Shannon Woolley Allison & Meghan Holland in rehearsal for Note. Photo: Looking for Lilith.
Conversation With Eli Keel About His New Play
By Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2019 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
(gender-neutral pronouns employed here)
For an artist, personal and professional development should go hand in hand. Revealing one’s innermost self may be not be required, except for maybe some people it inevitably is, and there is a long critical tradition of deconstructing works of art for biographical underpinnings, so if you are an artist, you should expect it.
As we talk over coffee Eli Keel is making it easy for me. While their hands are busy at work on a leather craft project, their words outline the deeply personal foundation for their new play, Note, about to make its world premiere with Looking for Lilith Theatre Company (LFL).
“It is always a challenge to develop meaningful women in my writing, so I was determined to make the next play about women. This is the play I HAD to write.”
Although they are careful not to reveal too much about the plot, Keel tells me that it is a story about two sisters, one who is bi-polar and has attempted suicide and one who is a playwright. Early drafts were intended as a one-act and went through a process with Derby City Playwrights, a collective of local playwrights founded by Brian Walker. Eventually, they expanded the characters to four, keeping the structure simple but allowing the text to become more complex thematically and existentially.
The answer to how Note is autobiographical for Keel is not hard to locate. It can be found in the relentless honesty and self-examination that is but one of their defining characteristics. If you know very much at all about this theatre artist then you know that they are bi-polar and non-binary queer. It is explicit in the statement Keel shares through LFL: “One’s really been making an effort to talk about that publicly. You know, given the rise in hate crimes and all. I’ve honestly been at a loss a lot lately. Describing myself right now feels performative.”
Keel also spent time discussing his family background, which is steeped in creativity, and theatre in particular, so Note’s play-within-a-play format not only aligns the two sisters with aspects of their creator’s identity but recognizes the appropriateness of theatricality as a structure for biography in Keel’s own life.
Keel’s level of activity as a writer and social activist is exhausting: besides being a playwright, Keel is a 2019 Hadley Creative, Co-founder of Louisville Fringe Festival, (where Note received a public reading) has had work produced by Theatre 502, Derby City Playwrights, Spalding University, PPINK, 1619 Flux: Art + Activism, and Suspend the Moment Productions LLC. Keel won the Arts-Louisville.com award for the Best Play of 2018, Nobody Bunny in the Golden Age of Animation.
Keeping up with it all through their social media profiles requires dedication, and that extends to previous productions of their plays. Although directed by Gil Reyes, Keel was deeply involved in the Theatre  production of Nobody Bunny and the Golden Age of Animation, and the same was true of Bus Stop at Sycamore & Vine, produced as part of the first Derby City Playwrights Festival in 2017. But with Note, Keel is taking the opportunity to step back; to be, in his words, “…just the playwright, and let others take on the headaches of production.”
Keel sent the script to a few colleagues for feedback in the first part of 2018, one of which was LFL’s, Shannon Woolley Allison. Her response was to call back with the news that the company was adding it to their upcoming 2018-19 season.
“My first reaction to Eli’s script was that is was equal parts loving and fearless,” remembers Allison, “which is something that I value in the work that LFL chooses to produce. It is fearless in that it lifts up a really difficult story, and allows us access to the intimate inner world of a woman and an artist who struggles with mental health. It de-stigmatizes her struggle by the simple act of allowing us inside of it.”
“What also stood out to me about Note was both it’s meta-theatricality, with the convention of a play within a play, AND it’s stark naturalism. Eli writes dialogue where only a portion of some sentences is spoken aloud, and the rest is implied and shown non-verbally, Because so much of Lilith’s work is based on oral history, and I have years and years of experience transcribing interviews word for word, I am struck by how exactly he replicates the way that we really do communicate with one another!”
So while Keel anxiously awaits the opening night, his stepping back doesn’t mean he has been cast adrift. “ Of course, Kathi (Kathi E.B. Ellis, the director of Note) has called with questions and has asked for clarification on some things, but that’s typical for her and for Lilith. They always show a lot of respect for the writer. But I’m still curious to see how it ends up.”
Looking for Lilith Theatre Company presents
By Eli Keel
Directed by Kathi E.B. Ellis
May 31 – June 9
The Mex Theater at The Kentucky Center
For tickets: Kentuckycenter.org
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.