By Lynn Venhaus
As an ever-busy presence in the St. Louis theater community, Ellie Schwetye has created a diverse body of work — acting, directing, producing and sound design for a myriad of companies. While she has been recognized for her individual achievements with multiple St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, she thrives on collaboration.
But her name associated with a project means that there will be a high bar for quality and a sharp attention to detail, from selecting a soundtrack to a Jane Austen homage, “First Impressions,” for SATE; to guiding Will Bonfiglio to a third Circle Award for Best Actor in a Comedy in “Fully Committed” at the New Jewish Theatre; to bringing haughty Mrs. White to life in SATE’s “Classic Mystery Game” play; and portraying Emily Post, one of the hostesses in ERA’s “Trash MacBeth.”
She is the co-producer of SATE and has directed and/or worked with Equally Represented Arts (ERA), YoungLiars, West End Players Guild, New Jewish Theatre, Prison Performing Arts, The Tennesee Williams Festival St. Louis, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, The Black Rep, R-S Theatrics, St. Louis Actors’ Studio, The Midnight Company, Stray Dog Theatre, Mustard Seed Theatre and others.
Like many other artists, Ellie was eager to return to live theater when it was safe to do so — either on stage or behind the scenes. And now, it’s happening — she’s directing the one-man show “Here Lies Henry” starring frequent collaborator Joe Hanrahan, whose Midnight Company is producing.
It runs Thursday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. June 10 – 27, with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. June 27, at the Kranzberg Arts Center’s black box theatre.
Most COVID restrictions have now lifted, so with larger capacity audiences allowed, tickets are now available at the door. Midnight was deemed MissouriArtSafe by the Missouri Arts Council, received permission from the City of St. Louis for the production, and followed strict safety protocols.
Written by Daniel MacIvor, Henry is a man on a mission to tell you something you don’t already know. It is an idyllic — sort of — miserable — sort of — storybook — sort of — nightmarish — sort of — remarkable — sort of — regular show.
Ellie said she was immediately drawn to the material.
“Initially, what I liked about “Here Lies Henry” was the opportunity to collaborate with Joe Hanrahan again. I’ve joked that Joe could hand me the phone book and I’d direct it, if it meant working with him,” she said..
“But, of course, the material of the play itself is a draw. The character of Henry is so quirky, he’s such an innocent — but trying desperately not to appear so. It’s a lovely, weird, off-beat meditation on love, life, and death. There’s a Virginia Woolf-like stream-of-consciousness quality to the text, as well as moments that have me thinking about David Lynch and Andrew Wyeth,” she said.
Ellie and Joe have collaborated multiple times.
“Working with Joe is always a treat. ‘Henry’ is, I think, the sixth project on which we have worked together. Joe finds and writes amazing scripts – all of which are real studies in personality,” she said.
” As both an actor-producer and a director Joe is very laid back. He comes into every project with really clear ideas, and a great sense of play and collaboration. We experiment and laugh a lot during rehearsals. Joe has a great affinity for incorporating rock and pop music into his shows, as I do. I appreciate that he lets me sound design the shows I direct, which he knows I love doing.”
Since the pandemic forced live theater to shut down in March 2020, she said she kept her theater itch scratched with some outdoor theater, video projects and “a few, now ubiquitous, Zoom plays.”
How does it feel to be ‘back in the saddle’ again?
“It’s fantastic! This is my first in-person indoor production since March 2020. It’s pretty cool to be doing this play. Directing a one-man show was the best choice to ease back into the process. The first rehearsal was both terrifying and exhilarating,” she said.
Now she is returning to produce and sound design the play “Top Girls” with SATE — Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble,
“It’s a play we had programmed and cast since before the pandemic. Both my producing partner, Rachel Tibbetts, who is directing the play, and I really love the story, the script, and non-linear storytelling of Caryl Churchill’s text and are thrilled we finally get to bring it back to St. Louis,” she said.
And while filling up her plate after such an absence is tempting, she has reflected upon the next steps after the quarantine break.
“As for easing back into commitments, I think the pandemic taught me that being busy isn’t a virtue. I love the many facets of my work in the theatre, but I don’t need to do eleven projects a year anymore. Having said that, I am quite excited for some projects this fall including “Top Girls” with SATE, directing “The Miracle Worker” at Clayton High School, and another project with Midnight later in December,” she said.
Schwetye, 39, was born and raised in St. Louis.
During the down time, she explored activities that she had an interest in, but hadn’t given herself the time to dive in — and the opportunity was much appreciated.
“Unsurprisingly, much of it has been outdoors, since that’s been the safest way to socialize. I’ve been gardening a bit. The brilliant Nicole Angeli has been my hiking guru, and it’s been lovely to explore gorgeous conservation areas in eastern Missouri and central Illinois. Last summer, I supported my sister as her ground crew while she paddled the Missouri river — 340 miles! — from Kansas City to St. Charles. Now that was the ultimate stage management gig. Being on the river for four days and the fact that our team was representing the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper organization opened my eyes to how precious and critical the Missouri river system is to our region,” she said.
