4 Questions: Lilie Zendel
This article is part of our series 50 Years of Disruption, in celebration of the Department of Theatre’s 50th Anniversary. In it, we’ll ask each participant four questions about themselves and their time at York.
1. Who are you?
I’m Lilie Zendel. Since graduating from York University (Theatre Performance 1982), I’ve enjoyed several different careers all centred on translating artistic vision into action. Thanks to my theatre degree, I soon landed my first full-time job as Harbourfront’s Community and Special Events programmer. Proving I had the chops to spot nascent talent when I put the Canada Day spotlight on an emerging singer by the name of k.d. lang., I was promoted to my dream position – Harbourfront’s Performing Arts programmer. My assignment was to figure out how to make Toronto’s waterfront park a destination for theatre. With no roadmap, my prime goal was to champion new opportunities and funding sources for cutting-edge artists and companies. Those efforts resulted in launching several large-scale programs. Serving as the Artistic Director of the International Children’s Festival, Founding Artistic Director of the du Maurier World Stage and Quay Works, a multi-disciplinary arts festival of innovative works and artists from around the world required enormous discipline and dedication. Globe trotting in search of emerging talent opened my eyes to so much exceptional artistry. Most rewarding was the ability to commission numerous artists early in their career. I’m proud to have exposed audiences to so much innovative work and help put the city on the map as a great place to discover world theatre. I’m also grateful for learning the value of collaboration. No artistic director succeeds without a dedicated support team.
Contemporary playwrights were the reason I first fell in love with the theatre. Little surprise serving as Executive Director of The Playwrights Union of Canada seemed the next good fit. To advocate on behalf of playwrights I admired was an enriching experience. Thanks to time-budgeting skills, I managed to handle a steep learning curve which included running a publishing house. The Department of Foreign Affairs was responsible for my next career move. In recognition of my work, I was asked to move to New York to lead the Cultural Affairs section at the Canadian Consulate. Never dreaming I’d be working in the world of diplomacy, the job proved to be a high profile, high-wire act that tested my ability to pitch, predict, forecast and orchestrate multiple projects. To serve as a tireless advocate for Canada’s entire creative sector meant being an accomplished relationship builder. Asking movers and shakers to take a moment from their busy day to listen to your “elevator pitch” is not for the faint of heart. It requires grit, patience and humour. Imagine preparing for a new audition each day of the week and you get the picture.
When I finally returned to Canada, I joined the City of Toronto’s Cultural Services team at a time when the city was witnessing unprecedented creative growth. It proved the perfect moment to re-connect with my hometown and help it flourish. Five years later, I transferred to the Public Realm Section of Transportation where I launched StreetARToronto (StART), a program I was asked to design to combat graffiti vandalism while making Toronto’s streets more eye-catching. Often relying on my theatre and set design knowledge, it turned out to be a thrilling adventure that allowed me to move in fresh and fascinating directions. I recently left the City to become an arts consultant. My first major client is The Shoe Project, a women-led, non-profit initiative initiated by novelist Katherine Govier. Led by senior Canadian writers and theatre artists, TSP workshops, performances and publications lift the voices of women and refugees into Canada’s national conversation on immigration and integration. As a child of immigrants, an issue close to my heart.
2. What was your favourite moment during your time in the Theatre Department, and why?
In 1976 our theatre class was hired to work as extras for the film NETWORK. Distinguished screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky wrote the seminal and Academy award-winning script. Its director was Sidney Lumet and the film featured Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway. As extras, we were playing the role of audience members invited to watch Peter Finch’s chilling and famous studio on-air rant. Despite repeated takes, Mr. Finch kept flubbing his lines. Lumet finally told the crew to put his monologue on cue cards and scatter them around the audience members. Once in place, Mr. Finch delivered what eventually became a posthumous Academy award-winning performance. I learned two lessons that week. Even if you think you know your lines, study more. Witnessing Lumet’s taut direction and Finch’s electric performance, I sharpened my artistic and critical sense.
3. What comment, quotation, statement, or action that a professor—or classmate—offered had the greatest impact on you?
In third year, my acting professor Malcolm Black told me I was one of those rare students who possessed particularly expressive eyes. He told me it would serve me well as a character actor since it was doubtful I’d ever be cast as the ingenue. Despite his confidence in my acting chops, he wasn’t convinced I was prepared for the patience required for the craft. In his opinion, my kind of looks meant meaty roles wouldn’t be available till I was a more mature actress. While it felt as if my dreams had been dashed, I appreciated his candidness. Since there’s no better way to change your perception of the world – and maybe yourself – than travel, I chose to leave the program after third year for a two-year odyssey that allowed me to experience different cultures and informed my future direction. Once back, I completed my final year of studies and began to look for work behind the curtain.
4. Is there a way you incorporate a particular aspect of your theatre training in your current work?
Theatre performance studies gave me several invaluable lessons I still apply to all my work. First, be prompt. Always worried I’d be locked out of class, my biggest phobia remains arriving late. I’m equally grateful for character study classes. I never attend a meeting without considering the personalities around the table. Thanks to practising observational skills as an actor, I can often pick out the chatterboxes from the achievers in a New York minute. Finally, I’ve always maintained the work ethic required for theatre. For most of us simply “getting it done” isn’t enough. Yes, life in the arts is about adaptability and flexibility but it also means taking the vow to do your absolute best.