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Brelis ’17 Stars in One-Woman Show Telling Her Pandemic Story

Ellis Brelis lays on the ground looking behind her
Ellis Brelis ’17 worked with former Performing Arts department chair Maureen Shea on Driver’s Seat.

Ellie Brelis ‘17 had wanted to go to Emerson College since she was 4 years old, when her mother, longtime Writing, Literature and Publishing senior affiliated faculty member Morgan Baker MA ’85, brought her to one of her classes. Brelis remembered thinking the students were so cool. 

As a child, her mother had also brought her to an Emerson Stage production of The Hundred Dresses. They had read the children’s book by Eleanor Estes together, and after seeing the show, Brelis felt inspired to perform on stages.

Brelis will be on the stage starring in the second run of her solo show, Driver’s Seat, premiering in Los Angeles on October 21. Written by Brelis during an intense mental health crisis she experienced at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Driver’s Seat tells her true story with dark humor and truth. The play chronicles Brelis’ story of dramatic heartbreak, the loss of a family member, coming out as queer, hospitalization for a mental health crisis, and possibly overcoming her fear of driving.

Ellis Brellis sits on stage on a chair
Ellie Brelis lets audiences into her hospitalization due to a mental health crisis in Driver’s Seat.

Brelis first learned how to sit in the “driver’s seat,” or feel like she was in control of her life, at Emerson College. She said Emerson’s Performing Arts faculty instilled in her the importance of using her own voice and creating her own work.

Brelis cites Professor Craig Mathers and longtime Performing Arts faculty member Maureen Shea as instrumental in her evolution as an artist. While Brelis developed Driver’s Seat, Shea, who died last month at 71, worked with her tirelessly — reading countless versions of the script, giving valuable feedback, and ultimately encouraging Brelis to continue telling her story.

“During my senior year studio acting course, every professional our professor brought in told us: you have to be creating your own work,” Brelis said. “And I thought to myself, ‘I don’t have any stories I want to tell right now.’”

But that all changed when Brelis admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital, something she never thought she would do. Being in the hospital was unlike anything Brelis had experienced before, and after a 12-day stay, she was desperate to find others who had gone through a similar experience.

Ellis Brelis has her hand near her mouth
Ellis Brelis’ 17 said Emerson professors encouraged her to create her own work.

“All I really wanted was one person I could call up that could tell me what it was like when they were hospitalized,” Brelis said. But she didn’t know anyone who could relate to her experience.

Instead, Brelis searched for any form of media that could make her feel a little less alone. But she struggled to find content that portrayed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and mental health emergencies in a way that didn’t highly romanticize or severely demonize the experience. Brelis was disappointed with what she found, and decided she needed to start chronicling her own story.

During Brelis’ intensive outpatient treatment, she finally felt like she fully understood Emerson’s motto: Expression Necessary to Evolution.

“I needed to express what was going on in some way while I was going through this major evolution of who I am,” Brelis explained. “Or I wasn’t going to get through it.” 

Brelis wanted to humanize the experience of receiving intensive care for a mental illness. She thought using dark comedy would be a way to connect with her audience.

Poster for Driver's Seat with Ellis Brellis

“Everyone has been through so much trauma in their lives, especially since 2020. I think people want to go to the theater to be entertained, but also to feel something,” Brelis said. “I didn’t want people to sit there and think, ‘Why am I watching this person’s monologue that should have been a therapy session or a journal entry?’”

Brelis struggled with imposter syndrome, wondering if she was the right person to be telling the story. She even questioned whether she deserved to tell it when Driver’s Seat originally premiered in February 2022 as part of the Frigid Festival in New York City. 

That premiere was the first time Brelis had ever been on stage in a solo show, and the first time she’d performed something she’d written based on her own life.

Since then, Brelis has been able to quell some of her nerves after seeing the impact Driver’s Seat has had on audience members. One friend, after watching her performance in New York, said that Brelis’ performance helped her seek a diagnosis for her own OCD. Other audience members were excited to see themselves represented. Driver’s Seat went on to receive four Frigid Festival awards, including Audience Choice Award, Sold Out Award, Most Tickets Sold, and the Queerly Award.

Brelis knew she wanted to keep telling this story — and move it across the country to Los Angeles. 

Brelis wants to continue to grow Driver’s Seat, as she plans to perform the show in New York City again next February. She also hopes to attend more fringe festivals, with the ultimate goal of attending the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts and media festival. 

Ultimately, Brelis would like to continue storytelling in any capacity — whether that be telling her own story or helping tell someone else’s.

“Everybody’s brain works so differently and that’s what makes the world interesting,” Brelis said.

“Mental health is really messy, and it’s OK to sometimes be a mess,” Brelis said. “It’s hard and scary, but it can also be funny. For a long time, I fought against the way my brain works. Now I’m learning to live with the way my brain works. Some days I embrace it, and some days I just accept it.”

Driver’s Seat will premiere at the Theatre 68 Arts Complex at the Emerson Theatre in Los Angeles on October 21 and will run through November 13. Please visit On Stage 411 for more info about the show.

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