BWW Interview: Chatting about ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME with Valerie Vigoda and Wade McCollum
Balagan Theatre is bringing one of the oddest topics for a musical to the Seattle Rep with the world premiere of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. From anyone else this might seem like a stretch but from the minds of Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn, who brought us the likes of Striking 12 and Sleeping Beauty Wakes, along with book writer Joe DiPietro, a story about a single mother/musician who begins a Skype conversation with Ernest Shackleton as he journeys across the Antarctic is just a jumping off point for something magical. I recently sat down with co-author and one of the leads of the show Valerie Vigoda along with fellow cast mate Wade McCollum to discuss this odd pairing.
Val, what brought you to Ernest Shackleton as the subject for a musical?
VV - Well, for a long time Brendan and I, Brendan, my husband and collaborator, have been working and writing together. And we had a band together. And we still play sometimes. And we would write and perform everything together. And as we started talking about having a family and doing other things in addition to that, we talked very seriously about what we wanted to do. And it became clear that Brendan doesn't have as much of a love of performing as I do. He loves it and he's terrific at it. But he would be perfectly happy to spend the rest of his life in the studio behind the scenes doing arrangements, and writing, and producing and all of that. Whereas I feel like I get twitchy if I don't perform for a certain amount of time. And I have this exhilaration that I just-- I miss. And I really want that in my life. So we said, well, let's make ourselves both as happy as possible and write something that I get to perform and Brendan is involved with the writing with me.
So we were thinking about that since 2003. And just then we happened to see a museum exhibit about Ernest Shackleton up in San Diego. And we were completely blown away by it. And he was just in our minds as an obsession ever since then.
And then a couple years later as we were thinking more about what can we do for me to perform. Maybe it's a solo show. Okay, well, we went to see a bunch of solo shows. And most of the solo shows that we saw were memoirs. They were personal histories. And I really didn't want to do that. I didn't want to do something that was potentially self-indulgent, that potentially was not so applicable to the rest of the world.
And so we sort of shelved the idea for a while until we met Joe DiPietro. He was introduced to us at a conference. And we had dinner together and we talked about writing together. He said, "What do you want to write?" And we said, "Well, we were thinking about doing something for Valerie to perform, something like a solo show. But we don't want to make this self-indulgent memoir. And we'd rather make something epic, something big." And the most ridiculous thing I can think of, the most unlikely subject I could think of a solo show was Ernest Shackleton. So I just blurted it out. And I said, "Something epic like Ernest Shackleton." And he didn't know who that was. So we told him the whole story. And he got really into it. And we happened to mention during this conversation that Shackleton insisted upon bringing the banjo along on the expedition. And as soon as Joe heard that he said, "The banjo, that's our way in." And a light bulb went off.
And that's how we got to write about Ernest Shackleton through the lens of a modern female character that's a musician.
In various shows like Striking 12 and Sleeping Beauty Wakes you tend to play your own instruments in the show. And now in Shackleton you're playing multiple instruments and creating high tech recordings on stage. Do you find it difficult to be so immersive in the music as opposed to the role? Or do you prefer to be in both at the same time? Is that in your wheelhouse?
VV - I am all about going out of my wheelhouse. I mean, I find this all really challenging and a little bit new and scary to be playing all these instruments at once and becoming this character who is not that much like me, you know, as opposed to in Striking 12 I'm playing the character called Valerie.
I've been practicing my butt off for this. Having Brendan Milburn in the house for 19 years means I haven't really needed to play the keyboards very much, right. I mean, certainly before I met him I did that more. I'm an okay keyboard player. And I had played keyboards in bands before. But I kind of stopped for a long time.
So now I'm playing a little piano in this. And it's great. It feels so good to be stepping out like this a little bit more. And-- I'm challenged, and scared, and thrilled and all of it.
Wade, you go through multiple characters throughout the show. Do you like bouncing from one persona to the next in the midst of the show? And do you have a favorite in this particular one?
WM - Well, I'm going to hold you there. I'm classically bad with superlatives. So I can never really choose favorites. I really love them all like children. It's the truth. I'm bad with choosing favorites. I just always have been. But, I mean, hey, Shackleton, I mean, if you're going to choose a superlative character he's pretty awesome.
This show is unique in that I play a lot of offstage characters. So you never see them. They're just heard. And then I play a few who make it on the stage. And to answer your first part of the question, yes, I love changing characters in shows. I've done a lot of shows where I play a lot of characters. And it's one of my favorite things to do. I consider myself to be an artist of transformation. So what's fun for me is to, like, you know, disappear into all these different people.
