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There’s not much Laura Ellis can’t do. She’s a producer at WFPL, she’s a sound designer with numerous productions on her resume, she’s the lead singer of a local band that’s getting a lot of attention, and she can also frequently be seen in some of the best theatre the city has to offer. She’s a busy girl, currently rehearsing for Pandora Production’s upcoming show Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche, opening June 20.
Brian Walker: So I’ve got this list of questions for you. Some of them are more serious and some are silly, so just be totally spontaneous when you answer.
Laura Ellis: Awww, this is so cool!
BW: Okay. Number 1: Your daytime gig is as a producer for WFPL. What all does that entail?
LE: I’ve been with WFPL for nine years now and my job has changed a lot over the course of those years. These days I produce two weekly shows (“produce,” in this case, basically means to collaborate with the host[s] on what the topics will be, choose and book the guests, and oversee the final product). Byline is a weekly news round-up show that is live on Fridays at 1 p.m. The other show is what I’ve been really engrossed in lately, since we started it last September. It’s called Strange Fruit, and the tagline is “musings on politics, pop culture, and black gay life.” It’s hosted by Dr. Kaila Story from UofL and local activist Jaison Gardner – two of the most brilliant folks I know when it comes to social justice and equality issues. So, as the tagline suggests, we look at different issues involving LGBTQ people of color. And what I love about it is we cover them in both a very academic, historical and cerebral way, and also a very down-to-earth, poppy kinda way. I’m really proud of the show because, although it does seem like a very specific niche, it’s unusual to hear these kinds of topics covered this way on public radio. Love it! I could talk about Strange Fruit all day, but I have to get to the second question. A new episode is posted every Saturday on WFPL.org. Listen and you will love it!
BW: Number 2: How did you get involved with Billy Goat Strut Revue?
LE: The Billy Goats thought Brigid Kaelin was going to be their singer; and when I showed up, I had an accordion, and red hair, and I think they were all pretty hung-over, so they didn’t realize it was actually me until we were a couple gigs in and it would have been awkward to bring it up. I kid! Brigid was gonna sing with them, but she moved to Scotland for a year, and she referred them to me.
BW: Number 3: How would you describe the type of music ya’ll play?
LE: Funny you should ask! Basically, we play mostly jazz, largely New Orleans style, and mainly from the ’30s and ’40s. We started out calling it antique jazz, and sometimes Prohibition-era jazz. But really, we we’re kind of breaking outside of our self-imposed genre from the get-go, doing some Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee stuff from the fifties, a tune from the nineteen-teens, adding fiddle, putting some honky-tonk stuff in the mix, etc. And some people say I sing with a twang (those people are Yankees with no sense). In recording this album, our bass player coined the term “bourbon jazz” to describe the Kentucky spin on the tunes we play. So we decided we invented a new genre.
BW: Number 4: The band just released their first album and your picture is the cover! How does that feel?
LE: This is my first-ever CD, so that feels awesome! I was a bit out of the loop on album art, going through family stuff, and I do kinda wish we’d had a picture of the whole band. But we’ve never done official band photos; and with seven on stage, gig pics that show all of us in the same shot are rare. Anyway, I’m thrilled to have a CD out, and especially one that showcases this good old-fashioned music. I love it.
BW: Number 5: When can we catch you with Billy Goat Strut Revue next?
LE: We’re still working on booking some stuff for the summer, but you can for sure catch us on Thursday, July 25th, at St. Charles Exchange (it’s an anniversary party for Bourbon Review magazine – yum!) and the very next day, July 26th, on WFPK’s Live Lunch!
BW: Number 6: You’re also a very respected local actor who has worked with numerous companies. How do you decide what theatre projects to take on?
LE: I’m still in my childhood, or maybe adolescence, as an actor. I had my first real part in January of 2009. So it’s only in the past two years or so I grew out of the phase where you do every show you possibly can in case you never get any offers again! I find the companies with social justice missions stay dear to my heart, so I tend to do at least one show a year with Pandora and Looking for Lilith. Aside from those, I love working with friends, I love singing and dancing, I love working with directors I’ve never worked with before, and I like parts that make me nervous. I just did my first Shakespeare last fall and, whew! Forsooth, y’all.
BW: Number 7: Tell me about the show you’re currently rehearsing for.
