Wade McCollum on Playing Tick & Mitzi in ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical’ by Joel Markowitz

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I will be in Philadelphia this weekend and will be attending the Friday night performance of Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical at The Academy of Music. I saw the Broadway production and had a great time. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview the multi-talented Wade McCollum, who is having a blast playing one of the leads in The National Tour.

Joel: How did you get involved in Priscilla Queen of the Desert? What were auditions like and what did you perform at your audition? How long after the audition did you get the offer to play the role of Tick and Mitzi and where were you when you got the wonderful news?

Wade McCollum
Wade McCollum

Wade: It is really a rather unremarkable tale. I had just closed on an Off-Broadway musical called Triassic Parq and there was a huge flurry of fall season auditions that my agent was sending me on–for all sorts of things, films, TV, other Broadway shows…Priscilla was one of the great shows in the mix. I sang material from the show and read sides from the show for my audition and callback. They were really fun auditions, on the day of callbacks I had no joke 5 callbacks, for all sorts of stuff, so I was running like a madman from casting office to casting office, changing outfits and shaving in-between appointments to try and look like a logger for one callback and a drag performer the next, it was a really fun NYC day. For the dance callbacks, they asked us to bring high heels, I don’t own high heels and having done an off Broadway show for many months I was not in a position to buy heels, so (i am not proud of this) I bought a pair of cheap heels from Payless shoes around the corner on 34th St. and after my dance callback I returned them.I was at a callback for a TV show when I get the news of being cast in Priscilla and the character I was supposed to be playing was a really mean angry man (bald actors generally play mean people on TV:) When the casting director came out to get me I had just hung up with my agent and was smiling ear to ear, beaming, and giddy and I know she thought to herself “oh dear, he looks nothing like his very serious headshot, NEXT!” But she put me on camera anyway and I did my best to try and be grumpy, and German, but it was hard!

Why did you want to play these roles? What is the most fun about playing them?

I LOVED the movie when I was younger, I still do, it played an important part in my rites of passage into adulthood. It is such an empowering story, one of acceptance, tolerance, complexity and self love…. it’s just great. SO when I heard there was a musical I was very intrigued. I never saw it on Broadway, I was out of town with other shows that year, but I heard some great things…and when I got the material for the audition I fell in love with Tick. He is such an unexpectedly complex character grappling with some really big issues (while surrounded by dancing paintbrushes and cupcakes) and the messages of tolerance and BELONGING really rang true to me. I feel like it is one of the macrocosmic cultural zeitgeists right now, belonging, and things are rapidly transforming i.e.: an African American President, don’t ask don’t tell being repealed, marriage equality, bullying, transgender rights and visibility, the list goes on and on. It feels really amazing to get to bring the message of belonging into some of these more rural communities where gender queer performance art and lifestyles are not always celebrated and CELEBRATE those things loudly, whimsically and powerfully.

I relate to Tick and his alter ego Mitzi in many ways. I can relate to Tick in that he is a performing artist who is stuck artistically because he is stuck in life, running from things he must face, namely his family. I have felt stuck in my personal life and it has translated into my work before, being a performer is different than other jobs, some jobs you can do regardless of where you are at personally, but acting/performing is so intricately woven with the layers of self. Sometimes what’s happening offstage can augment your artistic life onstage, but other times it diminishes your ability to be present, Tick is in a downswing and needs to own up to things he’s been running from. I’ve been there.

I also think for Tick doing drag is not only an art, a career and an attempt to make a living, it’s about feeling powerful. Like many, Tick has felt disenfranchised, pushed aside, bullied, misunderstood and disempowered a lot in his life, and doing drag is about disappearing into a persona that is more liberated, expressive and beautiful.  I can relate to that, because I do learn from and feel powerful when I transform into certain roles. It is a great feeling when you can shed your everyday persona and walk in someone else’s shoes for a few hours to serve a story.

You have some ‘big numbers’ in the show. Tell us about them and what is happening in the story when you character(s) sing them.

