In what is possibly becoming a monthly feature, it is once again time to go Outside the Box, bringing you a profile of someone with great style, but has no actual ties to the fashion industry — including us fashion bloggers — nor would they be found on the pages of Elle, Vogue or Refinery 29.
Ever wonder what it takes to be a producer at a local NPR affiliate, or to be on stage? This month’s profile is of Laura Ellis, producer at WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky. Make the jump to learn more about what she does when it comes to storytelling on-stage and in-studio, her personal style, and how she found herself in radio in the first place.
Profession: News & Talk Producer, WFPL.
Location: Louisville, Kentucky.
A Brief Description of You and Your Work: I was born and grew up in Louisville, with brief stints in Tennessee and Virginia in my late teens/early 20s. I’m an animal lover who has fostered and facilitated the adoption of dozens of wayward dogs. I’m a news and talk producer for WFPL, where I’ve worked for the past almost-eight years. That’s my day job, and my night job/pastime/art is theatre.
You have been with NPR affiliate WFPL since 2006, doing everything from producing shows to wrangling interns. What first brought you into radio (in particular public radio), and what about WFPL has kept you with the station for as long as it has?
Ellis: I ended up at the station almost by chance. I was interested in journalism and was working for a (now-defunct) crime newspaper, writing humorous crime reports. A bass player in my band at the time was an assistant on State of Affairs, WFPL’s daily talk show. He was leaving for the Peace Corp, and they needed someone who could replace him right away. I was available, so I met the producer and host, our personalities clicked well, and I’ve been here ever since.
When you’re not working at WFPL, you also do sound design and acting for a number of theatre companies in Louisville. How did you find yourself on the stage, and what are the similarities and differences, if any, between what you do in theatre versus radio?
Ellis: Both are storytelling, but my role is different in radio than in theatre.
Here at the station, I’m looking for stories to tell, but it’s not me who’s telling them. I’m seeking out people with something to say, and creating a framework for them to say it. What I do at the station is roughly analogous to what a director does in theatre. With a little bit of stage manager thrown in — juggling schedules, sending reminders, keeping things running smoothly. And I guess a little dramaturge, too, because I’ve done a lot of research in my time here, too.
In acting, throughout the rehearsal process, I’m learning a story. I’m thinking about it and imagining what it would feel like if that were my own story. Then in performance, I’m living the story for those moments that it’s on stage.
Another similarity between live radio and theatre is that it’s fleeting. It happens, then it’s over. Yes, we record things in radio a lot more than in theatre, but you can never go back and redo those moments. Both media put you in a mindset where you don’t have time to dwell on what you just did wrong, without doing a disservice to the present.
Aside from production and acting, what other talents do you possess?
Ellis: I also play music! Right now I’m singing and playing accordion with a Prohibition-Era jazz band called Billy Goat Strut Revue. I also played guitar, mandolin and accordion for a rootsy band called Shine-Ola for more than 10 years. My latest instrument is the ukulele… which is way lighter than the accordion.
How would you describe your personal style?
Ellis: Whimsical, maybe? I’ve been on a kick lately with animal prints. I don’t mean like zebra stripes or cheetah spots. I mean a pattern of tiny bunny silhouettes, or a stripe of juggling bears. Sometimes I like to imagine myself as some kind of vintage-inspired vixen, but I think I most days I actually dress more like a preschooler.
They say you should identify a celebrity with the same body type as you and pay attention to what shapes & styles look good/bad on that person, then apply that to your own fashion choices. I’ve been wondering if mine might be Kim Kardashian (of all people). We’re both very short, with short torsos and sizable… tops, and bottoms. If you know what I mean. So the wrong shape can really make me look like a little stumpy thing. I try to pay attention to that.
Do you read any fashion blogs? If so, which ones?
Ellis: Yours! No other blogs, really, but I end up visiting ModCloth wistfully every couple weeks.
What has been your favourite moment as a radio producer?