LE: Right now I’m in rehearsal for Pandora’s Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche. It’s my only Pandora show this season, and it’s a lot of fun – society ladies at a luncheon with an undercurrent of sexual tension and denial, set in the duck-and-cover era of the 1950s. Plus, lady-kissing on stage. What’s not to love?
BW: Number 8: What are you addicted to right now?
LE: Right now I’m addicted to TCM. (I just found out I had it a few months ago, and my brother left a DVR machine at my place, so I’m set.) I’m also addicted to the raccoons who live on my block. They eat out of my hand. My neighbor came home one night last month to find me crouching in his yard, under cover of darkness, feeding nachos to a raccoon. Now he feeds it too. We have this little raccoon-appreciation society going on. He gives it ham. I give it nachos and pizza. The lady down the street gives it Pop-Tarts, which she makes it get out of the bag itself (so cute!). Raccoons, if you’re reading this, move to my street and live in luxury! When I eventually die, it will almost certainly be from rabies or being mauled to death by something I wanted to pet.
BW: Number 9: If you could star in the remake of any movie ever, what movie would it be and why?
LE: I would play Milo in Milo and Otis. Or play the Ginger Rogers part in any Ginger Rogers movie. Ooh, especially Vivacious Lady. And Joe Hatfield would be the Jimmy Stewart part. ’Cause that’s totally him in real life. If I can cast from the Louisville theatre scene, I wanna do the movie version of Stage Door, and I have lots of hilarious ladies in mind for the wise-cracking residents of the Footlights Club. I guess I’m also currently addicted to Ginger Rogers.
BW: Number 10: Is there a play you’re dying for a local company to produce so you can be in it?
LE: GENDER-NEUTRAL JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. Also, one time there was this Facebook thread asking people what their dream role would be if age, race, gender, body type, etc., was no consideration. It made me really want to see some productions like that. I’m talking Brian West as Laura Wingfield; Leah Roberts as Stanley Kowalski. I’ve been wanting to see Morgan Younge as Dr. Frank N. Furter for years.
BW: Number 11: What advice would you give to someone looking to break into the local arts scene?
LE: Don’t be a pain to work with. Be professional and be nice, even when you don’t think it matters. You will be amazed at how quickly you can become part of the community if you make a good impression on folks and show that you’re willing to work and that you’re good to work with. Despite the fact that we have over nine thousand theatre companies, it’s actually a small community, and a bad reputation or attitude can haunt you for a long time. Be open-minded and open-hearted, and be willing to take humbling work when you first start out. True confession: Four or five years ago I was an ASM mopping floors.
BW: Number 12: What’s your favorite thing about being an artist in Louisville?
LE: The people! They blow me away! People are always coming up with amazing ideas and unexpected partnerships. I have met so many of my very favorite people through the arts scene here in town.
BW: Number 13: What’s your least favorite thing about being an artist in Louisville?
LE: Probably that you really can’t make much money at it. I know a lot of folks who would probably be even more creative and brilliant if they weren’t always worn out from working one or two other jobs to pay their bills. Maybe it’s because there are so many of us and the market’s saturated. Maybe we just don’t have enough independently-wealthy patrons.
BW: Number 14: Favorite local hangout?
LE: I love the Nachbar, ’cause I was born and raised in Germantown. I love the Back Door for cheap drinks and running into friends. I love the Silver Dollar for honky tonk music and good food. I love the Flea Off Market for people watching and cheap, cute clothes. I love the zoo, too.
BW: Number 15: What’s one thing folks would be surprised to learn about you?
LE: I dropped out of high school. And people are usually surprised to hear I have a teenage son.
BW: Number 16: Between your 9-to-5 job, being in a band and acting in plays, how do you manage to find time for it all?
LE: It’s hard! And it’s been a hard-learned lesson to not over-commit. You can’t do your most creative work that way – or at least I can’t. I just try to take good care of myself. I have a lot of energy and I get a lot of energy from being around other people. So I prefer to be busy! I just had to learn to give myself downtime without feeling guilty about it.
BW: Number 17: Who is someone who inspires you and why?
LE: Eeeek… This is a tough question for me right now, and I gotta say my Mama. She just passed away last month, so she is always at the forefront of my mind. She connected with people and made them feel important and cared for in a way few folks can. She never let fear prevent her from trying something fun. She acknowledged her mistakes without being defeated by them. She faced the end of her life with resistance, but courage. I’m sure I’m nowhere near finished learning from her, even though she’s physically gone.