A coffee with Alex Ellis
A coffee with Alex Ellis
We met at twentythree. I had a coffee and a hot chocolate, mainly because I arrived half an hour earlier than planned… I was having a scattered day.
Alex Ellis walked in wearing the most beautiful dress. Her mum made it years ago, and Alex decided to rescue it from the depths of her wardrobe. Good call, I think.
We’re meeting because Alex’s theatre company, Flaxworks, has a play called Drowning in Veronica Lake which is opening at the Q on the 22nd of August. In her role as troubled 40’s starlet Veronica, Alex wears a bright blonde wig, so I’m somewhat surprised to discover she actually has short, dark hair.
Alex and Phil, the team of two behind Flaxworks, have been touring with this play for over a year, they've even taken it across the sea to the Adelaide Fringe.
Looking at the promo flyer, I can’t help but comment on the dress Alex wears; an epic construction of cream drapery. It turns out the dress is also the set. It spreads to a distance of eight metres around Alex’s solitary figure, so she isn’t able to move at all during the show - trapped beneath the stage lights in precisely the same way that Veronica Lake was trapped by her fame.
The dress is made of calico and Alex loves it.
"No one dresses up anymore!" We exclaim to each other. One day, I say, I'm going to live in a house on a hill in the countryside. Any and all kinds of timepieces will be banned and my guests will be invited to the library for cocktails before dinner each night. We will wear full-length evening gowns and tuxedos. How will we know when it's time for dinner? It will just feel right.
Alex founded her theatre company, Flaxworks, with partner Phil Ormsby in 2005. Basically, they dared each other to do it, and neither one wanted to back down on the dare so it ended up happening.
They took their first play, Biscuit and Coffee, on a nationwide small town tour. Alex and Phil bought a van for $400, aptly named the Biscuit Tin, and drove it to the South Island. Each day they would call small towns and ask if they had an appropriate location for showing a play; if the answer was yes, and if the people on the other end of the line sounded friendly, Flaxworks would go there.
After travelling through the South Island for a month, they began the journey back to Auckland. In Rotorua they stopped and counted their earnings. Alex and Phil ended up with $10 each.
“Well, we didn’t lose money,” they said to each other, and so they kept going.
The most memorable place they performed the show was probably Waimate, halfway between Timaru and Oamaru. It’s one of those death-by-bypass towns – a place where road-tripping families once stopped for ice cream and petrol - until progress came along with its asphalt and ruined everything.
There was no accommodation in Waimate, so a couple of locals gave Alex and Phil the keys to an abandoned nursing home and told them to stay there. It was a giant, echoing place that had lain untouched since the fifties. Alex tells me it felt like being in The Shining.
In Waimate they performed in a giant old movie cinema, it would have seated hundreds of people, they performed to thirty.
Alex tells me another story: Flaxworks happened to arrive in Gore on the weekend of the National Junior Highland Dance Championships, which meant there wasn’t a bed spare in the entire town. They ended up calling the local boys’ boarding school and asking if they could spend the night.
Alex did speech and drama as a kid and loved it, but she always felt the pressure to actually, “do something with her life,” which meant she never committed to it fully until she realised that she had to. That's one of the reasons Flaxworks was born. These days she also works in publicity, which is great because it’s shown her an entirely different side of the performing arts.
Now, Veronica Lake. It's time to talk about her. Why is that name so familiar and yet so unfamiliar? Is it a myth? Is it a legend? Did it ever belong to a real human being? Yes. Veronica Lake was an incredibly famous movie star in the 40’s - a Lindsay Lohan equivalent. She was so famous it ruined her life; a tragic story.
Phil, the other face behind Flaxworks, became interested in Veronica Lake after stumbling upon a story about how her body was smuggled across the Canadian-US border after she died. That's weird, he thought, and things only got weirder as Phil delved deeper.
It turned out there were no hard facts about simple things, like Veronica's exact age or height. She’s more myth than reality. Veronica made up stories about herself. There was one in Life magazine, for example, about how she was a medical student. It was completely untrue.
In Alex’s opinion, Veronica was a very intelligent and very bored woman. Naturally there is speculation about mental illness, but who’s to know? Her behaviour could simply be explained by the reality she lived in; a warped world in which people believed they had the right to an opinion about her, just because she was a public figure.
One thing is certain; Veronica Lake was a polarising character. People felt strongly about her, one way or the other – in the same way many feel about Paris Hilton and the Kardashians today. My conversation with Alex started me thinking about how odd it really is that we feel so entitled to judge those in the public eye; maybe because they are privileged or beautiful, or maybe just because they make mistakes so loudly the whole world hears them.
Veronica Lake shot to stardom at the age of 17, and the human brain doesn't finish developing completely until approximately 21 (thank you Stage 1 Psych). So there Veronica was, a woman-child on the silver screen, and because of that, people suddenly felt as if she belonged to them. It must have been a bizarre existence.
If you want to see Alex's one woman show, Drowning in Veronica Lake, click here. We’re going on the 25th, because they're screening one of Veronica’s films straight after the performance. Can’t wait.
A weekly ray of sunshine in your inbox! We scour the city for the best ways to optimise your week