Alumni Notes


Conversing with Grandmother Beloved by Critics

Finding a niche in the acting world wasn’t 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…she’s 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 wasn’t enamored with the job. Her sole task was walking through star Janine Turner’s movements so the technical staff could adjust lighting and recording equipment—while Turner relaxed in her trailer.

“It was like boot camp,” says Skala. “We’d film out in the wilderness for a couple of days each week, and we’d 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 life—she was Austria’s 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 career.

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, she’s performed it nonstop in New York, Los Angeles, London, Toronto’s Fringe Festival, and elsewhere.
The show has become a critical (and financial) success. Reviewers have praised the raw emotion of Lilia! as well as Skala’s ability to play both characters flawlessly. Canada’s 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. It’s also brought her rave reviews from her harshest critics—her family members. “When my grandma’s sister saw it several years ago as a work in progress, she told me, ‘Honey, it’s terrible. Number one, you’re not a star, and one-woman shows are star vehicles. And number two, nobody’s ever heard of Lilia Eskala.’ Recently, though, she saw the show in its developed form.”

Her latest reaction?

“Honey, it’s perfect.”

—Peter Meredith ’02

back to top