Studio visit appears first in print, on Sundays. Here, Melissa Merli visits Natalie Ellis of Champaign. In the Oct. 30 News-Gazette, we'll have a studio visit with musician Sam Payne.
Q: What's this SoDo Theatre all about here at Class Act?
A: I started Class Act, an interactive education and events business, in 2009. Later, many different groups became interested in utilizing the space here. As I started moving forward, it got a little funny for me to promote all of them under the Class Act umbrella.
TJ Blakeman, a planner with the city, has seen Class Act evolve. He said, "What if you name it something different?" So the building is called the SoDo Theatre, but Class Act is still Class Act and basically takes up the whole first floor. SoDo Theatre is the whole building (114 S. Neil St., C.)
Q: So who are the artists and arts companies here?
A: Besides Class Act, the ArtLab in the basement, run by Lori Caterini. Also, Psychic Joker Entertainment, Thirdside Design, Amy Scott Photography, artists Chance McDade and Kevin Bunn, and Donna Warwick's ArtsFusion Method. Regular performers here include CU Theatresports, Zoo Improv and The Prompting Theatre.
Q: This building is huge. Who occupied it before you came here?
A: Shay Office Supplies. I rent from the Shay family, and they've been really supportive of what we're trying to do here. Coming from New York and Chicago, I was, "Omigod, this building is so amazing."
Q: What were you doing in New York and Chicago?
A: I was born in Champaign. After college, I went to New York and worked as a performer. My degree was in musical theater. I started off doing auditions and regional tours. My first show was "Singin' in the Rain" in Manchester, N.H., which was a big deal to my family because Donald O'Connor is our cousin. I did musical theater there and got a job in an improv company called Freestyle Repertory Theatre.
Q: How long did you stay in New York?
A: I was in New York for five years. I did grad school there in educational theater, at NYU. Then I moved to Chicago. I was in Chicago for three years. I was education director for Victory Gardens Theater and a teaching artist in the Chicago public schools. I also worked for the Beacon Street Theatre and Navy Pier. I also did an interactive show called "Awesome 80s Prom" for a while. It's still running off-Broadway in New York.
Q: Are you glad you came back here?
A: I am. It's funny because Champaign was always in the back of my mind. I grew up here, and I loved it. I did theater here. I never saw myself moving back here. I didn't know what I could do here. At the same time, starting my own company was brewing in my mind. I always saw the company being in Champaign. In December 2008 I found out about this space being available. I saw how huge it was and thought, "Omigod, this really needs to happen." I moved here in February 2009 and opened Class Act during the Boneyard Arts Festival a couple of months later.
Q: Are you doing any acting anymore?
A: When I can. The last show I was in was the "Great American Trailer Park Musical" at the Station Theatre in spring '09. I auditioned for that the day I moved back into town just because theater is a great way to get to know people. I've done improv and some guest roles, and I pop up to Chicago every now and then to do a gig, like a corporate improv job or a short-term project. I'd love to do more musical-theater improv here. In New York, my favorite show that I did was called "Spontaneous Broadway."