with Grandmother Beloved by Critics
a niche in the acting world wasnt easy for Libby Skala 89.
When I graduated, I went straight to New York, but after going
to a few cattle call auditions for huge shows, I was miserable,
she says. Even if I walked into the room knowing I had something
to offer, I would sit in line and look at everyone else, thinking
I would cast her
shes perfect! Finally, I
began to wonder why I was there. Finding the relentless competition
and insipid lines demoralizing, Skala headed out west.
Landing in Seattle, she found herself working as a body double on
the television show Northern Exposure. Although some
of her friends were star-struck, Skala wasnt enamored with
the job. Her sole task was walking through star Janine Turners
movements so the technical staff could adjust lighting and recording
equipmentwhile Turner relaxed in her trailer.
It was like boot camp, says Skala. Wed film
out in the wilderness for a couple of days each week, and wed
be in the snow for 18 to 20 hours straight. Many of the guys on
the technical staff were apparently not exposed to women much, so
there was a lot of cat-calling and harassment.
Compelled by her experiences, Skala became determined to succeed
as an actor on her own terms. With encouragement from an acting
coach, she began developing a one-woman show based on her relationship
with her grandmother, Lilia Skala. The elder Skala had led a remarkable
lifeshe was Austrias first female architect, a successful
stage actor in Europe, a Nazi refugee, an immigrant to America,
and an Oscar-nominated actor. A show based on the extraordinary
matriarch seemed like the perfect way for Libby to forge a unique
The resulting work is Lilia!, a poignant series of monologues and
imagined dialogues between Libby and her late grandmother. The play
is unconventional: Skala plays both characters and produces the
show, the script is continually changing, and the set consists of
three chairs. Since opening the play two years ago, shes performed
it nonstop in New York, Los Angeles, London, Torontos Fringe
Festival, and elsewhere.
The show has become a critical (and financial) success. Reviewers
have praised the raw emotion of Lilia! as well as Skalas ability
to play both characters flawlessly. Canadas CBC Radio said,
Her ability to transform herself from her 90-year-old grandmother
into herself as a child
is absolutely magical and alchemical.
Of course, success has not come without frustrations. Self-producing
the play means added stress. One night, I did the show when
there were only 12 people in the audience, and it was the most inspired
performance, she says. They went so crazy that they
must have called everyone they knew, because the next day there
were people lining up out the door and sitting in the aisles. As
the producer, I should have made an announcement thanking people
for bearing with us, but instead I jumped right into performing.
I was so tense, that by the middle of the play I wanted to scream
just to let it out.
For the most part, though, Skala says carving out her own niche
has been rewarding. Its also brought her rave reviews from
her harshest criticsher family members. When my grandmas
sister saw it several years ago as a work in progress, she told
me, Honey, its terrible. Number one, youre not
a star, and one-woman shows are star vehicles. And number two, nobodys
ever heard of Lilia Eskala. Recently, though, she saw the
show in its developed form.
Her latest reaction?
Honey, its perfect.
Peter Meredith 02