the actors, it’s like you’re up there on stage with them in everything you direct.” I guess I hope that holds true for everything I do. Not that I have some kind of overpowering style, but that people watching glimpse some essential “me”-ness as a positive light in everything I help create. I hope I see the best parts of me recurring in my work.
NLT: Is there a moment in your career you're particularly proud of?
EL: My favorite moments are the ones where I change someone’s mind about something. Like when someone comes to a Shakespeare show prepared to be utterly bored and shut out by the material, and then ends up being unexpectedly moved and engaged by some part of my performance. Or when someone is terrified about being part of a fight in a show because they worry they won’t be able to do it or will look stupid, and then they end up feeling empowered by the choreography. Changing minds is the most important thing art can do, and I cherish those moments I’ve had where someone has come up to me after watching or being part of a project and said, “I expected to have a negative experience, but because of something you did, I had a positive one.”
NLT: You have an enormously diverse range of skillsets - instruments, types of combat, circus skills, acting, intimacy direction, visual arts - what journey did you take to become such a master of trades?
EL: I’ve always been delighted by learning new things. My dad is the same way - our house in Alabama is full of instruments that my dad bought and taught himself to play - and my parents indulged every crazy new hobby I picked up. I started playing violin when I was 5 y/o and gradually taught myself every other instrument in the house and then some. I’ve been a drawer and doodler from as early as I could hold a writing utensil (my parents have a story they love to tell about 4 y/o me meticulously color-coding this giant art kit I got for Christmas). As I got older, people started looking at all the art I was making for my own amusement and offering me money to do art for them, which was a terrific surprise. So art and music have both been with me since I was very wee.
With the circus stuff, I learned to juggle when I was 11, and in my teens I met this guy who was slightly more skilled than me, so obviously I had to get better. We ended up becoming really good friends who constantly challenged each other - I would learn a cool new trick so then he would have to learn it, and then he would buy a cool new prop and I would have to learn it. On my 18th birthday, he taught me to breathe fire, which is unquestionably the best birthday present ever.
I started dancing when I was 15 or so because I wanted to be better at auditioning for musicals, but then I got obsessed with dance for its own sake and was one of those kids who basically lived at the studio. I started stage combat training in 2009 after randomly Googling “stage fight swords” (as one does) and finding the SAFD Nationals, and then just like dance and circus and everything else before it, I got super interested in learning as much as I could about everything to do with stage combat.
I guess I’ve just always looked at people doing interesting things and thought to myself, “Man, I wish I knew how to do that!” and then gone and learned how to do it. I was super into SFX makeup for a long time; I can make my own chainmail; I spent a summer training in rodeo-style calf roping; I’m currently turning Mother Goose rhymes into Elizabethan sonnets because I think it’s funny … There is very little rhyme or reason to any of it, which is maybe not the most efficient path. I rarely think, “Will I be able to leverage this skill professionally?” I just want to know how to do everything.
NLT: What is your dream project?
EL: I don’t have a singular shining beacon of a dream project, and I’ve never been a person who thinks that way. Not that there’s anything wrong with having strong, clear goals! It’s just not how my brain works. I have ideas of shows I want to be in and shows I want to write and shows I want to help coax into existence, but there are like, ten of them at any given moment. A big thing that I really want to do is play more queer roles. And I don’t mean cameo characters who are queer coded, I mean I want big roles that specifically tell stories ABOUT the LGBTQIA+ experience, as well as big roles that aren’t necessarily about being queer, but in which I am EXCEPTIONALLY AND UNQUESTIONABLY QUEER. I want to amplify our stories in a way that can’t be overlooked or erased. I also want to learn more about film so I can start poking my head into that medium.
NLT: You’re an intimacy coordinator, which is a relatively new role in the entertainment industry. Why does the world need intimacy coordinators?
EL: I am actually an Intimacy Director, which is a slight distinction. An Intimacy Coordinator works in film and an Intimacy Director works with live theatre. There’s significant overlap of course, but there’s also a ton of stuff that is very specific to the different areas - I’ve never worked with Intimacy in film, so there’d be a lot I’d need to learn if I wanted to branch out that way.
The biggest thing that IDs and ICs do for the industry is protect against actor abuse. And not in a “we are HR and will make your company look good” kind of way, but in a “actors are human beings and deserve to not be abused in the name of ‘art’” kind of way. Actors learn early that having their boundaries violated is something they’re just going to have to accept and that allowing yourself to be put in compromising situations in rehearsal rooms proves that you’re really committed - which is, of course, bullshit. Intimacy work advocates for the actors’ needs so that they can feel empowered to tell intense stories without concern for their safety.
Intimacy directors also help craft physical stories that are more effective. Imagine staging a swordfight by handing two actors a pair of swords and saying, “Okay, now fight each other.” Even if nobody gets accidentally impaled, it’s highly unlikely to get you a fight that’s as good as if you had a Fight Director come in to choreograph. In the same way, if you have two actors in a scene and just say, “Okay, now make out,” even if they manage to avoid crossing boundaries, you’re unlikely to have a story as clear and specific and repeatable as if you have an ID come in to help you choreograph.
NLT: Why is theatre the best medium for your art?
EL: I don’t think I could ever refer to my work as “my art” and not feel like I’m meant to be wearing a gauzy mumu and gesturing with languid passion at inscrutable art films. Is that because I suffer (as many artists do) from crippling imposter syndrome? Possibly. But it’s also because I think it’s really important to not take yourself too seriously. My work is to make beautiful things with other people, not to impose my idea of art on the world. I get to have lots of brilliant ideas that are terrible and a few that are maybe okay and to prod them until they seem meaningful to me and clear to others. I do theatre because it’s new and exciting every day, and because I get to watch it touch people. I do it because it’s the thing that calls to my soul. *inhales profoundly on a cigarette*
NLT: Is there a person, cause, or event in your life that you return to when you are in need for motivation to keep doing your work?
EL: I usually mope for a few days until the mood passes. But honestly, I’ve never been unmotivated to work. I sometimes (often) feel anxious or negative about myself and my work, but I think those are reflections of my insecurities as a human and not specific to my work as a theatre artist. I do sometimes feel stymied or stuck in my attempts to work, and occasionally I’ve found myself in a project that was frustrating or exhausting or that I was ready to be finished with, but I’ve never, never felt like I didn’t want to make art any more. If I truly felt like I didn’t want to be in theatre anymore and like what would really bring me joy was maritime archeology or neuroscience or plumbing or whatever, I would just go do that.
NLT: What is the last piece of writing you read that you had to share with a friend?
EL: The Locked Tomb trilogy by Tamsyn Muir were the first fiction books I have read in years, and I straight up DEVOURED them during quarantine. The first is called Gideon the Ninth and the second is Harrow the Ninth - the last one in the trilogy isn’t out yet. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re into gritty, sarcastic fantasy escapism, I highly recommend giving it a gander.
NLT: What was the last song or album you listened to that you had on repeat?
EL: I don’t listen to music while I work - I have synesthesia, which can make it super disorienting - so I feel like maybe I don’t listen to as much music as other people? I do listen when I drive, and recently I’ve gotten really into Mariachi music. There’s an all-female Mariachi band called Flor de Toloache, which has become my most-played Spotify station. The other time I listen to music is when I work out, and the song I always skip to is Warriors by Aaliyah Rose.
NLT: What’s the last television show, movie, or recorded theatre piece you watched that deeply moved you?
EL: Kajillionare by Miranda July. Strikes the perfect balance of absurd and deeply touching.