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Kenan Theatre Company prepares for fall production in memory of Lillian Chason

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Courtesy of Mark Perry

Come fall, the lobby of the Center for Dramatic Arts will buzz with drama students and hopeful thespians vying for a spot in the first show of the year. While many appreciate the opportunity given to them — it's a chance to work with a professional director — few know the reason and story behind the Chason production’s existence.

Each year, Cate Chason and David Navalinsky, the director of undergraduate production, select a director from the graduates of the Trinity Repertory Company at Brown University to lead the first show of the Kenan Theatre Company’s season. They also select a student to receive the Lillian Chason Scholarship.

There is one student that never got to see the stage, but the impact she made continues to live on.

Lillian Chason passed away on Dec. 16, 2009 from suspected complications from the swine flu, or H1N1, virus. Lillian was in her first year at UNC and had succeeded in landing a leading role in an original play, "A New Dress for Mona."

Lillian’s curtains closed too early, but she and her parents never let adversity stop her from being a driving force for the department then and a guiding influence in the years after her death.

Lights up

Lillian made her own choices. Her mother, Cate, said she was always independent. When it came to choosing a college, Lillian decided not to go to Brown University where her father worked, opting to march to her own drum.

“She wanted to see the world,” Cate said. 

There were other hurdles Lillian faced entering college. Lillian was born with Stargardt disease, a genetic disease that causes the progressive loss of vision. But she didn’t let the challenge get in her way.

“She understood that when she went to Chapel Hill that she could be completely legally blind by the time she graduated, but she didn’t let it bother her at all,” Cate said.

Courtesy of Cate Chason

Lillian had received top scores on her Advanced Placement calculus and physics exams and, with her father being a physics professor, her parents thought she would study science at UNC. 

“She really wanted to get a drama degree and she said, ‘I had the rest of my life to do science or whatever,’” Cate said. “‘But if I don’t do drama now I’m not gonna go back to it in the same way.’”

Halfway through her first semester, Lillian discovered she had enough credits to graduate early. She announced that she was going to use that time to pursue a fine arts double major with a focus on pottery.

Cate, who received a bachelor’s of fine arts from UNC, said she knew Lillian would face an uphill battle because of the heavy amount of required figure drawing.

They contacted Marvin Saltzman, a former department chairperson of UNC’s Department of Fine Art and Cate’s mentor, to seek his advice on how Lillian could complete the major. 

“He said Lillian Chason is going to get an art degree, and they heard what he said and they agreed to exempt her from things she couldn’t see or do,” Cate Chason said. 

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Taking the stage

Mark Perry, an associate professor in the dramatic arts department and playwright of "A New Dress for Mona," said Lillian was nervous when she entered the audition room. He said he gave her the script he wanted her to read from and immediately sensed her worry. Lillian said she would have to come back the next day.

“Before she left, she stopped at the door and she said, ‘I really wanna be a part of this process,’” Perry said.

What Perry didn’t know then is that Lillian went to UNC Accessibility Resource and Service to get the script enlarged so that she could could see it in order to practice and memorize. 

Lillian was eventually cast as the lead role in Perry’s original play, which chronicles the story of a young Iranian girl who eventually dies. Perry said that Lillian was a natural in rehearsal and immediately felt a connection with Mona's character. 

“She ended up being a very natural actor, really good impulses, really easy person to cast for the central role,” Perry said. 

Lillian possessed a kind of “artistic stubbornness” that she brought to production, Perry said. He remembered asking her to change something, and Lillian said, "I would never do that," and he said, "Well, you’re not Mona."

But for Lillian, it was different. Perry said that the relationship Lillian had with Mona is what made her a promising budding actress. 

“There’s a factor of craft that we should and must develop, but then there’s a raw gift that is dispensed somewhat unfairly among the population,” Perry said.

When Lillian fell ill and entered the hospital in November of 2009, Perry said that the whole cast rallied around her. They helped create a Facebook page, Prayers for Lillian, and visited Lillian in the hospital while she was in intensive care. 

There weren’t enough chairs in the waiting room as the cast sat with the Chason family. While discussing the production, Perry said Cate asked what happens to Mona at the end of the play. 

“And with her daughter on life support, no one could even say,” Perry said. 

Perry remembers sitting in a room with the cast one day in December. The students were beginning to believe that Lillian was not going to get better, and even if she did recover, she wouldn’t be able to perform the role. The group made the decision to recast, and within the hour of that meeting, Lillian passed away. 

“There was some feeling that there was some tie there that was broken,” Perry said. 

Curtain call

Lillian’s time at UNC was cut short, and her dream of the stage was never realized. Her parents made sure that the effects of her life expand far beyond her time. In an effort to ensure opportunities for future dramatic arts students, Lillian’s parents created the Lillian Chason Excellence Fund and the Lillian Chason Scholarship in her name, along with setting up a program that would allow for a yearly fall production.

“When she died she had the leading role in a play and it was, as I understand, the first time a first-year freshman had the leading role,” Cate said. “So, I wanted to make sure that was possible to happen again and again.”

Navalinksy said the Lillian Chason production serves as the cornerstone of the season and its creation played a key role in the evolution of the department. He said the Chason family’s generosity invokes the spirit of Lillian and allows her to live on.  

“I think that she would have been looking to make the changes in the department that I made, and through this production and through these funds, she’s been able to do that,” Navalinksy said. 

Courtesy of Cate Chason

This year’s show, "The Language Archive," is a romantic comedy about the preservation of dead languages, and will be directed by 2017 Brown/Trinity rep graduate Ashley Teague. 

Cate said a part of her goal was to make UNC’s undergraduate program one of the best in the country. Perry said this gift is a part of the healing process both for the Chasons and the department.

“What you have is you have this loss, this pain, this wound that is always there, and yet rather than just ending in sorrow it ends in a loving gesture, a loving gift,” Perry said. “It allows others to live on and to succeed.”

The Chasons are a part of the department’s family and that the theme of family is always present in the shows they choose, Navalinsky said. In addition to the production sharing her namesake, the set always includes something of Lillian’s as a way to keep her on the stage.

“We’ve been able to do something with the Chason production that's really bigger than us, we always kind of are when we are doing a play, but this is someone's legacy that they have left for us,” Navalinsky said.