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Artists & Elders: Kelli Simpkins & Vanissa James

Kelli Simpkins (she/they) is a theater, film and television artist whose career has spanned thirty years. They are dedicated to telling stories often excluded from the mainstream that focus on class, queerness, disenfranchisement and the other. They are a company member of Tectonic Theater Project, and are one of the original creators/dramaturges/performers of The Laramie Project. She appears in the HBO film of the same name, for which she and fellow company members share a Humanitas Prize and an Emmy nomination.  Kelli co-wrote, directed and devised an original play at WMU called Good Death, which was performed at the Kennedy Center’s Region III American College Theatre Festival. Currently, they are fundraising to produce QUEER IN(N),  a curated, queer, generative online arts gallery based on their verbatim interviews with LGBTQIA+ youth/elders in Chicago. They will commission multidisciplinary queer artists to create new works to bring these interviews to light. After working in New York and all over the US, Kelli relocated to Chicago, where they’ve performed at Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman, ATC, Timeline, Victory Gardens and About Face Theater, where they are also an artistic associate. She has simultaneously spent numerous years developing, collaborating on and performing award winning, socially engaged, interview based documentary projects in the style of Laramie—including The People’s Temple and Spill. Kelli’s TV and film credits include Slice, Proven Innocent, Chicago Fire and Chicago PD, Patriot, Betrayal, A League of Their Own, Chasing Amy and Law & Order: C.I. Kelli is a contributing writer to the bookMOMENT WORK—Tectonic Theater Project’s Process of Devising Theater. She is also a teaching artist and educator who has led training labs throughout the country. They are a proud recipient of the 2013 3ARTS award. Kelli is represented by Gray Talent Group and NYC manager Jodi Schoenbrun Carter at 1022m Management.

Vanissa James was born in Harlem NYC and lived the first years of her life in the Bronx, before relocating to Los Angeles at the age of seven. She has been a talented artist from an early age, starting with a love of paint-by-number sets and pencil drawing and moving in her adult life to painting oil portraits. Today, Vanissa paints exclusively in watercolors, with a focus on floral art, which she also teaches. Vanissa began her work life with the USPS, where she moved through the ranks from mail clerk to Postmaster Secretary to Accounting Department supervisor. She went on to work in international finance with CitiCorp for years before switching gears to become a fundraising researcher for the United Negro College Fund. She has lived all over the U.S., the Caribbean and Canada. She has been retired for a decade but keeps supremely busy. She is teaching herself to play the flute, is learning Spanish, listens to smooth jazz and is starting a new ecommerce business. She has lived a huge life—working, traveling, going to theater, museums, and concerts (where she saw Prince, Nina Simone, Sting, Mick Jagger, David Bowie and more famous musicians perform live!). Vanissa has dreams of visiting London and Tuscany on her next big adventures. She is an adventurous spirit, an entrepreneur, a curious learner—someone who never stops living her life to the fullest. Her favorite flower is the tulip. Her dad was her biggest inspiration. Learn more about Vanissa at:,, and

Video Editing: Adithi Chandrashekar 

Saxophonist: Anthony Bruno




Posted on December 2, 2020 in Artists & Elders

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