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.
The positively radiant Liz Filios is a Philadelphia based actor, musician, composer, sound designer and teaching artist who has trained and performed in Italy, South Africa, and around the United States. Liz is a founding member of the Bearded Ladies' Cabaret and the Pennsylvania Theatre Institute, served as a host for the live children's PBS program Sunny Side Up, and her work as a recording artist can be heard on multiple albums, including The Octopus by Johnny Showcase (of recent AGT fame). Liz is a Barrymore Award Winner, an Independence Foundation Fellow, and a recipient of the F. Otto Haas Award for Emerging Theatre Artist. During the pandemic, Liz combined her talents for teaching, performance and music, and created Story Time in the Zoom Room, a warm and joyful play-based learning program for children hosted live on zoom, supported by Theatre Horizon and the Free Library of Philadelphia. Currently, Liz teaches music for Play On Philly, a nonprofit providing music education for students that would typically lack access, and is writing a bilingual musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night for Delaware Shakespeare, which examines the journey of Viola and Sebastian through the lens of U.S. immigration.
NLT: When did you first get involved with theatre, and when did you know it was going to be something you devote your life to?
LF: So, I started out in ballet, and got kicked out. I was 5 years old. The teacher told us to line up “like ducks in a row” one day, and I started quacking and flapping my arms (which, in my defense, is what ducks do). But then I got the rest of the class to start quacking and flapping along with me, and ballet quickly turned into the Great Duck Rebellion of my youth. I was not invited back. So, my mother put me into piano lessons with this super strict teacher, in hopes of teaching me some discipline. She made me sit up straight and trim my nails, and told me to always keep my hands curved on the piano because she said there were “baby birds’ nests” in my palms, and if I let my hands fall flat, I would crush the baby birds and kill them. I was not a fan of piano. Then when I was 8 years old, I was cast in a neighborhood play, and I got to skip piano lessons for rehearsals. In my 8 year old mind, I was like, “This is it! This is my way out!” Fortuitously, my one line in that play was, “I HATE piano lessons!” which I spoke from my soul. I think my parents got the message, because they enrolled me in a theatre camp that summer. And this was the turning point for me: walking into this old 1920’s theatre, with a huge marquee out front, holding my mom’s hand as we walked in on the first day, and pointing at everything going, “Look at that! Look at that!” I just fell in love with it… the mystique, the traditions, the ghost stories, the games… there was such potential, such energy in that space. I went back and did like 4 more summer camps and 12 shows there. I was smitten. It became my magical home away from home. I actually asked my parents for an agent for Christmas that year. (I didn’t get one. Which, in retrospect I’m super grateful for.)
NLT: Music is clearly a big part of your life and career; tell us more about your relationship to music and how it influences you.
LF: Yeah, music has always been a very big part of my life. We read and sang together a lot as a family. So I just grew up around a lot of poetry and music, because my military parents also happened to be real lovers of the arts. I sang in church, at school, I would sing in my backyard, in our basement, on the playground, in the car, in the trees. (My poor neighbors! I would climb the trees and sing “Do You Hear The People Sing?” at the top of my lungs.) I sang whenever I was given the opportunity, and usually, I wouldn’t be singing alone for long. Someone would join in and suddenly this little community would spring up around one song. So singing was a way to connect. (Until I got to middle school and got really quiet. But that’s another story.) For the times when I felt angry or sad, or I didn’t want to be around other people, I would just go pound on the piano, and that was a great way to feel my feelings and express them loudly without hurting anyone else. So music in one form or another, has always been a source of healing, a source of comfort and a means of coping with the world around me.
NLT: Is there a part of yourself that you see recurring in your work?
LF: Oh wow, really good question. Yeah, it’s hard to say. I think over time, it’s definitely changed. When I first started writing and composing, there was a lot of cynicism and anxiety in my work, because that was the only place where I felt safe to express it. I also spent a huge chunk of my career putting my energy and talent into other people’s visions, so there really was no pattern there. I was just a vessel for their work. And some people are really good vessels, and also really selective about the work that they do, so patterns may emerge that way. But for me, the pattern became, ‘Please give me a job. I need to eat. Thank you so much.’ And eventually, I realized that if I didn’t occasionally use my own creative voice, I couldn’t bring much to the table as a collaborator. It starts to become more difficult to hear and to trust that inner voice if you don’t let it speak sometimes. Now, I feel like I’m just starting to learn how to tell my own stories again. (Which is something I was super good at as a kid, but became super apologetic about as a young adult.) So I often go back into my childhood when I need to create something. I’ve found that there’s a lot more levity in my work now because of this. I really enjoy simplicity. I enjoy making things that are bright and full of love and wonder and openness. I think I notice a scarcity of these things in the world around me, so I feel like it’s my responsibility as an artist to help balance things by encouraging people to pause, and breathe, and really listen to their hearts, and to each other. I think often we’re too busy to feel our own feelings, so we end up chasing the pain instead of sitting with it, and allowing ourselves to heal. So if I can create spaces as a writer or a performer to be still, to be sad, to be amazed, to be… together… and recognize our interconnectedness with others, then I feel like that tends to be the work I’m most satisfied with. I’m not sure that’s what comes up most often, but that’s certainly what I’m aiming for.
NLT: What is your “first step” when taking on a new role?
