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BWW Interviews: PRISCILLA's Wade McCollum Discusses the Show as it Rolls into Durham

Get out your most sparkly shoes, because Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is headed for Durham. This glitzy show follows drag queens through the Australian outback on a bus named, of course, Priscilla. The big production numbers are paralleled only by the heart of the storyline. Ultimately, it's a show about accepting yourself and others for their own brand of fabulous. I recently had the chance to speak with Wade McCollum, who plays Tick/Mitzi. I got the scoop on what it's like to perform in such a demanding show, how he prepared, and the ins and outs of his complex character.

When asked about the joys of doing Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, McCollum said that "It's such a whimsical, uplifting, beautiful piece of art that it's a real joy to perform eight times a week," and added that "the material and the cast are just spectacular." When I asked him what unique challenges face and actor doing such a show, he noted that "some of the things that make the show amazing are also what make it kind of challenging." He noted in particular that the show keeps him busy and that there is only one time during the performance that he gets a chance to rest and drink water. He added, "every other moment is either spent on stage or changing my clothes, and some of those changes are 30 seconds long. So, I'd say that the particular unique challenges of the show are that it's taxing on the body. It's a lot of sweating and it's a lot of running around in crazy shoes and really heavy headdresses that take a while to get used to and figure out how to not hurt yourself." He made sure to add that, despite the hard work, the show is fun for him to do.

McCollum's character, Tick (whose drag alter ego is named Mitzi), is the catalyst for the plot of the story. After speaking with his wife who lives far away in Alice Springs, he convinces his friends to travel with him through Australia to visit his son, with whom he hasn't had any particular relationship. The story of Tick and his journey to be a father and ultimately toward self-acceptance is a major part of the more heartfelt side of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. McCollum says that, "ultimately, that's what sold me on the show. I'm the kind of performer, that it's very hard for me to look into something that's purely entertainment or pure whimsy, especially for a long run. I'm the kind of actor that wants something to chew on and to keep working on, and keep refining and keep discovering, and the heart of this show is really, really beautiful, and it's unexpectedly complex." He adds, "you can engage with the show just as a piece of pop art, but from the inside there are a lot of complexities and a lot of nuances to these characters. They're pretty well written and pretty well fleshed out." Despite the pace of the show, which tends to move from one major production number to the next, "there are some beautiful, really heartfelt moments," particularly with the characters of Tick's son and Bernadette.

When talking about his character, Tick, McCollum notes that he is "playing a father who is closeted about being a father and a husband to his drag queen community, and closeted to his son and his 'hetero life' about the fact that he is a drag performer." Tick is "closeted from all different sides," and the fascinating part of the character is "to watch him try to untie the knots that he's tied himself into." McCollum says his favorite musical number to perform is MacArthur Park, largely due to the side of Tick the audience gets to see during the song. He explains, "my take on him is that he's a kid who doesn't want to grow up, he's one of those men who are in their thirties and are still acting like a kid, and he's really reluctant to grow up, and he's kind of running from responsibility and all these things that represent maturity and adulthood. And yet, I think that's what makes him so great as well, is that he's innocent in a way, and also really child-like and openhearted and free spirited. In MacArthur Park, just because it's kind of this blatant hallucinatory production number where we get to just revel in the joy of the bizarre song from the 70s, it feels to me like he's this little kid dancing around in his bedroom with the [music] turned all the way up and in his pajamas, and having the time of his life. I think the audience gets to see a window into the soul of Tick in that moment, which is joyful and radiant and without a care, and the rest of the show we really see him guarded, with the tumult of confronting the truth."

Preparing for a show like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a big task for an actor. When asked about what he did to prepare, McCollum said with a chuckle, "a lot of stretching out." In addition to the physical preparation for the show (which included preparing for crazy shoes and heavy headdresses), McCollum did his research, revisiting 1990s Australian films, much like the one on which the show was based, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The show has, in McCollum's words, a "distinctly Australian aesthetic," adding "the narrative structure of the play and of the film Priscilla are very different from what I think an American formulaic film would have created." He also researched the Australian drag culture and traditions from the 1990s, which is the world in which his character and the character of Adam/Felicia live, and that of the 1960s, which is where the character of Bernadette is coming from.

When he mentioned the 1994 film version, I asked him if he had been a fan of the film before becoming involved with this project. The answer was a definitive "yes." Living in a small town in Oregon at the time, McCollum recalls, "I was about 15 when it came out, and it was a really big deal for me because it just struck a chord - it was very seminal in my upbringing, and I saw it at a point where I really needed to see these social outcasts creating a family, creating a sense of belonging, going into the heart of 'hick territory,' to see them living out loud and living flamboyantly, even with all their emotional complexity around the way they need to express themselves professionally, artistically, spiritually; it was very important for me to see that film."

I was curious to hear how Middle America has responded to Priscilla, having only seen it in New York City myself. McCollum said that "we are astonished at the response to this show. I cannot express to you how enthusiastic audiences have been. The roar at the end of the show is deafening. All these places, people have been overwhelmingly supportive, and it's been pretty much across the board, so I couldn't be happier, and I think the cast, the producers, everyone is really excited with the response we're getting."

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert will be at the Durham Performing Arts Center from April 30th through May 5th. For tickets and more information, visit www.dpacnc.com.


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