LAURA ELLIS: Laura Ellis is an award-winning actor, director, educator and all around artistic creator in Hamilton and Toronto. She is co-founder of “Tough Love Collective”; a female-driven theatre company, and co-founder of “Women’s Work”; a playwriting unit made up of diverse women who are emerging and established playwrights. Both groups are focused on creating and presenting new work with the focus on women’s voices. In 2015, Laura was the recipient of the Hamilton Arts Award for Emerging Artist in Theatre.
JS: What important beliefs do you express in or through your work?
LE: At this stage in my career, I think my focus is on presenting female-centric work. I am passionate about any work that helps to strengthen the female voices; work that is by women, focused on women, that authentically depicts real women with strong voices onstage and on screen. It’s important for me to do work that excites me and that I’m passionate about; I’m a big fan of pushing boundaries. With what’s going on in the world right now, I feel especially compelled to do projects that revolve around priority groups whose unique perspectives are frequently underrepresented and marginalized.
JS: Name two people, living or dead, whom you admire a great deal and tell us why for each one.
LE: I know they are both alive and fairly “modern” role models but they are ones with whom I currently think about going forward in my career.
Madonna. She is definitely someone I admire. As a child, I didn’t fully understand what she stood for, I just really enjoyed her music…but now as an adult, as a strong and independent woman, I really appreciate and respect the pathway she made for women in the entertainment industry. She constantly pushed the limits of what women were and of sexuality through her music. She just unapologetically broke gender stereotypes and encouraged women everywhere to sort of…take ownership of who they were and take charge of their lives. She continues to speak out against things like agism and sexism and is a true advocate for women. I look up to her because she stood up against the masses when it wasn’t the popular thing to do, so yeah, I’m a fan.
Meryl Streep. First and foremost, for her commitment to the work. Though she is viewed as a non-traditionally “beautiful” woman in the entertainment industry, her work is clearly some of the most beautiful in the world. She is a powerhouse of talent and a woman who is dedicated to knowing her craft. That’s what is most important to me in my work so she definitely inspires me that way. She has the ability to TRULY bring characters to life in the most honest and human way. That’s our job as actors and she does it flawlessly and so humbly.
JS: How have you changed since you began to do creative work?
LE: I am less afraid. I take more creative risks and am more likely to take initiative on projects and get things going. I’m also a lot more focused on what my works says and what I am contributing to the world. I realize that my voice matters so it’s important to know what I want to say before presenting it to an audience. Another good example of change for me is auditioning. When I was in theatre school, I always worried about whether or not I was doing it “right” all the time. Now, I realize it was never about that and it’s not about getting the “job” either. It’s about understanding your job, doing the work that goes with it, trusting the work you put in, presenting what you do and are, and realizing you are either the right fit or you aren’t. I’m a lot better at leaving it in the room after I’m done my audition. That’s important.
JS: What are your biggest challenges as a creative person?
LE: My biggest challenge is self-doubt. I think that’s a lot of people’s challenge, so I’m not that exciting. ha-ha. I often question if I’m good enough or if what I’m doing matters. But, I already know the answer…I just have to remind myself that I’m doing good work. That I’m making a difference. When those hard days filled with negative thoughts come in, that’s the best time to read a good play, take a nice warm bubble bath, and focus on tomorrows goals. That’s the key: focus on moving forward even when you feel like you are drowning in doubts. That and always make sure to find amazing people to work who lift each other up.
JS: Please describe at least one major turning point in your life.
LE: I think Trump’s election really progressed my feminist work this year. ha-ha. Seriously, it brought out passion and drive that I didn’t know was even in me!
JS: What are the hardest things for an outsider to understand about what you do?
LE: I think a lot of people don’t understand the time commitment and dedication involved. It’s not a 9-5 job, it’s an all hours job. When you are in the arts it’s pretty much all consuming, but you do it because you love it and it’s all there is for you. You throw out lines all over the place and are constantly creating work to keep momentum going. There isn’t really a lot of “down time” if it’s your passion. I also think people struggle with the idea of how I could possibly be making enough money in the arts to support myself and that’s a conversation I’m a bit exhausted with. ha-ha.
JS: How and why did you begin to do creative work in the first place?
LE: Getting into acting was a no brainer for me l because I wanted to be a MILLION different things as a child: a firefighter, a tornado chaser, a vet, a super hero, a soldier, etc. etc. So, the most logical answer was to become an actor so I could be any of those things whenever I wanted to be! As I got older, it became more than that. It became a true interest in and love for the human condition. I wanted to dive in to as many experiences as I could. I wanted to understand and make an audience understand every character I could. It was so challenging (which I loved) and more than anything I wanted to tell stories. I started that very early on as well. I was always making up plays and short sketches and games. I had a very active imagination so that definitely helped. I think creating my own work was a way to tell the stories I want to see and be a part of. I was tired of the guy always saving the girl. I wanted to be the hero of the story. I wanted the woman to kick butt and save the day. I guess not a lot has changed!
JS: What haven’t you attempted as yet that you would like to do and please tell us why?
LE: I would love to work on a very collaborative show that is more cross-disciplinary. I’d love to do something that uses more film/multimedia, dance, and sound. Something that’s really unique and forces me to go outside of my comfort zone and also create with other professionals I wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to work with.
JS: What are your most meaningful achievements?