I think the biggest number I have is the latter half of “MacArthur Park.” In that number (SPOILER ALERT) while in the middle of an epic road trip adventure across Australia, Tick wakes up in the outback to an amazing sunrise, still half asleep he discovers that his friend and fellow intrepid adventurer Bernadette has indeed left the cake out in the rain. Upon Tick’s discovery of this aforementioned cake, the number explodes into what I imagine a really awesome drag queen’s acid trip would be like. Complete with life-size hunky dancing cupcakes, three flying Divas singing their faces off in florescent green hallucinogenic fauna-like bedazzled pant suits (I’m not exaggerating) and a spinning bus, Tick proceeds to lip synch for his life amongst this delicious revelry (while still in his lime green bedazzled PJs, of course). It’s really fun. What’s happening in the story? Did I mention life-sized hunky dancing cupcakes? Yeah, that.

How do you relate to Tick and Mitzi? What about them is Wade-like?

I relate to Tick and his alter ego Mitzi in many ways. I can relate to Tick in that he is a performing artist who is stuck artistically because he is stuck in life, running from things he must face, namely his family. I have felt stuck in my personal life and it has translated into my work before, being a performer is different than other jobs, some jobs you can do regardless of where you are at personally, but acting/performing is so intricately woven with the layers of self. Sometimes what’s happening offstage can augment your artistic life onstage, but other times it diminishes your ability to be present, Tick is in a downswing and needs to own up to things he’s been running from. I’ve been there.

I also think for Tick doing drag is not only an art, a career and an attempt to make a living, it’s about feeling powerful. Like many, Tick has felt disenfranchised, pushed aside, bullied, misunderstood and disempowered a lot in his life, and doing drag is about disappearing into a persona that is more liberated, expressive and beautiful.  I can relate to that, because I do learn from and feel powerful when I transform into certain roles. It is a great feeling when you can shed your everyday persona and walk in someone else’s shoes for a few hours to serve a story.

You have some ‘big numbers’ in the show. Tell us about them and what is happening in the story when you character(s) sing them.

I think the biggest number I have is the latter half of Macarthur Park. In that number (SPOILER ALERT) while in the middle of an epic road trip adventure across Australia, Tick wakes up in the outback to an amazing sunrise, still half asleep he discovers that his friend and fellow intrepid adventurer Bernadette has indeed left the cake out in the rain. Upon Tick’s discovery of this aforementioned cake, the number explodes into what I imagine a really awesome drag queen’s acid trip would be like. Complete with life-size hunky dancing cupcakes, three flying Divas singing their faces off in florescent green hallucinogenic fauna-like bedazzled pant suits (I’m not exaggerating) and a spinning bus, Tick proceeds to lip synch for his life amongst this delicious revelry (while still in his lime green bedazzled PJs, of course).  It’s really fun. What’s happening in the story? Did I mention life sized hunky dancing cupcakes? Yeah, that.

Wade McCollum (center) and Company in "MacArthur Park." Photo by Joan Marcus.
Wade McCollum (center) and Company in “MacArthur Park.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

There are over 500 costumes in the show and I saw the show on Broadway and like the rest of the audience – I was applauding the costumes as they were introduced all during the show. They’re colorful, breathtaking, they have a sense of humor of their own, and they’re jaw-dropping.

Which costumes that Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner have created for the show are your favorites? Which costume(s) that your co-stars Scott Willis and Bryan West wear are your favorites? And which costumes that you wear drive you crazy trying to maneuver in them? How many costumes do you wear in the show? How many dressers do you have and how important are they for the success of every performance?

Yes they are AMAZING!!!! Whimsical, brilliant, genius, feats of design and engineering, wearable art. Favorites? Honestly I am not big on superlatives, it’s just not my personality, but if I had to choose? The Flip Flop dress because it has become indie pop culture iconography, the Lizard costumes in the finale. I LOVE the three Sydney Opera House/Marie Antoinette dresses at the end.

Felicia wears some really amazing costumes and one my faves is the Material Girl costume. I love androgyny and she is giving wig off-nipples out of corset-tasteful glitter lip realness. Amaze. Oh and the crazy silver bodysuit with the silver wind swept Bride of Frankenstein hair while she is on the giant sparkly high heel shoe on top of the bus. (See now you have to see the show just to see what it is I am talking about!)

Bernadette is always impeccably dressed and Scott Willis is so stunningly gorgeous in these clothes, I think my fave of hers is the leopard explorers dress with sensible wedge and turban. Oh and her beautiful Lauren Bacall white pant suit in act 2.

