Elissa Hadley : Actor, Singer, Friend
She Graced The Theatre, The Music Scene And The Hearts Of Her Friends
The Gift She Had
Elissa Hadley was like a brilliant, twinkling star who illuminatedand warmed our lives. She was smart, funny, hip and sexy, and had the amazing ability to make us feel the same way. She was sensitive and empathetic, reaching out to people to make them feel at ease. Elissa did it all effortlessly and naturally, with no apparent awareness of the wonderful impact she had on people’s lives.
In the theatre, as in real life, she profoundly engaged and affected people. She imbued her characters with enormous humanity and, even when playing broad comedy, elicited understanding and sympathy. There was almost always an underlying warmth in her characters, plus a certain delicacy and perhaps vulnerability.
She worked hard to understand her characters (from the aristocratic to the down-and-out, with yuppies and unhappy suburban housewives in between), and she drew deep from her own wide range of life experiences. She’d battled and beaten some demons in her short lifetime, and had endured more than her fair share of pain. All of this made her a powerful actor and, given the old tragedy-comedy nexus, a brilliant comedic actor.
She was so much fun to direct. I loved the way she threw herself, this way and that, into a role. I loved working with her on a piece of business until it was just right. I loved sitting in the front row during rehearsals and sharing a smile with her when we knew we’d nailed it. And then there was even more payoff during the run of a show when she shared that magic, whether comic or tragic, with an audience.
We had, on many occasions, talked about plays we would do together in the future: serious stuff like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; funny stuff like Ayckbourn’s First Person Absurd. I can’t, right now, imagine doing any of it without her.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. That was the case with Elissa - although stronger didn’t mean hardened. Her battles, fought and won until the very end, put her in a good place to live and also, sad to say, to die. In the last few years of her life, she had a renewed closeness to her parents, hoards of loving friends from all walks of life, and a wonderful relationship with her partner who we’ve come to love as much as we loved her.
She received many, many visitors in her last few weeks. (One Sunday afternoon, she had a small troupe of actors performing scenes from various plays at the foot of her hospital bed.) When I talked with her about all these people whom she’d touched, she’d cock her head and say,“Wow!” or “Really?” in disbelief. Then a smile would spread across her face, and she’d nod a little and slowly say, “That’s nice.” It was beautiful to see; to see how, at the end of her life, she realized that she had this amazing gift.
During our last visit, a week before she died, we chatted and told stories. It was so natural that we could have been sitting in a theater lobby before a rehearsal. I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye at the end of that visit even though we both knew it would be the last time we’d see each other and laugh together. That would have been way too hard. There’ll be a time later to laugh again, but for now let’s cry and mourn our loss.
A Delicate Powerhouse
Elissa lived her life with absurdly high passion, which always amused me because her fingers were tiny and extremely fair in color with little pink nails. Such a little person, such a big presence! Her frequent animations - funny, wide-eyed faces and rapid, sea-anemone-like hand gestures - revealed the turbulent emotional realm boiling and bubbling beneath her surface. It amazed me that such power of feeling could come from such a small, delicate-looking creature.
Of course her talent for singing was one such power. She had a wayof throwing herself fully into whatever she was doing (or being) and it was for this reason her voice touched all who heard it. Like so few, she would become her music. Always humble, she made music to be a vehicle for it, never for egotistical reasons. Elissa's singing was amazing - a bell-like, crystal tone that growled its way from deep down. Given wings by her heart, played like an angelic pipe organ through her larynx, delivered with full-body projection, it was full-ass, never half.
We had a great time singing together in Aqualove. Many times Elissa's enthusiasm and passion for life and love kept that group going. We both were healed around that music. I think her favorite lines I ever wrote came out of a dissonant, inebriated country song with a broken thumb called "Cool Winds." At one point the song says,"Cool winds bringin' war and peace in the same breath… your hair is pretty."
Elissa and I always got along great because she just wanted to love and be loved and have everybody loving each other and being okay. She knew I appreciated that because I'm pretty much that way, too. Obviously, it rarely goes like that. As sensitive as she was, of course there was quite a bit of pain. I guess that's common with emotionally wide-open geniuses. As far as that goes though, even when noticeably troubled or pained, she always managed to deflect any self-seriousness and bubble up some kind of humor about herself, bringing laughs to the folks around her. "The offspring of a librarian and a liquor salesman…," she would say, like, "What else would you expect?" Born on Apr. 1… what else would you expect?
I feel that my words about Elissa here can't say enough to indicate how much she meant to me and the others whose lives she touched. Anyway, here's remembering one of the most lovable people I have ever known - a squiggler who could sneak in the tiniest crack in your heart and bust it wide open, a spirit who challenged us to feel more fully and deeply, a compassionate soul who I believe absorbed peoples' burdens to help lighten them, a riotous everyday comedienne who turned a spotlight on the joy and insanity of true life (and sometimes knocked the spotlight over by accident, causing sparks and a fire in the theater), a gorgeous voice I will always fondly call My Songbird.
Thank God, we got some recordings of her. It was she who characterized "Transitions," the last song on the album we made together. That song is the unlikely continuation of the recording aftertrack 12, "Seahorses" - a song which symbolizes death in the context of the album's lifecycle-esque progression. Elissa spontaneously dubbed"Transitions" "The Flight of the Pod." It seemed perfect, and we had a great laugh, so I never asked her to explain what she meant. The after-death zip to the next level, as I took it.
So, here also is a dedication to "The Flight of the Pod" and the departure of a bright spirit, who touched down on Earth for a short time.