Take a look at any single facet of the multi-talented Laura Ellis:
She’s an excellent producer for the radio show Strange Fruit; she’s a talented reporter in her own right; she’s a gifted performer, with onstage roles for companies like Pandora Productions, Looking for Lilith, and Theatre ; she also designs sound for theatre, working for all those previously mentioned folks as well as The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival; and to top it off she fronts one of the most delightful bands in Louisville, The Billy Goat Strut Revue.
Any one of those things would make Ellis an excellent addition to the fabric of Possibility City’s cultural landscape; but when you take all those aspects together you understand just how special Ellis is.
Ellis took a somewhat circuitous path to being an indispensable Louisvillian. As a teenager, she was a piano major at the Youth Performing Arts School, but she dropped out to have her son, Adam Ellis.
During this time, she left piano behind and focused on guitar and singing, mostly playing with the band Shinola.
Ellis On the Radio
She received her GED, and started college, though she didn’t finish. She laughs as she calls herself “a two-time drop-out” in her interview with Louisville Distilled. She was still in college when she began working at WFPL, albeit in a low-level position.
“Kinda like a research assistant,” says Ellis, “prepping the host for the (morning talk show) every day and doing some little, kind of menial tasks.” She also suggests it was something of a fluke that she got the job; “It was kind of a right place right time.”
Stephen George, executive editor at WFPL, describes Ellis as “an extraordinarily talented producer, and editor, who brings a depth of understanding —not only of audio, but of a huge variety of subjects— to our newsroom. I think we would be drifting without her.”
George went on, and in a sentence nearly captured the multifaceted Ellis; “Hilarious, fun, funny, (and) sobering.”
Ellis’ wide range of duties at WFPL speak to the value of hands-on learning; “Everything I know I learned from doing the job,” says Ellis.
Jaison Gardner, co-host of Strange Fruit, spoke glowingly of Ellis; “What makes Laura extra special in my eyes is her commitment to social justice and her constant drive to make our show the place where marginalized people are able to tell underrepresented stories in their own words.”
Mainstay Onstage and Off
Ellis’ commitment to social justice is evident in some of her extra-curriculars as well, especially her work with groups like Pandora Productions, a company dedicated to addressing LGBTQ issues onstage.
While Ellis’ first experience with the stage came through the now defunct women’s theatre company Pleiades, it was Pandora Productions that helped cement her place in the Louisville theatre scene.
Ellis was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. As she battled the disease, she was invited to come speak to the cast of Pandora’s production of Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, a drama that deals with cancer. Director Michael Drury appreciated Ellis’ insight so much that he asked her to stick around for the rest of the production. After that show ended, Ellis was invited back again for some technical duties on another show, then another, and eventually she started appearing onstage as well.
She’s been a mainstay onstage and off since then at Pandora and a handful of other companies.
Billy Goat Strut
Of course, many in Louisville are most familiar with Ellis in her role as front-person and bandleader for Billy Goat Strut Revue, the octet dedicated to New Orleans style jazz.
Billy Goat Strut was formed in 2011, for a very specific purpose, “Our original concept was as a backing band for burlesque shows…. it was this great idea, let’s do burlesque with a live band, and it was great, it was so much fun,” she says. But the Billy Goat Strut had a wider appeal; “then we started getting hired for like, wedding receptions. So, it took a second to sink in; we could actually be a band.”
Since then they’ve become a fixture at all sorts of events and venues, including everything from dingy bars, to street fairs and fancy museums.
Trombone player Allison Cross talked about Ellis’ contributions to the band. “She’s a really good leader, with a lot of experience with things like leading the band, leading musical groups.” Cross adds that Ellis has “lots of good creative ideas as far as how to market the band.”
However, you stumble across Ellis, as an actor, radio journalist, or band leader, you’re almost guaranteed to agree with Cross’ final assessment of her: “She’s really, really cool.”