Jessie Lillis ’13 returns to Ripon for summer residency, presentation of Shakespeare plays

When a series of free performances of plays by William Shakespeare is presented in the Ripon/Green Lake area this summer, Jessie Lillis ’13 will be coming home to Ripon College. Lillis is the co-artistic director of the touring Starling Shakespeare Company. The company will be in partnership with Ripon College as they rehearse their new season, present plays in the area, and then take their productions on the road.

Public performances will include “As You Like It,” presented at 6 p.m. Friday, June 9, in Benstead Theatre, C.J. Rodman Center for the Arts, at Ripon College; “As You Like It,” 5 p.m. Saturday, June 24, on the Village Green in Ripon, sponsored by Ripon Main Street; and “Julius Caesar,” 6 p.m. Friday, July 7, in Deacon Mills Park, Green Lake, sponsored by Thrasher Opera House. Andrea Williams, a 2004 theatre and history graduate of Ripon, is helping create sets for the shows.

The company will return to Ripon College on Aug. 31 to present “As You Like It” at 7:30 p.m. in Benstead Theatre.

“The residency will benefit Ripon students in a variety of ways,” says Professor of Theatre John Dalziel. “The company will be guest lecturing in both the theatre courses in the fall, as well as the English department’s Shakespeare class. In addition, they will also be offering a workshop to theatre and other interested students in the fall on the topic of stage combat.” He adds that in the future, Ripon hopes to offer opportunities for Ripon college students to be a part of the company itself.

Lillis majored in communication with a minor in theatre production at Ripon. “Honestly, a lot of how and why I ended up where I am right now is because of Ripon,” Lillis says. “I always liked Shakespeare, but it wasn’t until I took Ann Pleiss Morris’ ‘Shakespeare in Pop Culture’ class that I really fell in love. Beyond that, Ann is the reason I found the MLitt/MFA program at Mary Baldwin (University), which played a huge part in preparing me to start a company.” She received her MFA from Mary Baldwin University’s Shakespeare and Performance program with a concentration in directing.

She wanted to start a theatre company, but when the COVID pandemic hit right at the end of her MFA in the spring of 2020, she took a hard look at problematic industry-wide practices and seeing theatres she knew and loved closing their doors because of pandemic-induced financial issues.

Therefore, Starling Shakespeare Company has a different base. While Lillis herself is based in Philadelphia, the company has no home base. They establish long-term residencies and partnerships for rehearsal periods and then go on tour. “I started doing Shakespeare here at Ripon and started growing into myself theatrically,” she says. “It made sense to me to reach out to Ripon. There are a lot of ways I would have benefited from having exposure to something like this as a student.”

Theatre is something Lillis has felt fated to do her whole life. “What I love about theatre is that it’s a different experience in how we consume media,” she says “Being able to make eye contact and connect with people in the moment creates such a different experience. There is electricity that happens between the actors and the audience that opens your eyes and lets you experience things collectively.”

She says she focuses on works by Shakespeare because the plays are timeless. “Despite the fact they were written 400 years ago, the characters, things that are happening and how the characters are dealing with them feel so modern. The emotions they are feeling are the exact feelings we go through. They feel so familiar and representative of the human experience. It was true 400 years ago and it is still true now.”

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