VV - One of the things that made us think of Wade for this show was seeing you play how many characters during Fly By Night?
WM - That one's, like, 30 I think.
VV - Thirty characters, like, on a dime immediate. Immediate shifts. And he's brilliant at this.
How do you see, both of you, the relationship in the show between Kat and Ernest?
WM - It is a love story.
VV - It's a love story.
WM - Absolutely.
VV - It's a story of inspiration. They're each inspired by each other in different ways. And I think they each learn from each other in different ways. And it's definitely-- it's love that is based on huge respect one for the other. And then there's more nitty gritty that you get to when you're sitting around on the ice with somebody for months.
WM - That's the thing. I think survival breeds a type of intimacy that one can never really replicate without those dire circumstances. I feel like the type of intimacy that we experience is similar to the type of intimacy and friendships that must have been developed through the actual Shackleton journey, these friendships that I can't even imagine surviving together.
VV - It's kind of like war buddies.
WM - Yeah. Exactly.
VV - Like, the people that you have gone through something incredible difficult with, those people, even if they're extraordinarily different from you, and this case a century apart-- they I think have a bond that is unparalleled. It's really, really strong.
Plus he's hot.
Wade, what drew you to this? How did you get involved?
WM - I will do anything they write. I think they're absolutely genius. I played Woody in Toy Story: The Musical for them back in L.A. a few years ago. And from day one, I mean, even from the audition when they sent me the tunes to learn for the Woody role, I was so turned on by their music. I just felt everything they wrote for Toy Story blew my mind. And then looking at all their other material I was totally blown away. And when I heard about this I was, you know, I say yes before I even, you know, read it.
Wade, you just finished touring with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? How is it going from such an iconic, established role to an historical figure in a completely new musical?
WM - It's great. Like, we said before I love transformation. And so I love choosing things that stretch me as far in different directions as possible. And you couldn't really choose two things that are farther from each other in a way. I love doing new work. I find it most thrilling. Because you're on the front edge of the creative process. And there's something inherently thrilling about that. Also scary and also exhilarating. And like Val was saying earlier, it sort of inherently takes you out of your comfort zone which, as an artist, as a person I love to do because I think it's really important. And the show is about taking ourselves way out of our comfort zone and surviving.
And so how is it to go from one to the other? On a very kind of mundane level, my body is very happy to not to be wearing all those shoes, and wigs and stuff. It was really hard on my body. And it's been great to let all of my hair grow (LAUGHS) including my beard.
How have you enjoyed working with each other on this new, exciting musical?
WM - It has been really fun. We laugh a lot.
VV - Yeah.
WM - A lot.
VV - He cracks me up so much.
WM - And dangerously at times.
VV - I know.
WM - We can lose it. And that's not good in the theatre. But it's also really a fun work situation.
VV - Yeah.
WM - And as far as Val goes I feel at times like she is my Shackleton. She's an amazing mother, an amazing wife, an amazing lyricist, an incredible creator, she plays all these instruments like a fucking virtuoso. She's just kind of outrageous. And it's like being in support of a miracle, you know. And I get to be her Pip, you know. I get to be Val's Pip. And there is nothing better in life than being Valerie Vigoda's Pip.
VV - And I have to say I feel the same way. I mean, when watching Wade just come up with idea after idea and be a creative force in the room with Lisa (Peterson).
And the physicality of this guy, this guy is like a gymnast. Making the living room of the apartment into the Antarctic (LAUGHS) which is so fun to watch.
My last question, I ask this of everybody I interview-- what's the thing that you geek out about? What's your geekdom?
VV - Our whole lives are about geekdom.
WM - I know. Like, the non-art related fascination of something?
VV - Non-art related?
WM - Maybe. 'Cause we know you're a geek when it comes to music.
VV - I guess a lot of my obsessive, researchy energy goes toward things that have to do with my son right now. So food allergies and the-- (LAUGH) the gut.
WM - You're a geek mom.
VV - I'm a geek-- yeah, a little bit geek mom.
WM - I would say astrophysics and the I Ching. But if I have to choose one I can't. See.
You can have both.
WM - Yay. (LAUGHS)
VV - Woo hoo! (LAUGHS)
WM - Whew, both. (LAUGHS) So relieved.