HILTON HEAD ISLANDER ACTS, DIRECTS AND SINGS IN MANY LOCATIONS
Lili Torre was still texting “here” when I spotted her sitting on the wide steps of Union Square. She leapt up and smiled with the same bright eyes I’d known since our Hilton Head Island High School days, when she sang and I played drums in our school’s production of “Les Miserables.” She moved to New York just over five years ago to chase a career in musical theater, and that’s how we found ourselves on a bench in a city most people only visit.
Against all odds, two days after landing in New York, Lili landed the first role she auditioned for, a touring show of “Madagascar Live: The Musical.
“It was crazy,” she said.
Within two months, she was on a U.K. tour with an accomplished team.
“The choreographer and director had insane credits that I still can’t believe I got to work with,” she said, adding that most of the cast had been on Broadway. “The costumes were incredible and the set was designed by a Tony Award-winning set designer. Every day was like wow, where was my career going to go now? And I came back and I didn’t work for a year and a half.”
It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though.
“I auditioned constantly. And I was so close to so many things. It’s almost harder when it’s down to just you and another person and it’s never you,” Lili said. “You start thinking what is it about me. You know that saying, insanity is doing the same thing expecting different results? Well, to do theater you must be insane.”
Though she may tweak her choice of song, hone her voice, or switch her hair, repetition is inevitable, and necessary. It’s a marathon, and those with the most grit inevitably break through. Which she did, finally landing a long contract with a theater in Illinois, playing a dream role as Eponine in “Les Miserables” opposite her fiancé, Collin O’Connor. They met while in college at Millikin University, an unlikely gem for musical theater in Decatur, Illinois. And now they were back in the Midwestern state, acting side by side.
Lili and I are very aware of the doors that can close when choosing this life. Nearing our 30s, some of our friends have already favored stable careers, some are having children. Nannying for years, Lili saw the investment and coordination required of having kids in New York City, and knows now’s not the time — in part because she’s only been married a month. She and Collin tied the knot last month at Long Cove on Hilton Head. But there are huge, sometimes intangible rewards to a career in the arts.
“I couldn’t have imagined that I’d get paid to travel this much,” Lili said. She spent six months at sea as a singer for Royal Caribbean. But she’s also worked at small, regional theaters in middle America, immersing herself in the customs of small-town life.
“As an actor, it’s important to step in other people’s shoes,” she told me as a kindly old homeless man offered us flowers, mistaking us as a couple.
Most recently, she’s been asked not to act, but to direct, a production of “Madagascar Live” for The Little Theater on the Square, a long-running theater in the small town of Sullivan, Illinois.
“I could really see directing as a whole new path in my career and I’m really excited about it,” she said.
Lili, whose family still lives on the island, loves to return between stints. She pointed out it was no coincidence that so many talented people have come out of Hilton Head, expats like us — many of whom I’ve already profiled in this column.
“We had the youth orchestra, the Main Street Theatre, and Sea Hawk Theater Guild at the high school,” she said. “I learned so much from people like Larry Mercer, the choir director there, and Jody Layman, the director at Main Street Youth Theatre, who’d had quite a career herself.”
As we sit in the city where dreams are made, traded, and spent, I can’t help but feel a certain pride that Lili and I are sticking it out in this metropolis. I mean, here we were, taking an hour out of our shuffling lives to meet in Union Square. Insanity needs a new definition.
PHOTOS SUBMITTED BY LILI TORRE