The only costume that is really hard to maneuver is the Sydney Opera house. It’s like wearing a small semi-truck, or an emergency shelter- not to mention the four foot wig made of plastic water precariously balanced on my head as well, complete with a Victorian era sailing ship atop. Yes, I wear one of the seven seas on my head, and someone on an old boat is discovering a whole new world atop my wig, in the finale of Priscilla, 8 times a week – it’s deep.

I wear seven million costumes in the show. Kidding, I only wear four million. No honestly I have not counted but it’s a bunch, in the low 20s, and I have 1 dresser per city, she/he has to learn the whole show on opening night!!! from a chart that our amazing wardrobe supervisors made. It is a miracle to me that a whole new crew learns this show almost every week, during the first performance. We also have three supervisors that travel with us, they are all incredible and all of these said angels are VERY integral to this shows success. At certain points there are up to four people doing a quick change with me, it’s like being a race car driver and making a pit stop, all these people run out and change your tires, give you water tune you up and throw you back out onto the race track, fresh and fancy.

When were you first introduced to Priscilla? Why does the show have to say to an audience in 2013, and why do you think it’s still so popular almost 20 years after the release of the film?

I saw the film when it came out in ’94. I think the musical has a lot to say to an audience in 2013. (is it really 2013? aren’t we supposed to have flying cars and stuff by now…but I digress)

I have received many letters through my website, Facebook etc. from gay/bisexual parents, transgender parents and children of LGBT parents who are very grateful to have Tick’s story being told on the stage in the regions. Tick is a Father and a Drag Queen, he is also married, and those are not ordinary combinations, they weren’t in 1994 and they still aren’t in 2013, but for many people that is their reality and to see a version of their story told in such a positive and affirming light is fantastic! I think it also gives people who are not involved in the drag and gender queer communities a compassionate and accurate window into the hearts of these characters. Good writing will always have perennial power because even though it is about specific people who may be radically unique, it touches on core transpersonal human experience. Oh, and it’s funny. And did I mention life-size hunky dancing cupcakes?  Yeah, that too.

What do you admire the most about Scott Willis (Bernadette) and Bryan West’s (Adam/Felicia) performances?

I love Scott’s depth of soul that he brings to Bernadette, the inexhaustible light in his eyes and his adamantine generosity of truth.

I love Bryan’s overflowing gift of infinite contagious delight that he imbues Adam/Felicia with, making it impossible not to revel with him every single performance, his infectious naughty twinkle and his seemingly effortless craftsmanship that walks hand-in-hand with spontaneity and grace.

What is your favorite scene in the show (and why?) and what is the most difficult scene for you to perform, and watch, and why?

I love to dance, so “MacArthur Park” is really really fun for me to perform.  I feel childlike and ecstatic, and i get to spin.  I think the beginning scenes feel difficult because Tick is in such a horrible place in his life, he’s tense and falling apart at the seams, and so it’s hard not to accrue some that tension as the actor, luckily it is a journey of liberation and (SPOILER ALERT) the end is very happy so I can also let it go.

You have played so many diverse roles in your career so far including your award-winning performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Dracula, Prior in Angels in America, The Emcee in Cabaret, and Charlotte and 40 other roles in I Am My Own Wife, among others. And you have performed in many Shakespearean productions. How did playing these roles help you prepare for your performance as Mitzi and Tick? Why do you enjoy playing these challenging roles, and are there any other challenging roles that you have not played yet that you would love to play?

In some ways I think every role an actor plays helps every other subsequent role.  Each role comes with the gift of new compassion, greater empathy for human (or other than human) nature and a deeper well of experiences from which to draw.

Wade McCollum as Hedwig.
Wade McCollum as Hedwig.

I am so grateful that I have had the opportunity to have such a diverse career and I find most of the roles are mutually supportive, even if the genre gap is large or the energy is opposite-say Dracula and Prior, or Hedwig and Hamlet, they still inform each other in unexpected and non-linear ways. For example playing Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in the Pulitzer Prize-winning one man show I Am My Own Wife took an incredible amount of research, in order to feel like I could embody her. I Am My Own Wife is the true story of a 70 year old transvestite who survived the Nazi and Stasi occupation of East Berlin in a dress, she in an anomaly and a miracle as well as a very controversial character.Through that play, (and Hedwig as well)I learned so much about transgender experience, by reading copious books and interviews, watching films and documentaries and through embodying them onstage each night. Both of those transgender identified Women lived in east Berlin so I also learned tons about German history and the socio-sexual politics of Germany from the Grunderzeit era to the modern day. Some of that research about transgender experience and social trends relating to gender expression is useful in Priscilla, but I also had to do a fair amount of looking into the specific drag and gender illusion traditions of Australia.