Ellis: I just finished working on the Defining Fairness series, where we looked at diversity within the LGBTQ communities. I met some very very smart, great people in those interviews. I loved being able to talk to them and put their voices on the radio.
Going back farther than that, we had a lot of great moments back when State of Affairs was on the air. Things were never as serious in the control room as they sounded on the air. I loved our final show — it was a look back at some of our favorite moments, and some remarks by some of our regular guests. Even though we were all sad about the show coming to an end, it was so gratifying to hear what it had meant to people.
But the best thing about that show wasn’t the on-air moments. It was the people I worked with. Heidi Caravan, Robin Fisher, and Julie Kredens each taught me so much about radio production, but also about everything else. That’s one of the best things about working at WFPL: you’re always surrounded by super smart people!Why do you do what you do for a living?
Ellis: It makes me feel like a part of the community. It introduces me to fascinating people and striking situations. It gives me a good excuse to ask people questions about what they do!
If you had to pick one thing from your résumé that says “This is what my career is all about,” which one would it be?
This is a really hard question for me! But here’s one:
Ellis: I was working with Pandora Productions (the only LGBTQ theatre company in Louisville), stage managing a production of The Laramie Project. It’s a play that tells the story of Matthew Shepard’s murder through primary sources, like interviews, court transcripts, archival tape, etc. After the normal run of the show, we put on a special presentation of it at UofL to coincide with their Pride week. The audience was students and their parents.
Now, this was a show that went from a dedicated theatre space with a sound system, light plot, costumes, set, etc., to an auditorium-style college classroom with no lighting capabilities besides on or off.
We did the show, which is a very emotional show to begin with, and then there was a Q and A session with the audience. The students and their parents were all in tears. A lady stood up and said, “This is why I was upset when my son told me he was gay. Not because I think it’s wrong, but because I’m afraid something like this will happen to him.” And what can you say to that? You can’t say, “Oh, don’t worry, it won’t,” because it might. It has.
The whole evening was just so memorable. And it all took place on the 10th anniversary of Matthew’s body being discovered. I’m using this story as my answer, even though it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with my day job, and I was stage managing — something I don’t even do any more. But it’s representative of what I love about all the jobs I do: Bringing a story to life, putting a human face and voice onto something that may seem abstract. It’s one thing to debate academically about hate crime legislation. It’s another to watch an actor relive the passionate and devastated statement Matthew’s dad gave in the courtroom.
What advice do you have for my readers regarding…
Style: Don’t suffer through wearing something that hurts… okay, except for very special occasions. Also, sometimes I don’t really have an objective idea of how something looks on me until I see a picture of myself in it, so if it’s for a big occasion, I might snap a picture of myself in the potential outfit.
But mostly: If something makes you smile, wear it! I have a ridiculous belt buckle I got at the Kentucky State Fair. It has a bear holding a machine gun & says “THE RIGHT TO KEEP AND ARM BEARS.” I will wear that thing with anything from jeans to a frilly cute dress. It doesn’t really go with anything! But it always makes my whole day feel a little more fun.
Radio journalism and production: Ask questions, but more importantly, listen. Every person is an expert on something, even if it’s that person’s own life. If it hurts to edit, it was a great interview. Be a perfectionist in editing audio — don’t let weird audio glitches take listeners out of the story.
On life: I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer this one! But here’s something I learned from therapy: In a difficult situation, ask yourself what you personally can control and what you can’t. Then control what you can control. A lot of angst comes from trying to control what you can’t (for example: other people’s feelings or actions).
Also, go easy on yourself. Your feelings are your feelings. Feel them. Don’t judge them.
Any final words?
Ellis: Jeez, what I just said is so damn profound I don’t even know how I could follow it up!
Laura Ellis can occasionally be heard on WFPL, and can be seen (and heard) on many a stage in Louisville.
Photo credits: Cameron Miquelon (title card) + Laura Ellis (via Bellawillow Photography and WFPL).