LF: Study the text. Mine the language for what’s already there. Learn as much as I can about the world of the play, the environment, the temperature, the social/historical context in which the story takes place, as well as the context in which it was originally written, compared to the context it will be presented in. I try to avoid taking in other people’s interpretations until I’ve made some discoveries and formed an opinion for myself. But I spend a lot of time just reading and re-reading, and looking up whatever I don’t understand, to make sure I’ve turned over every stone, so to speak.
NLT: What, if any, differences are there for you between performing text and performing music?
LF: Approaching a piece of music, I would still start with close reading, and break things down to make sure I see every comma, every tempo marking, every rhythmic expression as it is written. I may take a look at the historical context, if I think there’s something that might be useful, but more likely, I’ll focus on what’s on the page, listen to several different people’s performances, to see how it’s been done before and what’s expected, and look for effective ways to break with those expectations. Pretty soon I start to imagine where I can take my own liberties, and how I can recontextualize the song to bring more of myself to the piece.
NLT: In addition to being an actor and musician, you’re also a sound designer. Can you tell us about your process when you soundscape a show?
LF: Ah, well that’s sort of all of the above, I guess. I need to know the text really well. I need to understand the social/political context. And I need to have formed some ideas about how to interpret and possibly upend what’s been done before. I want to have a solid understanding of the emotional arc of the piece and a really visceral knowledge of the environment, so I can evoke the air, the food, the color of the dirt. I want to imagine how these characters move through their days. And what they might hear in their heads. And then I want to know what the director is hoping to achieve in terms of style and energy - how to help tell the story and not detract from it, how to make space with sound and not just occupy it, and/or how to turn all of that information on the page on its head, if the production wants to be more expressionistic or more abstract. I might want to stretch a note on the cello through a processor till it’s no longer recognizable, or find a mundane kitchen object that imitates a realistic sound in a surprising way, or I may be looking for an actual replica of an instrument from the 17th century to evoke a specific time and place. Whether I’m creating a waltz in the style of Chopin or generating electronic music inspired by 1980’s video games, I think with sound design, the first step is about understanding how your impression of the text meets with the director’s vision for the world, and how you can support that vision as a creative partner with the tools you have available. But I’m still pretty new at this, so I’m really just making it up as I go.
NLT: You have studied with multiple institutions in multiple countries over your career. Why is it important for artists to continue their education when they can?
LF: Oh my gosh why is it not?! Haha. The more I learn about different creative approaches, the more I nourish my own practice, which in turn, hopefully, nourishes my community: the people I practice with and the people I practice for, back home. It’s not that I take things from other countries wholesale and pretend they are mine. But I observe the way people do things in other parts of the world. I observe their values, their efficiency, their generosity, their work ethic, the reasons why they make art in the first place… and that’s how I become a better artist. Just by witnessing. I wish that for everyone, by the way. I think it’s the most humbling thing in the world, to be a stranger in a strange place. It opens you. It wakes you up. It empties you of everything you thought you knew about the world, everything you took for granted, and it fills you with appreciation for different ways of being and making, and gratitude for the kindness of your hosts. It’s the best possible state to put yourself in if you want to make art. If you don’t travel outside the boundaries of your own comfort zone/city/state/country/whatever… how will you ever feel those things? How can we expect our work to evolve without the benefit of new (different) wisdom, new (different) perspectives or new (different) techniques? We’ll grow old, thinking there’s only one right answer to every question! Television and the internet can’t really help us with that - you see lots of different opinions online, but very few meaningful interactions. Technology hasn’t quite caught up yet to the place where we can share energy and exchange ideas across cultures in this way. You have to remove yourself from the context where you feel safe and in control in order to do that. You have to give up your power to experience that kind of learning. I feel like travel has gifted me with wholly new ways of learning, and seeing and feeling that can’t be articulated or codified. Most great artists discover their voice when they finally travel outside of themselves. That may mean going half-way across the world, but it doesn’t have to. It can mean taking a class, it can mean trying something new, it can mean volunteering, or conducting interviews, or going to a different park than the one you usually go to, or having coffee with a friend you don’t know that well. It can mean coming out. It can mean saying “I love you.” or “I forgive you.” or “Goodbye.” It can mean eating at a different restaurant, or going into a shop that you’ve always been too shy to go into, or maybe even sparking a conversation with a stranger. It can look like whatever you want it to look like. There are so many ways you can immerse yourself in the unknown, or connect to a community where you are different and when you get there, you just have to open your heart so that learning can occur. It’s scary at first, but then it gets really easy and really exciting. And it makes your life rich.
NLT: You are also a music teacher; in your experience, why is music education important for children and young people?
LF: I will just say that teaching music to young people is some of the most important work that I do, and for anyone who craves a scientific explanation as to why, I would simply refer them to my favorite TED talk on music by Dr. Anita Collins, because she says it much more eloquently and with better science and visual aids than I ever could.
NLT: Is there a person, cause, or event in your life that you return to when you are in need of motivation to keep going?
LF: Yes. Let’s have coffee sometime and I’ll tell you all about them. :)
NLT: What is the last piece of writing you read that you had to share with a friend?
LF: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
NLT: What was the last song or album you listened to that you had on repeat?
NLT: What’s the last television show, movie, or recorded theatre piece you watched that deeply moved you?
LF: Boxe Boxe Brasil by Compagnie Käfig