LE: This year, my most meaningful achievement was receiving an OAC grant to start up “Women’s Work”, the first all-women’s playwriting group in Hamilton. A friend of mine (Jen Walton) and I discussed the lack of opportunity for new play development in Hamilton; particularly for women and decided it was a barrier we wanted to erase. Despite the fact that Hamilton is in the midst of a promising arts revival, we knew that we still needed to strive to create opportunities for ourselves and our artistic community and with this grant, we felt we were doing that. We recognized that the problem is predominant in the arts across Canada and the gender inequity that female playwrights face is particularly acute. So, with this in mind, we discussed the logistics and worked on the grant for a better part of a year. Our heart and souls really went into to. It feels like we are really taking steps to create change within our community and I hope that it inspires others to do the same.
JS: What advice would you give a young person who would like to do what you do?
LE: Go for it. Do what you love, otherwise what’s the point? Someone out there is already doing it so why can’t you? And the more positive you stay about it; the more awesome people are brought into your life who have the same passion. They will get you through the hard times. Focus on the work and remember why you are doing it. And if you don’t love it and it doesn’t bring you joy…GET OUT.
JS: Of what value are critics?
LE: I think outside opinions can be very helpful, but also deadly if too much weight is given to them and you start to stray away from your instinct. Overall, it’s very important to hone your work and try to make it the best it can be (otherwise, why make it at all?). However, I usually depend on the opinion of colleagues who will be brutally honest with me over the opinions of critics.
JS: What do you ask of your audience?
LE: I hope that they come with an open mind, especially when it comes to non-traditional projects/performances. And I ask, if they like, or it touched them in some way, or meant something to them that they talk about it. Spread the word. Get people to come see it and keep the conversation going, especially if the subject is an important one.
JS: What specifically would you change about what goes on in the world and the arts?
LE: I’d like artists to be paid professionally for their work and their time and not always offered an exchange of “free promotion” or what have you. That’s tough sometimes. The arts (theatre especially) is one of the only jobs where someone on the street can just suddenly decide one day that they want to be an actor and start calling themselves that. You can’t be an amateur surgeon, but you can claim to be an actor or director. It’s hard some days because so many of us went to school for it or are working and training all the time but are still not taken seriously as professionals. I’m not sure there’s a real solution for that at the moment. The other thing I would love is for people to keep seeing theatre and film. Spread the word. Tell your friends. Bring your kids and get them started early. Invest in arts and culture. I’d hate to see our audiences keep getting smaller.
JS: If you could relive one experience from your creative life, what would it be and why would you do so?
LE: I’m not sure if there is a specific moment, but sometimes I wish I could go back to when I was in my senior year of high school and stop myself from visiting the guidance counsellor before choosing a post-secondary program. She talked me out of the arts! So, I think if I had not been scared like that, I would have gotten started earlier. But, I’m not one for regrets so I think I’m pretty happy with how things are progressing now and trust that the universe wants it this way.
JS: Tell us what it feels like to be a figure who is presented somehow in the media. What effect does this presence have on you?
LE: If I’m being honest, I’m really not in the media very much. I think people in Hamilton are familiar with my work because it’s such a small and tight-knit community. I’m still relatively young so I think there is a lot more to be accomplished. What I know right now is that I only want to be presented in the media if I’m doing something I care about; something I believe in and am proud of. Maybe ask me in 5 years and I’ll be able to give you a better idea.
JS: Name two places you would like to visit, one you haven’t been to and one to experience again and briefly tell us why
LE: I’d love to visit British Columbia. I’ve been to quite a few places in Canada but not BC (Vancouver specifically). It’s really important for me to explore my own country and culture and BC seems so lively, so arts friendly, and outright beautiful. My goal is to make time to go there in the next couple of years.
I want to return to Scotland. That’s where my family is from and I LOVE it there. When I visited, I had the strangest feeling of being “home”. It was filled with beautiful landscapes, architecture, and the most friendly people I’ve ever met (next to Canada, of course!) There was something so serene about it and it was just rich with history. The arts scene in the summer was pretty great too! I could actually imagine myself living there at some point in my life.
JS: Please tell us about one or more projects that you have been working on, are preparing, or have recently completed. Why do they matter to you and why should they matter to us?
LE: I just answered that in the “meaningful achievement” question so just read that and you have your answer.
JS: Let’s talk about the state of the arts in today’s society, including the forms in which you work. What specifically gives you hope and what specifically do you find depressing?
LE: Unfortunately, one of the things that came up in my research not long ago was that the statistics for female playwrights are pretty depressing: “The greatest disparity in gender equity happens in the playwright category. According to Playwrights Guild of Canada’s Annual Theatre Production Survey, out of 812 productions in the 2013/14 season, 63% were written by men, 22% by women, and 15% by mixed gender partnerships.” (Equity in Theatre).
But what’s most exciting is that there’s this weird cultural shift happening. With things like the election results and all these acts of violence, there seems to be a “banding together” of people. I think more people are uniting to take a stand against inequality and injustice so that should make for some pretty awesome, inspirational, and provocative art.
JS: Finally, what do you yourself find to be the most intriguing and/or surprising thing about you?
LE: That after all the ups and downs, the long days and exhaustion, the self-doubt and the wondering if I’m good enough…I realize what I have that maybe others don’t have is a real problem with quitting.