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Lillian Isabella’s Original Play Primordial at The Tank

Audrey Miller

Lillian Isabella, an alumna of The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute through the NYU Tisch School of the Arts partnership, recently opened her original play Primordial at The Tank. A documentary theatre writer focused on telling women-centric stories, Lillian’s newest show highlights pregnancy and childbirth. 

Committing to The Method

In high school, Lillian debated between three life paths: philosopher/poet, politician, or actor. After discovering documentary theatre through high school summer programs, she chose acting. For Lillian, NYU Tisch was her dream school. Although she had little to no acting training and thought her audition went “horribly,” she was accepted and assigned to LSTFI for her primary training. Lillian “had no idea about The Method” but quickly grew to love LSTFI. She believes that most people today are misinformed about Method Acting since “you don’t stay in character forever” or “torture yourself.”

At the end of her first two years, Lillian chose to continue her training at LSTFI instead of transferring studios. She says, “I had the feeling that two years wasn’t enough for me to really learn what they were teaching me,” adding that she wanted to “fully commit.” Lillian is grateful to have trained under such amazing faculty at LSTFI, naming Lola Cohen, Lorca Peress, and Ron Navarre as some of the most influential. She also fondly remembers making many discoveries and feeling “confident” during the late Irma Sandrey’s classes: “She was one of the people who made me feel like I could do this the most.” 

Telling Female-Focused Stories

During the pandemic, Lillian became “less interested in acting,” frustrated by the lack of female-oriented stories in the audition scene; instead, she turned to writing and creating her own worlds. Although Lillian still has some acting plans on the horizon, acting and writing are drastically different experiences for her. She describes acting as “a trial,” a “physical, mental, emotional journey” that is “challenging, spiritual, and powerful.” Writing, on the other hand, is the way her brain works: “When I write, I feel calm because it’s a flow that’s naturally coming out.” 

Although Lillian “will always be an actor” and look for stories that she wants to tell, for now, she is focused on writing and creating female-centric worlds. She comments on the recent evolution of the industry and the growing acknowledgement of female directors, writers, and producers: “There are so many female powerhouses producing and telling female-focused stories…It’s changing rapidly, and I want to get more in the mix with that.” 

A few years ago, Lillian performed in her own show, How We Love/F*ck, and details the challenge of saying her own words on stage: “I was on stage and my brain was split: I’m the playwright listening to the play and I’m acting in it.” For now, Lillian is content with being the playwright to “center other women and watch them do their thing.” 

Documentary Theatre

Surprisingly, Lillian’s first experience with acting involved documentary theatre. Years later, Lillian crafted a performance around Jonas Mekas, an East Village local, during the Metropolitan Playhouse Festival: East Village Chronicles, creating That’s How Angels Arranged. Lillian was 26 at the time, interviewing and eventually performing as a 92-year-old man. “It was so fun to play him,” she shares, “He was a magical man.”

After that project, Lillian was hooked and has created two documentary theatre shows since. During this process, Lillian interviews real people on a particular subject, and then uses the transcriptions to build an original play. She believes her “career has moved fastest” when she crafts stories this way.

How We Love/F*ck

Premiering at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 2019, How We Love/F*ck is “an intimate celebration of female sexuality.” Lillian describes the show as her response to the #MeToo movement, which was “very important” but touched on “a lot of trauma.” To craft the show, Lillian interviewed 28 women about intimate topics. Lillian was grateful that these women “shared a lot,” adding that she definitely “learned along the way.” While piecing together these interviews, Lillian realized the play needed “a backbone, a connective tissue for all the various stories,” which led her to incorporate poems and scenes about her own journey.

Lillian hoped the play would be something “positive and exploratory,” asking questions like, “What does sex look like when you’re having fun?” and “How can we celebrate sexuality?” The response was impactful. Lillian recalls strangers approaching her and sharing personal stories after each show, which was incredible to experience. 


Lillian’s latest show, Primordial, is a core production at NYC’s The Tank, running now through February 25th. In her own words, Lillian describes Primordial as “an original verbatim documentary theater piece about pregnancy and childbirth,” distilling 1,100 pages of transcript from interviews into an hour and a half long play. Lillian is proud that “all of the stories are exactly, word-from-word, from real people,” taken from interviews conducted in 2020 – it was Lillian’s “pandemic project.”

According to Lillian, her goal is “to center people who have been pregnant and given birth” because she feels the topic is rarely discussed. She asks, “Every single human being on the planet was born, so how do we not have it be the center of society?” The play itself is structured according to the subject matter: the movement of act one reflects pregnancy, while act two mimics labor with moments of increasing energy and then rest.  

Lillian first connected with Meghan Finn, the show’s director, at LSTFI in 2010 when Meghan directed her in Ivanov. The playwright calls Meghan “a fireball of creative brilliance,” noting her “complete commitment to the art” and “her piercing capacity to know exactly what’s going on in people to bring out the best in everybody.” Lillian adds, “I’m so lucky… She’s making the play so much better with her direction and vision.” 

Lillian speaks highly of the entire Primordial creative team. She shares that co-director and choreographer Leslie Galán Guyton is “bringing beautiful movement to the piece,” and expresses her admiration for composer Adrianna Mateo’s “amazing original works,” specifically composed for the play. Another LSTFI connection, Max Mooney serves as Primordial‘s stage manager, having fulfilled the same role for The Institute’s recent Practicum production, Lisa.

Combining Theatre & Civic Action

As a playwright, Lillian acknowledges that she is “not an expert in maternal healthcare, a doula, or a midwife.” Regardless, she is focused on connecting viewers of Primordial with organizations to “provide people with resources,” coordinating a series of talkbacks to complement the subject matter of her show. Lillian says, “I think theater is most impactful when it is combined with civic action, so I’m trying to provide pathways for that.” 

Lillian is also an outspoken advocate for those with health issues since she has Phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare disorder that does not allow her to break down the amino acid found in protein-rich foods, severely restricting her diet. Lillian is on the board of directors for the National PKU Alliance and is co-chair of their Advocacy Committee. Although the disorder can be a struggle, Lillian says, “I see it as something that makes me different in a way I wouldn’t trade for the world.”

Future Projects in the Works

Currently, Lillian is preparing to pitch an original docuseries, which she hopes will develop into a feature film or episodic. She is also working on a screenplay that she will star in. Lillian says, “I’m focusing on writing the stories that I want to act in, and forming relationships with people who are creating those stories.”

Learn more about Lillian on her website, or follow her on Instagram to stay up-to-date on all her future projects. For tickets to Primordial, running in NYC through February 25th, head to the link below!