Visionary Awards Honoree Kari Ely Finds Joy in the Magic of the Theater

 In Culture, Feature

Kari Ely has always been an actor. Long before she ever thought of it in terms of a career, she was nurturing what would become a lifelong love of the craft—when she was still in junior high, she was “producing” her own shows based on stories such as Pandora’s box, with the encouragement of “two extremely supportive parents” who had a keen appreciation for the arts.

“I never thought I could do anything but this,” Ely says.

With her career based in St. Louis, Ely has worked for virtually every professional theater company here; as a native St. Louisan (she grew up in Normandy and currently resides in Richmond Heights), it never occurred to her to try her luck somewhere other than her hometown. Thanks to the area’s vibrant theater culture and supportive arts community, she’s always had plenty of opportunities to ply her trade and perform.

“It never dawned on me that I wouldn’t work here,” she elaborates.

Since graduating from the theater program at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, in 1983 and going pro, Ely has worked in a variety of media, including television, film and radio, but trodding the boards in live theater is her first love and the place she returns to again and again. Ely loves theater in all its forms, from musicals to the classics, and she appreciates being in a whimsical production as much as biting into a juicy dramatic role. She says some of her favorite characters to interpret are Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Violet Weston in “August: Osage County” and Desiree in “A Little Night Music,” adding that she’s also cherished every Shakespearean role she’s taken on.

“I love to take on the ‘bitchy’ roles,” Ely explains. “They’re so complicated.”

Another passion has been children’s theater. Ely was the co-founder and director of the Make Believables, a group that aspired to create opportunities for kids to access their imaginations and unfold their own worlds of make-believe through movement and storytelling. The organization was most well-known for developing works for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s family concerts.

In between roles, Ely has shared her wealth of knowledge with others in the community as a teacher. She’s served as a theater instructor at Washington University, SIUE and Stages St. Louis, as well as a private coach.

In recent years, directing has become a focus for Ely. She looks at this different point of view as “a new adventure to have in a theatrical space.”

Her next directing gig will be helming “A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur” in May at the Tennessee Williams Festival hosted by the Grandel Theatre (tickets go on sale March 1), after which she plans to continue her exploration of this aspect of theater.

“I love being around actors, watching them unlock their craft in front of me.”

However, despite her forays into directing, Ely isn’t ready to leave the glow of the footlights just yet.

“I’m still an actor at heart,” she says, and there are still roles out there she wants to delve into and inhabit, such as Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.”

“Who knows, I might even try to up my vocal chops and take on Rose in ‘Gypsy,’” she adds. And revisiting teaching at some point is definitely on her to-do list.

Ely continually talks of acting in terms of calling instead of career. She considers her craft to be an important part of everyday life, not an extravagance or an indulgence. As an example, she relays a story about working on a production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” The show’s premiere was scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001. Despite the chaos and uncertainty of that day, the show went on as intended.

“A lot of the cast was running around trying to get in touch with loved ones in New York, and we didn’t know if anyone would even show up,” Ely explains. In the end, most of the seats were filled, the curtain rose on time and for two acts the audience was transported from the maelstrom of the moment.

“I had many people come up to me [after the show] and say, ‘This show saved me today, it got me away from the horrors of what’s happened.’”

Her far-reaching and varied career has resulted in Ely’s share of honors and awards, including two Kevin Kline Awards, both bestowed in 2011: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Mary Tyrone at the Muddy Waters Theatre and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Play for her role in Christopher Durang’s comedy “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them” at HotCity Theatre.

In addition, Ely has a St. Louis Theatre Circle Award to her credit for Outstanding Actress in a Drama for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” This year, she’s also nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy for her work in “Into the Breeches” during the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis and Outstanding Actress in a Drama for her role in “The Little Foxes” at the St. Louis Actors Studio.

Despite the accolades, Ely remains grounded and humble about what she does. “It’s a privilege,” she says of acting. “I’m lucky to be a working actor and to learn by doing.”

Artistic challenges and the ability to constantly learn sustain her on this journey, along with the mystery and joy of the creative process. As Ely succinctly puts it: “I just love the magic of the theater.”

This is the first of a six-part series featuring the 2019 Visionary Awards for Women in the Arts honorees. The awards ceremony is April 22 at 6 p.m. in Grand Center’s Sun Theater. Tickets cost $50 and can be purchased online here.

Images courtesy of Diane Anderson.

Visionary Awards Honoree Kari Ely Finds Joy in the Magic of Theater

Left to right standing: Carmen Dence, Susan Barrett, Kathie Winter and Kari Ely. Left to right sitting: Brea McAnally and Jacqueline Thompson.

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