I LOVE challenging roles because I never want to stop making discoveries, I am infinitely curious and find the more I live the less I know. Yet many of these roles are archetypes and through exploring them I get to gaze deeply into my capacity for understanding human nature and the patterns of history in order to be of higher service and give more. I love challenging roles because I am in this craft to grow, to be humbled and empowered, to take risks, to both fail and succeed and try to love myself and my fellow artists/collaborators through all of it.

Where did you get your vocal, acting and dance training, and when did you first get the theatre bug?

The first time I knew that I was going to be an actor for the rest of my life without a shred of doubt was when I was 14, my Sophomore year of high school. I was serendipitously cast in a play called A Company of Wayward Saints by George Hermann, directed by the genius Kirk Boyd of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland Oregon. Saints” is a commedia del arte piece about a traveling troupe of actors performing for the Duke. In a super serious scene in act 2 my character (a high ranking officer) has to send his friend (a traitor) to be executed on grounds of loyalty. It was a lot for my teenage brain to groc, but during the opening night performance I experienced a magical feeling. I found myself inexplicably endowed with an uncanny capacity to understand this older officer’s plight, so far from my own. I understood him no longer from an intellectual point of view, but from what felt like his heart, my heart, and this indiscernible merge was startling, emotional and like I said magical, in a heartbreaking way. And in that moment everything changed,  I knew I wanted to keep trying to understand more, to reach across these unfathomably disparate  realities and attempt to grow my compassion, I knew I was going to be an actor. The next year I dropped out of high school and went to an AMAZING conservatory in California called the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts where I received my professional training. I graduated at 19 and have worked as an actor ever since.

Left to Right: Wade McCollum (Mitz)i, Scott Willis (Bernadette) and Bryan West (Felicia) in the number "I Love the Nightlife" Photo by Joan Marcus.
Left to Right: Wade McCollum (Mitz)i, Scott Willis (Bernadette) and Bryan West (Felicia) in the number “I Love the Nightlife” Photo by Joan Marcus.

What advice would you give a student who is considering theatre and acting as a career?

There is no one path, your path is your path, there is no timeline but your timeline so enjoy the journey!! And be awake, because acting is about living, breathing, and being acutely aware, even if you are choosing to be asleep, be aware that you are choosing to be asleep. Curate: curiosity, balance, passion, patience, deliberation, spontaneity, presence, relaxation, joy, enthusiasm, self-love, risk, trust, and cultivate the most self realized you can, because you are driving the plethora of characters you will create, the more fully realized and well-rounded you are the more you will have to draw from. Experience trumps books, so travel, go out of your comfort zone, live life, meet people outside of your inherited communities, etc., experience it all, it’s all useful. But most of importantly: be happy. There are many challenges to sustaining this career, but at the end of the day if you are happy and healthy and whole when you walk into auditions you can be generous, powerful and the outcome is irrelevant so you can focus on the art. Acting is an amazing art, the politics of casting is a whole other tornado, so be happy and enjoy being an excellent artisan of character, the rest is out of your control.

LINKS
Wade McCollum’s website.
The Priscilla National Tour website.





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Joel Markowitz
Joel Markowitz is the Publisher and Editor of DCMetroTheaterArts. He founded the site with his brother Bruce to help promote the vast riches of theatre and the arts in the DC Metro area that includes Maryland, Virginia, and DC theater and music venues, universities, schools, Children's theaters, professional, and community theatres. Joel is an advocate for promoting the 'stars of the future' in his popular 'Scene Stealers' articles. He wrote a column for 5 years called ‘Theatre Schmooze’ and recorded podcast interviews for DC Theatre Scene. His work can also be seen and read on BroadwayStars. Joel also wrote a monthly preview of what was about to open in DC area theatres for BroadwayWorld. He is an avid film and theater goer, and a suffering Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan. Joel was a regular guest on 'The Lunch and Judy Show' radio program starring Judy Stadt in NYC. Joel founded The Ushers Theatre Going Group in the DC area in 1990, which had a 25-year run when it took its final curtain call last year. Joel is a proud member of The American Critics Association.