When 23 year old performer Walker Vreeland took a job as a lead singer for Norwegian Cruise Lines in 2003, he could never have imagined the voyage that lay ahead. Boarding the Bermuda-bound ship would precipitate a mental breakdown so severe, he would wind up months later at Johns Hopkins Hospital's Mood Disorder Psychiatric Ward. Now, with a sold-out performance this weekend at the United Solo Festival, and an already extended date added to his show, followed by a tour of his bestseller FROM SHIP TO SHAPE which will include stops at the SaraSolo Festival, in Sarasota, FL, plus a special presentations for Johns Hopkins Hospital and the American Psychiatric Association, clearly he's come a long way.
LocalTheatreNY.com sat down with Mr. Vreeland, who is being directed by Academy Award and Emmy Award winning producer and director, Milton Justice, to talk more in depth about this journey and his play. FROM SHIP TO SHAPE is a tragicomic autobiographical monologue about one young man’s struggle with mental illness. It's about losing your mind while chasing your dreams, the relentless pursuit of healing and how a cruise ship can push you over the edge.
LocalTheatreNY.com ~ That's a long journey and a tough story to tell. What inspired you to write and perform it? And how much has it grown in terms of what you reveal in your story?
Mr. Vreeland: The monologue was born out of journal entries that I kept at the time of the breakdown. It wasn't until years later, once I had gotten some distance from the experience that I realized it could work as a piece of theater, more specifically as a monologue. Somewhere deep inside, I just knew I had to do it. Every stage of the process (from the initial drafts to readings and rewrites and finally performing it) has been an ongoing attempt to reconcile this piece of my past. I've been developing FROM SHIP TO SHAPE for the last 7 years so it's changed a great deal since its primitive state. Choosing what to reveal was less about personal boundaries and more about refining the script so that each event in the narrative serves the overriding theme of the play. I had to constantly ask myself: why am I telling you this? And I’m so grateful to have had a lot of guidance and direction from some brilliant mentors along the way. Thanks to Scott Schwartz and my director Milton Justice.
LocalTheatreNY.com ~ How would you describe your solo show and what type of things do you talk about in your story?
It's a story about a decent into hell, amidst a whole lot of absurdity. When I was 24, I took a job as a singer on a cruise ship and soon after suffered a mental breakdown so severe I wound up in a mental hospital. So I tell that story: the ridiculous, sometimes funny sequence of events that took me from the cruise ship to the mental hospital to the path that would eventually lead to recovery. But what I'm really doing in the monologue is trying to understand what happened to me, why it happened and how I survived it. That’s what compels me to tell it. I have always been a huge fan of Spalding Gray, the late, great monologist. You always got the sense that Spalding was trying to work something out with the audience, gain a deeper understanding of a particular aspect of his life or his own psyche. In many ways, that’s what FROM SHIP TO SHAPE is. Yes, I am the only one on stage, but the audience is who I'm playing opposite and by telling the story again and again, they help me put this life-changing event in perspective. It’s almost as though if I can get the audience to understand what happened to me, then maybe I’ll understand what happened to me.
LocalTheatreNY.com ~ This is very personal material. How does it feel to bring this material to the stage every time you perform it?
Mr. Vreeland: It’s really fun! Contrary to popular belief, reliving your nervous breakdown on stage is a rollicking good time and I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance. Of course it’s scary because it’s only me up there being vulnerable for 75 straight minutes with no break, but it’s definitely more exhilarating than it is frightening.
LocalTheatreNY.com ~ How has the audience reacted so far? What kind of feedback do you get?
Mr. Vreeland: The feedback has been incredible and it means more to me than I can sufficiently express. People come up to me after the show and share what they've been through. Many people say they can relate to the seemingly unruly momentum of a downward spiral, how hard it is to break free once you’re in a free fall. Many talk about their own lifelong battles, or about family members or friends who have somehow been touched by mental illness or hardship. It's a privilege to be on the receiving end of that kind of trust and for a few short moments, we stand in solidarity. Not a lot has to be said, it’s more about just being present and listening. It’s the least I can do after they have listened to me for 75 minutes and had the courage to go on this journey with me.
LocalTheatreNY.com ~ What do you want to get out of performing this work and what do you hope your audience will feel or think about?
Mr. Vreeland: I tell this story because connecting with others feeds me. It give me life and keeps me going. Concurrently, I hope it helps to humanize, and even normalize mental illness. I think the more of us who tell our stories, on stage or off, the more we upstage the stigma. It’s about being honest about what we go through but it’s also about laughing about it sometimes, so that people don’t feel they have to tiptoe around the subject. I want FROM SHIP TO SHAPE to give us all permission to face, laugh at, and ultimately love our most disastrous, shameful chapters.
What do I hope my audience feels watching FROM SHIP TO SHAPE? Of course I want this monologue to be a beacon of hope, however small… a reminder that it can get better. But mostly, I just want people to feel less isolated and disconnected. Whether it’s mental illness or addiction or coping with trauma or loss, we’re all in the shit together, and so my intention is to create a space for healing, a space and time we can come together and remember that we’re not alone with the suffering we’ve endured.
Quoted as a best seller by United Solo, FROM SHIP TO SHAPE has already been extended an additional performance on Monday, October 2, 2017 at 9:00pm after a SOLD OUT first performance (September 30, 2017/2:00pm).
UPDATE: Bestseller From Ship to Shape enjoys two sold out performances. An additional performance has been added on Wednesday, October 4th at 9pm. Looks like October 2nd has also sold out!
Tickets and more information here: http://unitedsolo.org/us/fromshiptoshape-2017/