Louisville’s art scene is as thriving as ever before, and part of its growth can be attributed to the few but mighty arts and culture writers we are fortunate to have in town.
One of those writers is Eli Keel, who covers the scene for us here at Insider Louisville as well as other outlets in the city. But Keel also does time on the other side of the curtain — performing in plays, poetry slams and even air guitar competitions — giving him insider (pun intended) knowledge that only enhances his coverage.
Keel also speaks out on and stands up for many causes on social media, often sharing personal battles of triumph and struggle. And if he sees something not quite right going on in town, he’ll call it out and provide not only his thoughts on the topic, but also a space where people can safely debate the matter.
On Friday, May 31, Keel’s play about his personal experience with bipolar disorder will debut as Looking for Lilith Theatre Co. brings “Note” to the Kentucky Center stage. The play, which will close Lilith’s 2018-2019 season, sheds light on the struggles of those living with bipolar disorder through both humor and hardships.
Keel, who was a longtime participant in the Derby City Playwrights, set the story in a rehearsal studio where four characters are rehearsing a play. According to a news release on “Note,” this meta-theatrical exploration opens up conversations about mental illness and personalizes the risks that individuals, their friends and families encounter on the journey.
Shannon Woolley, co-founder and co-artistic director of Looking for Lilith, tells Insider that as soon as Keel submitted the script to the company, she knew they would produce it.
“Our mission at Lilith is to lift up unheard voices, and we have found that simply inviting the public to look at an issue through one personal narrative is destigmatizing, validating, loving and brave,” says Woolley. “‘Note’ embodies this principle beautifully and has been intensely rewarding — artistically and personally — to bring to life.”
Keel tells us he had an inkling for the story almost 20 years ago, but then he completely forgot it.
“Most things I write are a bunch of ideas that don’t make sense until one final idea shows up, and then they voltron,” he says.
The writing process was tough, as it forced him to basically bare his thoughts, fears and realities to the world. He admits he was terrified every step of the way — yes, even now.
“But my mamma always said if your art doesn’t scare the shit out of you, you aren’t doing it right,” says Keel. “And just about every time I think, ‘I can’t do this, it’s too much, it’s too scary,’ somebody will randomly message me and say my art or social media helps them keep going.”
Keel hopes to open up new ways to perceive those on the neurodivergent spectrum, especially since 99% of bipolar characters on TV and in the movies are not written by bipolar people.
“They are either quirky geniuses or monsters,” he explains. “And that stuff is giving you dangerously incorrect info. Same goes for autistic people, people with borderline personality, etc.”
He says the biggest misconception people have with bipolar disorder is that it’s an either/or condition — either mania or depression.
“It’s so much more complex — anxiety, rage, fear,” adds Keel. “And mania and depression are also not really what people think they are either. They think mania is ‘really happy’ and depression is ‘really sad.’ That’s not even close.”
While Keel has only been to one rehearsal so far — “Note” is being directed by Lilith Co-Artistic Director Kathi E.B. Ellis — because it’s intense and personal for him, he also wants to stress that it’s not all gloom and doom.
“There are a lot of funny parts, too,” he says. “That’s part of getting bipolar right. It’s hilarious and awesome. And then it’s not.”
Next up for Keel is an evening of installation art by this year’s Hadley Creatives, to which Keel is a member, on Saturday, June 8, at Actors Theatre. During this event, he’ll provide a sneak peek of a script he recently finished called “I’ll Turn to Sparks of Fire: The Burn It All Down Play.”
“It’s about sexual assault and harassment in the theater,” he explains. “Everyone knows it’s a problem in other cities and towns in America, but of course not theirs. It’s pretty incendiary. And I’m terrified of how it’ll be received. But hey, if your art doesn’t scare the shit out of you …”
But first, “Note” runs for six performances only from May 31 through June 9 at the Kentucky Center’s MeX Theater. Tickets are $21, except on June 3’s community night, where they’ll be $11.
Before Keel prepares to see his life unfold on stage, we asked him some very important questions …
What was your first concert?
Tori Amos, at the Palace, on the tour for “Boys for Pele.”
What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with absolutely no preparation?
Well, since on Friday May 31, I will hit my 10-year sobriety birthday, I’d take the 40 minutes to talk about drinking, getting sober and staying sober. Or “Star Wars.”
What job would you be terrible at?
You don’t get to be a full-time freelance arts and culture critic by being terrible at just one job. But seriously, I’m awful at customer service.
A buddy at my last job — it was in coffee, so lots of interaction with customers — he told me he could literally see it happen every day when I switched from “I love everyone” to “BURN THE WORLD.”
What is your favorite restaurant or bar?
I did just discover that Couvillion is pretty great, despite my general mistrust of out-of-town owners. And it’s a perfect little 10-minute walk from home.
Plus, I’m at Louisville Cream every chance I get. Bring the Krampus flavor back for Christmas in July!
What is something you think everyone should do at least once?
Be on both sides of something. I’m a frequent bike rider, and a car driver. Whatever transport I’m using, I get angry at the other people. Feeling both sides can really teach you about humanity.
Where would you direct a newcomer of Louisville to get a feel for the city?
The corner of Fourth and Oak, aka “Fourth and Fellini,” so dubbed by my father-in-law Robert Firkins back when he was a staff photographer at the Courier Journal. It was one of my main bus stops for years and years. You can see real life there — beautiful and ugly.
What keeps you here (in Louisville)?
The arts scene. We’re seeing a nationwide change. Mid-sized cities like Louisville are becoming super important as rising rents drive artists out of New York, L.A. and Chicago. I could definitely talk about that for 40 minutes with no preparation.