Today we’d like to introduce you to Lissa Slay.
Thanks for sharing your story with us Lissa. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I’ve always loved the theatre. I love the art form’s joy and celebration of the humanity we all share. Theatre is vibrant, magical – and though I’ve always loved it, I never realized it could be a career.
Whenever the opportunity arose – third-grade play (I was a Thanksgiving butter knife) or church play (Kid #3) or even the opportunity to crossover into film/TV (several agents later…) – I wanted to be a part of this amazing community, to share stories and enjoy the camaraderie. I wrote and directed short plays, then eventually a musical – and decided I would study Theatre in college. I’m a first-generation Filipino American and first in the family to attend college – and here I am saying I want to study Theatre! Let’s just say the excitement was mostly felt by me. But even in college, as I worked hard to catch up to my peers who had been singing and dancing since they were tots – I’d done my first real musical at sixteen – wanting to study Theatre and knowing what to do with that study are almost separate things. I knew I didn’t want to go to New York though I always played along (‘She has dreams of Broadway’ quotes one local program bio); there was plenty of art and work to be had in Southern California.
But how does one get from college to career? I had no answer for this conundrum, other than to continue working – booking shows to direct whenever my college studies would allow, writing plays, seeing a lot of theatre, practicing my (terrible) triple-timestep at the local 24 Hour Fitness into the wee hours. That’s been my answer for a lot of life – just do the work. The opportunities will present themselves.
The university I attended hosted the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival during my senior year. I had no frame of reference for it – I had absolutely no idea what it was. A friend encouraged me to attend and take workshops. I did what she said and then I ended up auditioning for a panel of assorted theatre companies at the festival and received several callbacks, including a callback for Missoula Children’s Theatre. They offered me a tour contract that would begin two days after I graduated.
I wasn’t looking for this specific opportunity – this director/musical theatre kid hybrid, directing ethnic identity plays while belting Paul McCartney tunes as audition pieces – but the opportunity found me. I’ll be forever grateful to Michael McGill, executive director of Missoula Children’s Theatre, and the whole home staff. That contract led to four tours, seventeen states, and a chance to know myself and my craft on a level I hadn’t thought possible.
You see, we all have these ideas – vague or concrete, but ideas nonetheless – about where we see ourselves. I just saw myself in theatre – regional, preferably. I came home from tour and realized that teaching theatre to kids – sharing the same joy and celebration that made my child-self light up – was what I wanted to do. I directed more shows, taught more kids, and realized that I wanted to sharpen my practice. So I went back to school for my Master’s in Education and a teaching credential. That soon became two credentials, both fully cleared by the state. Somewhere in there, I became a professor of Theatre. I have now taught elementary, high school, and college theatre. I am now currently looking at another Master’s – this time in Theatre Education – to continue to deepen my practice and serve the new generation of theatremakers and artists.
Remember that audition panel I told you about? I’ve now sat on it three times – as a casting associate, hiring graduating undergrads and grads for the very company that gave me my first tour contract.
I’ve spent a decade in creating theatre as a teaching artist, director, and educator. I’m looking forward to more decades to come.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I had to learn early on to be my own advocate. The entertainment industry expects and demands that children be wise, savvy managers of themselves as a business. They don’t coddle you just because you’re a kid. That was a big lesson to learn when I got my first agent at twelve.
While I figured out how to manage the entertainment side of my young career, I had no idea how to approach the theatre side. Everyone I met had a private voice teacher, extensive dance training, and were the whole package! I felt like I was coming in late to the game and I’d never catch up. Whether that’s true or not, it became a challenge because I felt I needed to catch up in order to be successful. Self-doubt can be a real killer. Some folks enter into this world with ease and connections – I worked hard and had to find some serious inner discipline every step of the way.
We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I’m a freelance teaching artist and director. It would be more accurate to say ‘theatremaker’ because I wear so many hats. I can direct your musical, and I can also stage manage, or produce, or assist the lighting designer. I’ve been known to swing an (average) paintbrush. I can teach your students, ages 4-9 or 10-18 or 19-90, the joys of theatre. I can teach your teachers how to integrate theatre practices into their general classroom practice and model best practices to those teachers putting on their first school musical. My current projects are focused on building sustainable theatre programs in educational settings. I’ve found a lot of my success through word-of-mouth and client recommendations. I work with local schools, studios, school districts, and arts organizations.
What sets me apart from others? I am passionate about theatre education and I care deeply about passing on the benefits to others. As I often tell my students, I am not interested in turning them into theatre people. If they pursue a career in the theatre, that is a happy outcome. I am more interested in how Theatre impacts and shapes them, imparts an empathy for others and helps them see their world as a community, inclusive and loving.
Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
My husband (a fellow theatre person) has always said, “Direction flows through relationship.” This is true for both directing and life. I have been blessed to know some outstanding educators and artists who saw something in me when I didn’t always see it in myself. Having relationships – solid, warm relationships built on mutual respect – can absolutely determine the trajectory and direction of your life – in theatre parlance, certainly the next few gigs.
There was a big moment in my theatre studies when I was to audition into an elite concentration of the major. When I wasn’t accepted, I mourned my bad luck and despaired of my skillset, seemingly behind so many other talented majors. I have since come to realize that not being accepted was one of the best things to ever happen to me. The rejection set me on a path where I spent time with artists more aligned with the work I was to do – though I didn’t know it yet. One of the highlights during Commencement was when my respected mentor professor unexpectedly gifted me with his undergraduate tassel and told me how much he believed in me. Two days later, I was on a plane to Montana to begin my first professional tour contract. I still have that tassel, a decade’s-worth of happy theatre memories and a career I’m passionate about.
When you act in accordance to the gifts you have been given, I think a lot of ‘luck’ is really God and the universe aligning opportunities for you to share and serve. I thought my gift was to only to perform – my gift also includes teaching and storytelling. Gifts – talents – passions – they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The performance opportunities are fun and exciting, but teaching? Directing and telling stories? That’s been artistically and spiritually satisfying. There’s an art in it, and it’s truly a magical experience when the thing you love to do aligns with the gifts you’ve been given.
- Email: email@example.com
- Instagram: @thehappytheatreteacher
- Facebook: @lissaslayfreelance
Danielle Vernengo Photography, Ivelisse Photography