A conversation with Lilly Darr, founder of the woman and veteran led non-profit, Lilly Theatre Company.
Hi Lilly! Thank you so much for giving us the time to learn a little bit about yourself and your project. First of all, how are you doing today?
I’m doing well! It’s so nice that you’re interviewing me right now because we’re celebrating our second year anniversary. It feels great because even though we’re so young, it’s great to see what we have accomplished so far. We have a long way to go but I’m just feeling good about where the non-profit is and looking forward to seeing it continue to grow.
Congratulations on your anniversary! To kick things off, could you tell me a little about yourself, where you’re from and how you got into music?
I have lived in many places. My family and I are New Yorkers but my dad moved us out to LA, so I like to consider myself from LA, and that’s where I started music. Music as a career, however, came to me as an adult. It took me ten years after my undergraduate studies to decide that this is what I want to do. I have two masters, one in special education and another one in interdisciplinary studies, and I seek to understand people with diverse learning styles and how to implement music to support students across the curriculum. Now, I’m in my third masters in Berklee College of Music, specializing in music and autism. I also love to perform. I play flute, clarinet, and saxophone in different venues with a group I formed called “Lilly Jazz Project”.
And where did Lilly Theatre Company come into the picture?
A long time ago, I had this idea that I wanted to start my own theater company. Around the same time I was thinking about community theater, which is super important to me. You bring community together and you get a message across and you do something about it. I wanted to figure out how to be a part of it. I served in the Navy, so by the time I finished and I was thinking about what I wanted to do as an artist, I went back to New York to help my dad, and I got involved with a theater company over there. It was all veterans using theater to address war and what veterans go through. When they told me to take what I was doing there and create something with it, it resonated with me.
After my dad passed away in 2016, I was looking for something to do and I realized I wanted to create something in theater. I didn’t know what exactly because I wasn’t really “out there” with my experience. I had worked in student productions and community projects, but no notable plays under my belt. So then I got into this play at The Public Theater in New York. I can’t remember the name of the play, but it was a well known play and a great production and it opened my eyes to this world and to realize I wanted to be part of it. Not only was it helpful for me as an artist, but also as someone who has dealt with trauma and social issues. It was the platform that led to a lot of my healing. Even though it was hard for me, I loved being there.
Those projects led me to open up this theatre company of my own in 2020. Before this company was even established, I had people wanting to be a part of it, so I put together a team. I wrote four plays and produced them in Bakersfield and Santa Ana, California, with no budget. One library in Bakersfield even got to sponsor us and helped us make it possible. I named this project “Theater for Healing”. I wanted to do something with what I learned with
the veteran theatre company . I brought several people that had suffered from trauma, emotional, physical, or from war, and we wanted to form a healing group. We incorporated a counselor as well to make sure we were providing professional support if anyone needed it. It was beautiful, and super helpful. From this project, it took six months to actually form the company and I got a mentor. By May of 2021, we were established as a non profit organization. I was so happy because I was trying to make something that was not easily accessible to a lot of people. How do I make this stand out? That’s where my background in special education and interdisciplinary studies comes into place. Now we strive to make sure we’re working with people in the autism spectrum, people that have been formerly incarcerated, and other vulnerable populations. We hope to be seen and heard even more down the line, but for now our little community feels really good.
That’s such a beautiful story, and I think you’ve found the perfect bridge between culture and the arts, but also rehabilitation and healing. This works in a different way because many people who have experience may be scared to go directly into therapy so you are providing a great foundation of a safe community that will facilitate healing. In Beats by Girlz, community and representation of other women and gender-expansive people is so important. Going off of your own experience with diversity, how is intersectionality important in your work?
It’s important because everyone belongs. Do you realize when you get a museum, a theatre company, and a college to create programs for people you get incredible results? I don’t even believe that I have created my most profound work yet, I believe it’s coming with collaboration and with intersectionality it means that I belong here. I want people to feel that they really belong and do away with biases and preconceived notions of people and get to know one another in a way that is supportive. When people have that and come to communicate, something special happens. I’ve seen it happen in Berklee with the non-profit “Jazz for Gender Justice”. They are saying that women are very important in the jazz community and posing the questions of how they can make it accessible to everyone and it’s working. Collaboration is key.
What have you learned since leading a non-profit organization in music?
A couple of things. I’ve learned how to simply lead better, and I will continue to learn how to lead better. When you have two people working with you it is crucial to communicate. When you have ten people working with you it is vital to communicate. You have to learn how to multitask in ways that are crazy, and in my case while completing a full-time graduate program. My biggest lesson has been listening to people and not thinking that I know everything, as well as knowing when to step back and letting other people’s voices be heard. As a person with the director’s hat, I’ll be more clear and ask exactly what I need , but I’ve learned how to embrace being sensitive as well. Another thing I’ve learned is to not start a nonprofit and an undergraduate problem at the same time. Oh my gosh. But I’m a warrior, I just need to do this.
Do you have any advice for people seeking to get involved with nonprofits and how to pick one?
Explore your options and see what’s out there. But to go after a nonprofit, it’s better to understand them because there’s different ones with different purposes and missions. Once you do understand them, find the one that you gravitate towards. Go for the ones that work with vulnerable populations because unfortunately we are not all privileged and have access to education. If you are resource-savy and you spread information where it’s needed, you’re saving a life.
How do you balance your professional role in a directorial position with the emotional aspect that comes with dedicating your life to helping others through art?
For me, I always have to be working on me. If I don’t have a support system then how am I going to be my best self? I make sure my mental health is in order and make sure my team knows there are resources to support them. I don't know it all of course, I learn as I go, but I know that if I’m not helping myself, [I'm] not helping anyone. Unfortunately, we have seen leaders fail for this reason so I don’t want to end up like that. I try to balance my physical and emotional well-being by spending time with the people that I love and doing things I enjoy, while making sure at least one program happens a month with Lilly Theatre Company.
Circling back to Lilly Theatre Company, is there anything coming up that you’d like to share with us?
First of all, we just presented our play “The Mass Incarcerated” in April of this year so we will have another run of it soon. Then we’re going back to Bakersfield, California, to perform the play in the fall. We also have our artist interview series, with all kinds of artists from the community, people who are devoted to music, theatre, writing, and anything that brings people together and creates change. Our host William Crawford conducts them and the series runs on Spotify twice a month. Look out for our upcoming episode with Jason Palmer, an incredible trumpet player.
Lilly, thank you so much for taking time to speak with us, and we are so excited for what’s to come with Lilly Theater Company!
Interview by Valeria Orrantia
Edited by Nan Macmillan