BWW Interviews: Carlisle Ellis


Carlisle Ellis was reared in Seattle, did a theatre apprenticeship at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and went to Stanford where she graduated with a BA in Theatre. She came to Tucson for love and has stayed, now, for decades. For Live Theatre Workshop (LTW) she appeared in The Sisters Rosensweig, Cloud 9, Love Letters, The Clean House, Moon Over Buffalo, Steel Magnolias and A Perfect Ganesh. Carlisle has appeared with many other Tucson theatre companies including Borderlands Theatre, The Invisible Theatre and Arizona Repertory Theatre. Some of her favorite roles outside of LTW include Melissa in Love Letters, Mary in On The Verge, Marjorie in The Tale Of The Allergists Wife, Lillian in That Slut!, Susan in El Deseo/Desire, April in Savage In Limbo, Juba in Heathen Valley, Kate in Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, Grace in Faith Healer and Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Ellis is one of the most revered actors in the Old Pueblo, though these days her appearances are few and far between. She is a much-in-demand massage therapist, a deeply private person and an artist who lives her life as a work-in-progress.

Following a triumphant 2012 encore of her 2009 SRO run of the solo masterpiece, Shirley Valentine (Live Theatre Workshop, Sabian Trout, director, 2009 AZ Daily Star MAC Award for Best Actress), Ellis has no immediate plans to do theatre again and is exploring her voice - singing - as both musical instrument and instrument of well-being.

You and theatre have such a long, rich relationship. What do you think has led to this impulse to let it go?

I don't feel a hunger to do theatre anymore. I have had the most wonderful career here in Tucson, in terms of the roles I have been able to take on. But then there are others I coveted but never had the chance to do. If I were a man, of course, I could just keep doing Shakespeare forever. I would love to be able to play men - I'm actually very comfortable doing that. But there are so few roles for women in Shakespeare. I make a really good man, actually. Put a mustache on me, I could pass for Sam Elliott. (laughs) I'm not complaining. I've had a great run, and I've always been a kind of frustrated musician. Early on, when I was doing theatre with the Invisible Theatre and Borderlands, I would incorporate that. I did background music, got to exercise that. But In the last ten years or so, I've done so much theatre that hasn't called for that skill at all, it's just been pushed aside.

What do you play?

I'm getting up early and singing.

You are singing early in the morning?!

Yes! Like the monks. I love to start the day in the darkness singing and breathing. It's incredible. There's a part of me that always felt like I'm a monk. The quiet, solitary, private - and the singing. So I'm trying to do one hour a day. Chanting is grounding, centering - the way that it works on your physiology and your psychology is powerful. I've been doing it since November, and at first it sounded just awful, but I decided to stick it out, and within three days, I could feel a difference. It affected my sense of well-being, my ability to really focus at work. I picked a Sanskrit chant - I picked a a very beautiful one, a woman singing it - "O, my beloved, kindness of the heart, breath of life, I bow to you and I'm coming home, I'm coming home...." and there's some words in Sanskrit too. And it's basically gratitude for the inner wisdom and the inner guru and the guide we all have within us, connected to the great guru, how the Hindus think about such things. And I have no problem mixing it up. I also do some Sufi chanting. So the chant I'm working on sits right in the part of my voice where I need work, right where the head and chest voice meet, and trying to make them blend while standing in the Qigong - it does something very interesting in the body. My Qigong instructor says that almost everyone is overloaded in the head. Chanting drops the energy down, and it the beautiful words help quiet the crazy bus load of voices that is always in my head.

I'm also studying guitar, which I've played forever, and mandolin, and I can play keyboards and I have drums. I go to drum group. And I want to sing. I've never felt that I've found my voice, and I remember Bobbi McFerrin said that, and he took a year off and just had to be on his own and that rang bells for me. I think I know what he meant. His father was an opera singer, so he needed to break away from that. And I've studied classical, but I don't really have the voice for that, though I love classical music, but I don't love singing opera. It's not authentic to me. So I'm singing music from all over the world where voice is used in different ways, trying to push the envelope. Maybe I don't care if I never perform. I just know I need to do this.

How do you separate the impulse to perform from the impulse to explore?

Maybe part of the answer is that it's almost like Jesus going into the desert for forty days. You need to refill the vessel. It has a spiritual element to it - I'm not religious per se, maybe it has to do with my work that I do with healing. There are all kinds of dimensions to it. I'm a horrible perfectionist. It's also that I know I'm processing something, chewing on something, and I don't know what it is, but I need to find out.

Do you think you might do theatre again in the future?

Right now, I don't want to. But how I'll feel in six months, I don't know. It would have to be an incredible opportunity with incredible people. Not just me and the part. The quality of the script and who you are working with is what it's all about. We do it for the fun and because we have to. But right now I have to pursue the music. I don't care if anybody hears it, I just need to do it. I can see myself performing music - I can envision it, and I've had a dream or two about it recently. My guitar teacher is really trying to get me to play in public, but I have a lot of tug and pull thing going on, with my drives and hungers and my demons. How much of it is just raw fear, and the frustration of not having the time to put in that I want to have?If you're a perfectionist, music is the worst possible field to be in. But here I am.

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