Kathi E.B. Ellis: Elevating Women’s Voices

Activist, Feminist, Mother, Director, Teacher, Producer, Collaborator, Promoter of Women’s Voices are just some of the ways to describe Kathi E. B. Ellis.

She was a visible presence within the KFW community, attending summer residencies and retreats, KFW Day, and getting grants that helped change the face of theatre and create social change in Kentucky.

“Kathi’s promotion of women’s voices was unparalleled. She created opportunities for our stories to be told, brought a collaborative spirit to her work, fostered talent and encouraged young women to find their voices. She will be greatly missed,” said Sharon LaRue, Executive Director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

Through the history of grants she received from Kentucky Foundation for Women alone, we see the roots of her feminist activism and desire to engage with women in theater in Kentucky and beyond. Her earlier work focused on researching and drawing attention to the work of Kentucky theatre pioneers Fanny Kemble and Frances Ann Drake. Later, in her role as co-artistic director of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, she focused on racial equity, dismantling white privilege in their theatre and elevating the voices of all women.

Kathi got a grant from KFW to learn Spanish to more effectively engage with Spanish-speaking members of the theatre community in Kentucky. Increasing her fluency in Spanish broadened her artistic work, including directing a bilingual play for Women’s History Month, deepening her work with La Casita Center and the Faith Stories Project and teaching in bilingual schools.

Another grant allowed Kathi and independent playwright Nancy Gall-Clayton to guide self-selected residents of the Center for Women & Families to tell their stories in play format. “We assumed we’d conclude the several-month program with a private showing bringing in volunteer actors. The residents wanted to perform one another’s plays and to invite family and friends! Obviously, a success though Kathi and I talked outside the Center after every class and sometimes wept,” said Clayton.

A grant in 2012 helped her attend LaMama International Symposium for Directors, which brings together artists from throughout the world.

Megan Burnett, Associate Professor of Theatre  at Bellarmine University, met Kathi in 1994 when she recruited her to join the first board of directors for The Pleaides Theatre Company, Louisville’s first women’s theatre company. Their theatre careers continued to intertwine over the next three decades. 

“Kathi brought an intensity to the voice of women in theatre.  She worked to bring women into the rehearsal room as playwrights, designers, actors, stage managers, and interns. She encouraged them to discover their voice and to express their voice. While mentoring others, Kathi sought out opportunities to learn and grow in her craft,” said Burnett.  

Shannon Woolley Allison, who is a co-artistic director of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, where Kathi served as one of four co-directors, recalled the warm welcome Kathi gave Looking for Lilith when the company relocated from New York to Louisville in 2006. “Kathi was with Pleaides then and expressed the desire for the companies to work together as sisters and co-advocates. It was such a feminist approach.”

When Kathi directed Shannon in Necessary Targets, Eve Ensler’s story of two American women, a Park Avenue psychiatrist and a human rights worker, who go to Bosnia to help women confront their memories of war and emerge deeply changed themselves, it was an immersion experience. “We ate at Bosnian restaurants and met with refugees. The sensitivity and intention with which Kathi approached the material was impressive,” said Allison.

When Kathi conceived of “Fabric, Flames, and Fervor: Girls of the Triangle,” which was part of the official programming in NYC of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Factory Fire, Shannon noted Kathi’s drive to take the production to New York City.

“She had an indomitable spirit of ability. She believed in her own agency and in the agency of every woman in the group,” said Allison.

Melanie VanHouten, founding director of Josephine Sculpture Park worked with Kathi for six years to produce Shakespeare at Josephine Sculpture Park through a feminist lens, including two all-female productions, one of  Macbeth  and one of Henry V. 

“I saw first-hand her commitment to foregrounding women’s voices and experiences through our productions. It was important to her that we always included several youth in the production to be mentored by the cast and crew. Some of the young women we worked with were in nearly every production and it was transformative for them. I know that I have embraced new ways of mentoring due to the work we did together and that I work to pass those on to our interns here at JSP. That work and those beliefs will carry on,” said VanHouten.

Natalie Dufour, age 15, fell in love with Shakespeare after seeing the first Josephine Summerstage production and acted with the company for four years. Kathi saw my love for theatre and my potential in that one scene.  “I was built up by Kathi’s encouragement and love. Even when I couldn’t be in the play I came back to help out backstage because of how much I loved the people and the absolutely amazing director.  Since then I have continued to perform and act because of the love for theatre that Kathi instilled in me,” said Dufour. “When considering college options I went to Kathi for guidance because I wanted to continue to  explore  theatre in my life and she helped me. No matter what I needed, Kathi was there for me. She changed my life by giving me a passion that I will always follow and believing in me no matter what.”

Kathi’s drive to leave a positive legacy began close to home. “Kathi’s chief joy was seeing her daughter, Stephanie, make her way in life. . . Stephanie’s activism in social justice issues grew out of her friendship with people her mother knew.  Kathi was most proud of her feminist, independent, smart, and vocal daughter. Her pride in her daughter was reflected in her own feminist work in theatre.  Kathi was determined to bring social justice issues to life on the stage,” said Burnett.

“She always encouraged me in everything I did from the very beginning. I’m sure much of that was because she was a wonderful mother, but I also know that by the time I was in high school she was very clearly positioning that encouragement in the context of being a strong and independent woman. She was such a driving force in my life and I was always surrounded by other strong women because she thought it was important for me to have brilliant examples, of all different types, from across my life,” said Stephanie L.B. Ellis. “She was always keeping me updated on where her students had gone, particularly those that she was able to direct multiple times as they grew – she was so proud of all of their successes.”

That pride translated into the creation, along with Clayton, of SWAN (Support Women Artists Now) Day. Performers have ranged in age from middle-school to their 80s. More than 100 women have been on SWAN Day programs from nearly every conceivable genre, including dance, song, pantomime, art therapy, book binding, millinery, poetry, drama, visual art, film, and photography. One reason Kathi loved the programs, besides giving a platform to these talented women and girls, is they brought women together who might otherwise have never met, said Clayton.

Zoe Peterson, 18, was a SWAN Day participant last year. “Even before Kathi involved me in SWAN Day, she was encouraging of my writing and acting. She would see shows I was in or involved in and stop to talk with me afterwards. She understood that while I was young, I had a voice that mattered and one that needed to be heard,” said Peterson.

SWAN Day 2018 was the same day as March for Our Lives. Peterson shared a piece from a play on gun violence that she was writing and spoke on the importance of activism.

“On my heart was an orange ribbon that held the name of a victim of the Parkland shooting. Kathi let me speak not just as a young woman or an artist, but as a person. That’s who she was. She didn’t just see us as actors, writers, singers, painters, or just any kind of artists. She saw us a people that held a million stories in them. Kathi aided  myself and many women of different ages in sharing the stories held within us,” said Peterson.