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Meet Ellen Warkentine

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ellen Warkentine.

Ellen, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I’m an interdisciplinary music + theatre artist and arts teacher. I co-create things that are sublime and silly and chaotic and ecstatic. I’m into sacred vaudeville, reverent irreverence, and paradox-holding. My favorite word is Gesamtkunstwerk.

I grew up in Southern California where I worshipped at the temples of Dada and surrealism and the black box drama room. Most of my life has been spent filling up pages with words and making up songs about everything with anybody who will sing them with me. I was a theatre and film studies major at UCI where I created music theatre happenings about choice paralysis and digital media and academia. At that time I remember seeing the experimental musical comedy “Promenade” by Maria Irene Fornes and thinking, “That! I want to do that.” This performance and the movie “Cradle Will Rock” made me want to explore the power of avant-garde music theatre at its most transcendent, transformative, and tongue-in-cheek.

In 2009, I was invited by one of my oldest friends and collaborators to join the award-winning Four Larks, creators of immersive “junkyard operas.” Working with the Larks was transformative. The first show I worked on with them was a magical adaptation of “The Master and Margarita” in a gritty warehouse in Oakland. I went to Melbourne twice to help develop the music for “Orpheus” and “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” which were both recently staged in Los Angeles. In 2017, I was fortunate to work again with this group of amazing collaborators on “Hymns” at The Getty Villa. We are currently in development for a new adaptation of “Frankenstein” coming to The Wallis in 2020.

Also in 2009, I also became involved with an amazing community of artists in the Long Beach music and theatre scene, namely through The Garage Theatre. I was lucky to write and direct music for a number of productions at The Garage. In 2011, we created an absurd opera with a libretto made entirely of cat memes, and the following year we took our “LOLPERA” to the Hollywood and New York Fringe festivals having no idea what we were doing, but it was epic. My years in Long Beach were a sandbox of creative experimentation. I said “yes” to every opportunity that came my way. In this time, I played piano for improv comedy shows in the OC and at UCB, co-created installations for sound walks, helped write weird musical comedies, performed in bizarro vaudeville shows and rock concerts, and created live film scores in cemeteries and rooftops with the “Balboa Amusement Company Orchestra.” Along with friends in the Long Beach community, we also started an intentional arts house called “The Nuthaus” where we’d host shows and events.

A little over two years ago, I moved to Los Angeles. I’m in a phase of mapmaking, organizing, prioritizing. In 2017, I started going through the back catalog and have been focusing on completions by recording and sharing more of my personal work. In 2018, I recorded an EP “Nonsense Mouth” at Big Ego Studios and along with many of my favorite collaborators, namely Anjela Vega and Danielle Kaufman, we created a visual album. These dreamy music films have been showing at film festivals this past year including The New York Festival of Cinema, The Paris Short Film Fest, and the LA Experimental Fest.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
It’s been a foggy road at times. I am so fortunate to have the privilege of leading a creative life; to be an arts advocate and champion of creativity and community, but the dark side can be losing touch with reality beyond the “bubble.” There is also the daily challenge of staying focused and honest with the multitude of distractions and myths designed to disconnect us from ourselves and each other. It is so easy to feel lost and isolated, anxious and depressed in late-stage capitalism; to lose a sense of self and purpose. I am no stranger to getting in my own way and allowing doubt and fear to prevent growth and progress. There has always been imposter syndrome, borne of insecurity and ego. I’m always “doin’ too much” and I’m at a point of wanting to go deeper in my artistic practice.

I try to keep compassion and humor in my back pocket when the road gets too twisty, and it helps to seek out mentors and community. I have felt that in the last ten years, I was trying to build skyscrapers on no foundation. It’s beautiful to be ambitious, but I think even more important to be honest and intentional. I’m learning lessons on hubris and humility and in this phase of my life and creative career I am getting clearer on my priorities and how I want to show up in the world and in my work. I want to use my resources and gifts to create and be involved in meaningful experiences of beauty, humor, and inquiry in this world and empower others to do the same.

Being an artist in Los Angeles can feel overwhelming and it is easy to lose sense of what is important – getting caught up in the fantasy of false idols and the worship of celebrity and status. I am fortunate to have my students to keep me grounded and remind me that the purpose of the arts and imagination is to be connective tissue. If my artistic practice is fostering ego inflation and isolation, then it is toxic. The self-congratulatory individualist hustle and instagame that makes you question your worth on the daily, the stress of the rat race and the illusion that there is an external place to “get ahead” to – the constant FOMO – these ideas create a vile feedback loop. The world is far more interesting than all of this and I have to remember this daily to stay present, positive, and productive. The world needs artists to stay Alive in this way so we can move towards healing, to use art to direct each other towards truth.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
In December I will be releasing a two-years-in-the-making electronic collaboration with Kris “Natureboy” Jackson called “Lady in the Microfiche.” This project explores obsolescence, technology, and memory and has a very important visual component; I’m very excited to release our collaborations with visuals by Sesius, an incredible collage animator from Mexico City.

My current focus has been on completions of old music and writing projects, and developing musicianship by playing jazz standards. Many exciting projects are in the works for 2020, including a new iteration of The Amusement Company Orchestra silent film scoring project, tentatively scheduled to begin a monthly residency in DTLA. I also look forward to releasing a recently recorded “weirdo jazz” album that was produced by Chris Schlarb at Big Ego Studios last month.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
I think my sense of exploration and experimentation, my eagerness to challenge myself and grow in new experiences have been important to my successes. Curiosity. I always recall something Meredith Monk said about her practice – that in beginning a new project, she is always afraid – but she allows her curiosity to be stronger than her fear. I think coming back to that sense of wonder and play and intuition has been very important in every project. Also, being adaptable and learning to work and play with many different kinds of collaborators. Different relationships have a different workflow, and everyone is a student and a teacher – an important piece of the puzzle. I am so grateful for the network of amazing interdisciplinary artists I know and the opportunities I have, and also for the incredible gift of working with my students to support their own wild creative journeys.

Lastly, I think an essential quality is to be able to remember the bigger picture and to have a clear sense of your own values and how to act in alignment with them. That’s my current aspiration. This quote going around by David Orr (often attributed to the Dalai Lama) really speaks to this: “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”

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Image Credit:
Matt Kollar, Dana Fytelson, Sneakthief Media

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