“I’ve also gotten to spend a lot of time at my family’s property in Labadie, Mo., which we affectionately and unoriginally call the Farm. We completed building a house that was inspired by a one-room schoolhouse that once sat on the property. I’ve been working with my dad for the past year on much of the finish carpentry in the house, including framing and hanging doors and cutting and installing window trim and baseboards from hemlock,” she said.
Q &A WITH ELLIE SCHWETYE
1. Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
“I’ve always been drawn to storytelling. Theatrical storytelling is a kind of magic. I’m also a bit of a show-off, so performing was a great outlet for that energy. As I developed though, I learned that I love directing and producing so much more. I find the process of bringing artists together in collaboration so much more rewarding than a curtain call.”
2. How would your friends describe you?
“Classic Aries: attention-seeking, passionate, optimistic, ambitious, independent, competitive, a bit selfish, impatient and impulsive.”
3. How do you like to spend your spare time?
“Recently. it’s been out at the Farm with my nieces and nephews, hiking with buddies, and reading my dad’s first edition “Foxfire” books.”
4. What is your current obsession?
“My meadow is my current obsession. It’s one little corner of the Farm. I’m keeping a path cleared through it to better observe the variety of grasses and native plants growing there. I have been trying to learn a lot more about our native species. Since I’m out at the Farm almost every week, it’s been amazing watching the changes from season to season.”
5. What would people be surprised to find out about you?
“I used to be a pretty fast runner. I won a state track meet in the 800m event.”
6. Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
“My college theatre experience was a defining time. I went to a women’s college, which is certainly where my feminist theatre aesthetic was solidified. Knowing that my mentors were a fashion designer who got her start on London’s Carnaby Street in the 60s, a former Breck girl-turned radical feminist bass player, and an East German dramaturg with the Berliner Ensemble probably makes a lot of sense for the theatre I like to make and watch now.”
7. Who do you admire most?
“This is the hardest question of the ten! So many people. My parents, certainly – especially my mom; my sisters. I’ve been learning more about my grandparents and ancestors, and there are a lot of hard-working, gritty folks in my family tree to admire.”
“Artistically, I admire the folks I have the privilege of collaborating with – and there are so many amazing and inspiring artists in this group! I admire my teachers, like Kelley Weber, who encouraged me to be a theatre artist. And I admire the producers who took a chance on me, like Edie Avioli and Scott Sears, and Ron Himes and Linda Kennedy.”
“And I always admire the real women from history whose stories I often get to tell – like Henriatta Leavit, Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming, Rosalind Franklin, Sr. Jacque-Marie, or Helen Keller. Theatricalized stories of real women will always be the most fascinating to me.”
8. What is at the top of your bucket list?
I keep a Google doc of plays I’d love to direct or scripts I’d love to develop. Rachel Hanks and I started musing a while back about a play based on the Stevens Sisters (Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell). Writing something original is certainly on the bucket-list. And as a some-time performer, I’m ready for the challenge of a one-woman show.
9. What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
“Discovering and exploring unexpected nature and conservation areas in the region.”
10. What’s next?
“I’m looking forward to the YoungLiars Summer Training Festival in July, then “Top Girls” with SATE in September. I’ll be directing “The Miracle Worker” at Clayton High School in the fall, then in December I’ll be performing opposite Joe Hanrahan in his new trio of short plays “Tinsel Town” about artists in LA, directed by Rachel Tibbetts. It completes a trifecta of work the three of us have collaborated on, which has included “Cuddles” and “Little Thing, Big Thing.”
More on Ellie:
Family: my parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, 5 nieces and nephews, and cousins (who are like sisters).
Education: The St. Louis answer: Clayton High School; the real answer: Mount Holyoke College.
Day job: Production Manager with my family’s business serving the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction industry.
First job: My first post-college job was as a professional Intern at the Black Rep.
First role: Abigail Adams in the 5th grade musical “Dear Abby” (I still remember my big number!)
Favorite roles/plays: My Ozark adaptation of “As You Like It”, Rachel’s and my adaptation, “First Impressions” based on “Pride and Prejudice” (and getting to play Elizabeth Bennet in it!), ERA’s “The Residents of Craigslist”. I’m also really proud of co-founding and producing SATE’s Aphra Behn Festival, celebrating women writers and directors.
Dream role/play: There are two weirdo comedies I’d love to produce, direct, or perform in: “All Our Happy Days are Stupid” by Shiela Heti and “Freshwater” by Virginia Woolf, which she wrote for her sister Vanessa’s birthday party.
Awards/Honors/Achievements: St. Louis Theater Circle Awards for Production, Sound Design, Directing, Script Adaptation, and Performance in an Ensemble; PopLifeSTL’s 2019 Artist of the Year 🙂
Favorite quote/words to live by: “have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves”
A song that makes you happy: “Call Your Girlfriend” by Robyn
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.