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Remembering Louisville Theater Director Kathi Ellis

Courtesy Karin Partin Wells

Louisville theater director Kathi E. B. Ellis died on Monday morning from metastatic breast cancer. 

I was lucky enough to work with Kathi regularly over the last decade or so, as a performer and sound designer (though we were not related, like many people assumed). We worked together on independent projects, and in her capacity as co-artistic director of Looking for Lilith Theater Company, of which I’m an associate member and regular collaborator. 

It’s hard to think of any part of our community Kathi did not touch. Amy Attaway, associate artistic director with Kentucky Shakespeare (and WFPL fill-in host) called Kathi an ever-present force. “She saw every piece of theater in town, came to every meeting, participated in every event and every conversation about the arts in Louisville,” Attaway said. 

I know it sounds like a cliche, but I can’t think of another way to say it: Kathi lived and breathed theater. She seemed to need very little sleep; her work energized her. 

In his remembrance for Arts-Louisville.com, arts writer Keith Waits said it wasn’t unusual for Kathi to have more than one show opening on the same weekend, in different venues. “Once when she told me she had directed three shows that were opening on one weekend, I joked, ‘Is that all?’ (I think her record was five),” Waits wrote.

As a director, Kathi was insightful, with an ability to elevate even the most tedious material. She valued a balance between physical character embodiment and more cerebral table work. A rehearsal with Kathi might consist of deep conversational exploration of your characters’ relationships with each other. But it could just as easily feature a physical improvisation exercise that finds the cast rolling around on the floor, or forming abstract shapes with each other to illustrate themes from the story.

Kathi also had a knack for casting actors outside their comfort zones. On this, I speak from personal experience, because I was very new to theater when we started working together. I thought I could only do broad musical comedy. Kathi cast me as Laura Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie.” I thought I could never make Shakespeare’s text sound natural in my own mouth. Kathi cast me as Dogberry, a clownish lawman whose comedy lies in his butchery of language. 

As important as these experiences were to me and my career, they were actually nothing special; almost everyone who’s worked with Kathi could tell you stories like that, where Kathi believed they could, so they did.

In March of this year, Looking for Lilith partnered with Teatro Tercera Llamada (TTLL), Louisville’s Spanish language theater company, to produce a play called “Just Like Us.” Haydee Canovas is the latter company’s co-founder and producer. “TTLL has many novice actors when comparing them to the highly-experienced Looking for Lilith company,” Canovas said. “But Kathi, with her infinite patience, nurtured our Latino actors to get them to their wonderful performances in the bilingual play.”

“Kathi would say, ‘High tides lift all boats.’”

Her commitment went beyond creating good shows. She also wanted to make the theater scene itself a better, more inclusive place. Kathi was an early and important member of the Theater Alliance of Louisville, an attempt to formally unify and strengthen the city’s multitudes of theater companies. And more recently, she was part of a group of artists working to create a code of conduct they hope local companies will adopt. It addresses issues like consent, safety, and transparency.

I’ll never understand how Kathi had time to do all the work she did, and still be such a consistent supporter of other people’s work, too. But if there was a show being performed in Louisville, it was rare for Kathi to miss it (she reviewed Broadway series shows and Louisville Ballet performances for WFPL). And because she was willing to give tough feedback, colleagues knew her praise was just as genuine -- as illustrated by this anecdote from Pandora Productions’ artistic director Michael Drury:
"She was a long time subscriber with us at Pandora and always stopped to say something about what she'd seen. There were occasional compliments but there was always a 'note.’ It made me better through the years knowing that I'd have a note from Kathi. At long last a few years ago I asked her why she chose to subscribe with Pandora. She looked at me like I should know the answer and said, "because you're doing some of the best work on the Louisville stage." When I saw her for the last time last week the first thing she said was "I'm really looking forward to your new season."
Kathi was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2017. After harsh treatment and a brief remission, the cancer returned. Kathi coped with her failing health the way you might expect: she worked. 

At the time of her most recent hospitalization, she had just finished directing the world premier of “Note,” by Louisville playwright Eli Keel. She held rehearsals in her hospital room for a show she directed for the Derby City Playwrights New Play Festival (which is in performance now).

And I can’t say I was shocked at the rehearsal venue. Because as sacred as theater was to Kathi, it wasn’t precious. She brought theater to life in art galleries, restaurants, water towers, college campuses, sculpture parks, church basements, and trendy theaters in midtown Manhattan. I’ve rehearsed with Kathi in a tiny storage room full of old radio equipment. I’ve rehearsed with her in a van driving down a freeway. Theater was everything and everywhere.

During her final days, her room was always full of actors, writers, producers and designers. Old friends, from every corner of the community, and in all configurations. They’d be catching up, swapping stories, or reading plays out loud, while Kathi slept, or listened, not saying much, often smiling.

Kathi Ellis didn’t like to talk about herself much. She was as protective of her own story as she was generous with telling others. I think she preferred to be understood through her work. 

And from watching her work, here’s what you could learn: She cared deeply about amplifying the voices of silenced people. She understood the power of collaboration and community. She wholeheartedly believed that art could change the world.

Through her art, and her heart, she changed ours. 

Update: A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday July 27th, at Bellarmine University's Wyatt Theatre.

Featured image: Kathi Ellis in rehearsal, 2015. Photo by Karin Partin Wells.

Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects. Email Laura at lellis@lpm.org.

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