Interview with Wade McCollum on It Happened In Key West: ‘The show really is an opportunity and an invitation to love’

Discussing this new story of unrequited love, Anthony Walker-Cook talks with Wade McCollum about the plot and tone of It Happened In Key West, trying to work out why forbidden romances have stayed such a vital part of dramatic narratives.

Another blistering day in London, and London Student once more goes to chat with a star of the stage. This time it’s Wade McCollum. As we sit down to discuss It Happened In Key West we can hear a recording of the previous night’s show over the tannoy. Last night was the first preview of the show. The music sounds uplifting and endlessly romantic. How did the first show go? ‘It was great – we had a fast tech process, and by fast I mean the fastest I’ve ever had in my life. Previews are always a fun time, if chaotic, and you’ve got to enjoy the chaos.’

Set in the 1930s, Key West tracks the true story of a radiographer and his search to find the love of his life. Wade calls the show’s topic ‘perhaps one of the most outrageous true stories of the century’. ‘It is a story about a German scientist and lab technician who had a dream when he was twelve that he would meet his soulmate. He told his grandmother and she said he had to find her. He took it to heart and he is neuro-atypical and was a genius. He searched for his soulmate across forty years all over the world. By a series of events he ended up in Key West (Florida) – he crashed in a hurricane – and he met her in a hospital as an X-ray technician. He met her but realised she was married and was dying of tuberculosis. Two rather big challenges. But he’s an eternal optimist and he persevered and dealt with it in a unique way. The show deals with death but is a black comedy. Even though it is a show that centres around the themes of death and grieving, it is hilarious and is one of the most life-affirming shows I’ve worked on. You just have to come and see it to work through all these contradictions.’ Wade plays Carl, the aforementioned scientist. It’s amazing to think this is a true story, but in doing so there was plenty of material to mine in developing the character and it emphasises the story’s focus as a tale of love and loss: ‘There’s so much information since so many have become obsessed with the story and it can be difficult knowing what is opinion and what is true. The authors of this show have taken Carl’s perspective as truth and the story is from his perspective. They went to Key West and interviewed people that knew Elena and knew Carl. There’s one woman that’s in her late 80s and she knew both and read the play and said, “you guys did it, this is the most accurate representation of what happened.”’

Wade consider new material his ‘passion’ and as a writer he’s developed much of his own work. To be a part of developing a new show means being an inventor; ‘You’re part of the writing process and part of the generation of a new thing, which is exciting. In rehearsals there’s always this process of discernment (whether the writing or direction or acting needs to change to fix a problem or make a moment work) and in established work there’s no opportunity for that. You can’t change the writing and so the discernment is obvious: you must find a solution within the boundaries of the page. The boundaries are much more set. In new work, the boundaries are much more permeable and so the challenge lies in the leaders in the room identifying where they should point their attention.’ Did Key West go through many changes? ‘There was a lot of detail work, knitting the show together in a way that made sense. The main thing we change was working out the internal logic of character’s on stage.’

If we think of love that feels doomed, we automatically think of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Why has this theme remained so prescient of both audiences and writers? ‘Unrequited love has maintained its permanence in the canon of storytelling because it’s universal. I think back on my early years and late high-school and your first love and how much pain is involved in love and the inevitable loss in love. It’s something everyone can relate to. We’ve all been through some version of unrequited love. In my own experience the more I fall in love with my soulmate the greater the anticipation of grief is. We are impermanent and we are beings that do not last forever in this manifestation. There is this two-sided thing in anything. In this show we articulate his optimistic vision of eternal love and, despite the fact that bodies do not last forever, souls do. He was a deeply spiritual person and we adopt that perspective. I find it very optimistic and uplifting.’

Wade McCollum and Alyssa Martin in rehearsal. Photograph: Darren Bell.

As for falling in love with Alyssa Martin’s Elena, that’s easy. ‘Alyssa is perfection and she is one of those actors who is so present it’s such a joy to work with her. She rides this line where we must be deeply earnest and vulnerable but we are also in a musical comedy. The tone has to be turned up just enough so we can sustain this piece. Alyssa brilliantly rides that line, her voice is gorgeous and she is hilarious.’ Falling love is hard enough but doing it night after night must pose a challenge. Wade explains his own process to help him capture magic each evening: ‘The way I try to experience it on stage is like puzzle pieces: it’s not something you can explain logically, but a feeling of fitting.’ Why should audiences come to see this 1930s tale of love? ‘Anyone that likes the old classic musicals like My Fair Lady or Carousel will enjoy this show. Our composer Jill Santoriello is an absolute genius and her music is lush: it harkens back to the golden Broadway era. They all get stuck in my head. There’s beautiful, uplifting comedy songs with a jazz flair and the ballads that are just mind-bogglingly beautiful.’

This is Wade’s first show in the UK. Did he have any expectations about British audiences? ‘The one maybe difference that people have articulated (though I don’t know it to be true) is the sense of humour being tuned just a bit differently. I’ve not enough experience to talk about it myself. You have to tell me what the British humour is.’ When asked which role Wade considers most formative in this career, he can’t choose just one. ‘I did so many productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which was an interesting combination of my childhood – which I spent touring with my drummer father – and career choice.’ The other selection was Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, in which Wade plays Ernest himself, and because of which he is now in Key West: ‘I am in this show because Jill randomly came to a matinee and was struck that I’d be a perfect fit for this role. So that has always launched me into a different echelon.’ Both roles have brought brilliant visibility, and you can watch Ernest Shackleton on What did Wade last see on stage? ‘I recently saw Brief Encounter and I freaked out. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen. I was amazed at the excellence of the direction and performances. The cohesiveness and tuning of style; everyone was in the exact same play. I was crying within the first five minutes not because it’s sad but because of its excellence. Excellence is what we’re all striving for and it just fed my artistic soul.’ As for the one show he wish he could see, a somewhat more historic approach is taken: ‘Because I’m here, I want to say the original production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe with the first company. I’ve done so much Shakespeare and every time I have the honour of saying the word I can feel the litany of ancestors behind me. It would be so amazing to see the people that started it all in the original language, it would be so affirming and thrilling.’

When asked to describe Key West in one word, a cliché but charming choice is made. ‘LOVE. That’s so cliché but if there’s any show where that word sums it up it is ‘love’. It’s not just the music, writing or characters but this cast and creative team and theatre and producers. There’s just SO. MUCH. LOVE. I firmly believe love is an energy we can feel and I feel we are able to give that to the audience.’ What’s the one question Key West is trying to ask? ‘Not to be too on the nose in terms of marketing, but they do have a question on the poster: Do you believe in undying love? And I think that is the thesis question of the play and the answer that is given is: absolutely.’

Why should audiences come to the Charing Cross Theatre during this summer heatwave to see what sounds an absolutely charming and adorable show? ‘It’s supremely uplifting and I know it sounds contradictory when you know parts of the story. I feel like it’s a really good show and we hope people bring their loved ones and they reach over and hold their hand whilst their lover is alive. The deep love and appreciation for this opportunity to be alive and this capacity to love each other. The show really is an opportunity and an invitation to love those who are alive.’ So, grab a Elena to your Carl and come listen to this story of undying love.

Many thanks to Wade for chatting with London Student amidst such a busy time for the show! It Happened In Key West is at the Charing Cross Theatre until the 18th August, 2018.

Feature Photograph: Darren Bell

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact:

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