Brenda Lilly went to college to become an actress and moved to Hollywood with her dreams set on sitcoms. She eventually found her way in television as a writer — no easy feat in a town and industry built on patriarchy — and in the early 2000s she co-created the family television drama “State of Grace.”
So why did Lilly, a fifth-generation Asheville native, move back home to the mountains?
“I kind of thought ‘you know, I’ve done what I came here to do,’” she said. “You know, I don’t want to have to capitulate to do other things just to continue on.”
Lilly still writes for the screen, but she has also expanded to writing for the stage. She adapted Henrik Ibsen’s 140-year-old drama “A Doll’s House” and set it in the 1960s. Her play, “Doll,” opens April 19 at the Magnetic Theatre.
“I looked at it from the point of view from how things had not changed when the play was written, in the 1800s, to the 1960s,” she said. “‘State of Grace’ was set in the 1960s, so I always thought ‘Mad Men’ copied us.”
Lilly isn’t fixated on that era as much as she sees it as ripe for exploring the roots of contemporary America—socially, politically, even religiously. Without divulging her age, she said it represents her sensibilities as a writer.
“I grew up watching these old comic movies, and cartoons. It was great comedy,” she recalled. “My mom was very funny, my dad was very funny. There was a lot of laughter growing up, and I was educated by nuns. That will make you laugh a lot.”
She needed that sense of humor when, armed with a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, she moved to Los Angeles with an eye of getting cast in a sitcom.
“All of the roles I was getting cast in were the same thing— a young mom, which is not at all what I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to do comedy, I wanted to do character work. I wasn’t getting that opportunity, and that forced me into writing.”
Lilly wrote scattered episodes for a variety of short-lived TV series, then was hired onto the staff of the show “Designing Women,” only to have the job evaporate before it began.
“And at that point, I’m thinking maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to do, because this is a show I could have written in my sleep—southern women,” she said. “So OK, the universe is telling me something.”
Lilly and another female writer, Hollis Rich, thought it best to create and pitch their own series and came up with “State of Grace.”
“About that time, the Columbine shootings happened, and we were looking at this and going ‘How did we get to this world where, first of all, kids can be building bombs in their garage and their parents don’t know it?’ she recalled. “And we started talking about how things were like when we were growing up.”
These questions still motivate Lilly. After returning to Asheville, she landed in Western Carolina University’s theater faculty and now teaches writing there to film and television students. “Doll” saw its premiere through the university.
“I took a lot of creative license,” she said. “‘A Doll’s House’ is essentially about patriarchy and I wanted it to be about misogyny.”
Moving away from Hollywood hasn’t slowed Lilly’s writing. It’s just changed the emphasis. With her position at the university as her financial foundation, she can now afford to indulge her whims, no matter the trends. She’s working with her writing partner on a new potential series, and she has long made peace without her name on a sitcom.
“I’m just a total freak for working,” she said. “I can’t stop, no matter what I try.”