Everyone in the Fort Wayne theater community has a story to share. Sometimes they have the opportunity to share their own story on stage.
Such is the case for Lisa Ellis and her daughter Katty.
Stories have always been an important part of Lisa Ellis’ life.
“When I was young, my parents made sure my life was full of books,” she says.“Later, theater seemed like a natural transition. It was just an extension of the stories I had been visualizing in my head as I read a good book.”
She started performing when she was nine years old, appearing in church shows and school productions at Blackhawk Christian and Snider High School.
As an adult, she has appeared in It’s a Wonderful Life with First Presbyterian Theater and Anne of Green Gables with Fort Wayne Youtheatre as well as performing in various Fort Wayne church productions.
However, like many actors, she has what she considers a “home” theater. “Most of my experience in the last eight years has been with all for One,” she says.
She has acted in the company’s productions of American Primitive, Radium Girls, The Christmas Key and Emma. Last year she added directing to her list of afO credits with A Little Princess.
Although it wasn’t her directorial debut, she says, “it was my first experience with a show of that caliber, directing kids and adults simultaneously.”
Previously she had directed kids’ shows for a theater troupe she administers, Audience of One. The program is designed for home schooled kids and meets Friday afternoons from November through April. The group has 57 kids, age eight to eighteen, and will perform six one-act plays this year. They are also partnering with the Fort Wayne Salvation Army to do community service projects.
Although Ellis enjoys directing, she thinks of herself as an actor first, director second. “In directing, there’s a lot on my shoulders,” she says. “With acting, I just get to play the story.”
Ellis has passed on her love of stories (and theater) to her five daughters.
Fifteen-year-old Jamaica and 12-year-old Katty are active in Audience of One. Ellis is proud of them but prefers they be directed by someone other than her. “Another seasoned director can be more objective,” she says.
The other three Ellis girls are also involved, or have been involved, in theater. Darby (19 years old) and Tatum (16 years old) have performed with the Fort Wayne Youtheatre. Darby also assists with Audience of One and is studying elementary education at the University of Saint Francis. Tatum takes theater classes at Homestead High School. Oldest daughter Morgan (21 years old) appeared in all for One’s production of Radium Girls but has put theater on hold for the time being as she prepares to graduate from Saint Francis and works for Asher Advertising Agency.
In addition to directing her daughters, Ellis has had opportunities to share the stage with each of her daughters in various shows. Right now, she says she is thrilled to share the stage with youngest daughter Katty, who plays one of her characters’ daughters in The Family Nobody Wanted. The 1957 play has a particularly special place in the hearts of the entire Ellis family.
Written by Christopher Sergel from the book by Helen Doss, the family-friendly comedy follows Reverend Carl and Mrs. Helen Doss who have adopted 12 “unadoptable” children from various countries. The family faces prejudice and financial hardship, but their love for one another overcomes all obstacles.
The play’s message of family and adoption appealed to Ellis on a deeply personal level.
“Our youngest two girls, Jamaica and Katty, are adopted,” she explains. “Jamaica came to us from the Philippines three and a half years ago [when she was 11 years old].Katty has been ours for 12 years – since she was a baby.
“The Doss family’s daily life is very similar to ours,” Ellis says. “Kids are always running in and out. They all have strong personalities and unique passions. They all love to share what’s going on in their lives. It makes for a lively household and a flavorful life.”
Ellis also relates to the Doss’ faith in God.
“I believe parenting in general takes a strong faith,” she says. “[The Doss’] faith, sense of humor and love of children are all values that [my husband] Terry and I adhere to.
“Come to think of it,” she adds, “this part didn’t take much acting.”
Ellis admires not only her character’s faith, but her determination as well. “This family lived on $1,200 a year,” she says. “Granted, this was in the 1940s and 50s, but it was a tight budget nonetheless. They didn’t let money stop them from doing what they knew they were supposed to do. If they were trying to save money for an adoption or for travel, they simply ate beans and rice or made some other sacrifice that we, as Americans, would find dumbfounding today. They had grit.”
Ellis acknowledges that adding a new child into their existing biological family took some adjustments – just as adding a child into any family does.
“Katty was adopted as a baby,” she says, “so the transition was pretty smooth.”
It was a little trickier when they adopted 11-year-old Jamaica. “There have definitely been more challenges in adopting an older child,” she says, “but we are all the better for it.”
Because Jamaica had been nearing adolescence at the time of her adoption, she had become very independent and was not accustomed to being part of a family.
“But she has blossomed,” says her proud mom. “She loves volleyball, guitar and piano. We can’t imagine our family without her. To tell the truth, we don’t even think of Jamaica and Katty as being adopted any more. They’re just one of the Ellis kids.”
Katty plays her youngest daughter Rita in the show. The 12-year-old is enjoying the experience, she says, because “it’s fun to be on stage and share a story with everyone.” How does she like being onstage with her mom? “[It’s] just like being off stage with her,” says Katty. “She talks a lot!”
Ellis’ husband, Terry, was not able to do this show due to business travel and the daily obligations of a large family. They generally have to alternate who gets to do a show and who gets to drive their kids to their evening activities.
The combination of international adoption and participation in theater has given her daughters a broader world view, says Ellis. “I think it’s really important for kids to get a wide perspective of the world and the people in it – from all walks of life,” she says.
She credits community service with helping her and her family empathize with people different from them, and that has helped them as actors.
“The greater insight actors have into worlds outside their own,” she says, “the better they can portray others. It helps actors study mannerisms, accents and points of view. When actors gain empathy, when they begin to understand other people, they become better people themselves.”
Theater also helps actors get into the skin of people from other cultures and life experiences, she says. “As young actors’ worlds open up, so does their ability to play roles – to tell the story – more effectively.”
Ellis is proud to bring this story to Fort Wayne theater audiences to help them expand their own viewpoint of other life experiences.
“There are 153 million orphans in the world,” she says, “and those kids are all precious. They just need someone to step up and love them. I believe that’s truly a calling. It’s not everyone’s calling, but it is ours.”