Co-authored with Dr Yasmine Van Wilt, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Mellon Fellow at Union College, Kobalt/AWAL recording artist, dramatist, artist, academic, and contributor to Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global.
This is the eighth of a series of interviews with extraordinary people who are using their skills and training as artists and humanists to improve their communities, challenge assumptions, and advance our understanding of the human condition.
Wade McCollum is a Broadway actor, singer, dramatist and producer. An interdisciplinary creative with a ferocious appetite for literature and humanistic study, Wade has defied traditional career trajectories, developing major works whilst starring in productions including Wicked Cabaret, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Jersey Boys, Hamlet, and others. Wade McCollum is a core creative member of Van Wild and is in rehearsal for the UK tour of It Happened In Key West.
YVW: Would you mind sharing a bit about your background?
My father is a drummer and songwriter. I was born on the road in a rock n roll band. After spending some years in Ashland, Oregon for schooling, I left high school early and graduated from a professional actor training program at age 19. I have played starring roles on Broadway, devised gender and genre defying experimental Shakespeare, and I released a solo album, Beauty is a Streetlight, in 2006. I have played an uncanny array of roles from Hedwig to Hamlet. I co-founded and ran a theatre company, wrote and produced original musicals and worked in television and film as well. I raised funds for this work; I also continue to educate myself. This is important for my process as a dramatist, actor, singer, singer-songwriter and producer.
YVW: Do you find yourself compelled more to one genre above the others?
Superlatives are hard for me, but: I love the power of music and I love the immediacy of theatre, and I love the musical theatre because of it’s vast potential. It is a heightened form in which all mediums serve a story. Characters can, speak, sing and dance. Design elements can be realistic or poetic, orchestrations can be organic, acoustic or electronic. These design elements live in the terrain of magical realism and poetry. It is a limitless genre that I think we have barely scratched the surface of.
I feel that we can forge new ground and keep finding more innovative and effective ways of telling epic stories, myths that can heal this wounded world. This is what drives me: the desire to find ways to tell stories that grow our understanding of being, of humanness, our relation to our environment. This is what I like about the Van Wild project. We are telling stories through popular formats. I think that using multi-media allows me the freedom to tell stories fully. I do not need to rely simply on my voice, on my body, on the text, on the set, on the video. Each of the media elements enhances the act of storytelling.
YVW: Can you describe the future that you imagine for America?
The future that I imagine for America is what I imagine for the whole Earth. "May all beings be happy and free from the causes of suffering.” It is not the inevitable inheritance of pain that unites us, but rather the ability to adapt to that pain, the pain that time and a linear experience of reality brings. I see the same potential for America that I see for the arts; limitless potential fueled by humanistic inquiry and humanist practice.
What if humanists become more important players in helping to shape the way we address climate change? I am profoundly fascinated by the Environmental and Medical Humanities. I see humanism as the greatest resource of our age. I see a future for America in which women are leaders and we nurture the Earth and our next generations: I see technology as a tool that we will use to reach a higher consciousness. We will eventually destroy our planet if we do not find ways to engage deeply, through, I think, humanistic inquiry into the reasons why we consume the way we do. We have deeply destructive tendencies. I also see each of us as stewards of the land we live on and not colonizers. I see an America that is a leader in renewable energy and that uses its vast wealth to care for all humans. I imagine an America that is a nurturing force for good and creates a peaceful wake through its aspirations and achievements; where equality is not just a rhetorical device but a reality; where basic needs are taken care of, promulgating the truth that there is more than enough for all humans. I envision an America that is a nation of leaders leading nations by demonstrating and co-creating a peaceful and mutually supportive way of life.
YVW: What can our readers do to consider the scope of how human rights and social consciousness can shape be shaped by humanistic study?
They are inextricably linked. Humanistic study will only lead to a greater sense of compassion and empathy, and with that comes social transformation.
What can our readers do? Support the arts. Some of the most moving theatre I have witnessed has been at the high school, college and community levels. Because it is not crowded with the agenda of career and commercialism, the purity of the creation is potentially greater. So go out and support your local art scene. Talk to one another. Then take action by listening and engaging in your community. It will become clear what actions need to be taken in order to affect positive change. We still live in a society where our voices can actually alter policy. Don’t count on someone else to do it. We are the ones we are waiting for. Artists give us context in a universe permeated with mystery, aspiration in a reality that is largely unknown and harmony in a world that can be filled with dissonance and conflict.
YVW: Do you believe the arts play a role in shaping a national consciousness?
Absolutely. One need only look at the amount of resources successful dictators in the past have poured into artfully devised propaganda campaigns using artists as tools to deliver messages to shape popular opinions and emotions. It could be argued that Leni Riefenstahl helped create the fascist aesthetic in Triumph of the Will and though that is a disturbing example, it illustrates the power of the arts to shape national consciousness. Of course, there are countless examples of the arts and humanities serving to help societies achieve greater self-understanding. Arts are the foundation of what it means to be human. Which is why the arts must serve a humanistic agenda and not a nationalist one.
YVW: Do you identify as an activist? As a feminist?
“Ists” have always been something I try to avoid. However, yes, I am an activist. I walk lightly on our precious planet and work to protect her in the face of such devastating corporate voracity. I help those around me as much as I can and know that we are stronger together than separate. I affirm that all humans are more alike than different and yet our strength lies in our diversity. I am excited by the potential of this great experiment called the United States of America, and I do what I can as an artist and a citizen to help move us towards a peaceful future.
I am a feminist because I believe that female and intersex humans should run the planet for a long time to come. We simply must balance things out. The voices of the feminine must be empowered, and I have chosen specifically as a theatre artist to tell stories that empower, inspire and uplift the voices and stories of women, and give voice to the oppression, violence and trauma that the feminine has endured.
YVW: What is next?
I am very grateful to have several projects to work on over the next little while. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is coming back to NYC very soon, a great show about feminine power through the lens of the Antarctic explorer’s harrowing and miraculous journey. A new show I just workshopped called It Happened In Key West is headed to London in the spring, a beautiful show about love transcending death. And I have written and composed a new musical called The Other Shore that is gearing up for a production in NYC. It is a musical about Hermann Hesse writing his seminal novel/poem Siddhartha illustrating the power of art to help us through crisis. I am also very excited to be joining Van Wild, on co-writing and touring our album of gorgeous epic folk songs and writing new, hybrid material that engages deeply with all of these humanistic issues, particularly with those embedded in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. I am continuously fueled by the power of music to give joy, empower and heal. What’s next is pure potential, and it is all love.
This Interview Series is a co-production of the forthcoming book on How Extraordinary Partnerships with the Arts and Humanities Are Transforming America.