Talented. Beautiful. Artistic. These are just a few words that come to mind when thinking of Val Vigoda, but you can also add “likeable” to the list. Anyone who meets Val knows how relatable and easy-going she is by nature. She took all of these qualities and channeled them through Kat, one half of the two-person show Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (available on BroadwayHD).
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What drew you to Ernest Shackleton Loves Me?
I saw a museum exhibit about Ernest over a decade ago, and it affected me so deeply I couldn't get it out of my mind! The story was so unbelievable and so inspiring, and it forever changed the way I thought about problems and obstacles in life. My partner at the time and I, who saw it together, began responding to any crisis by saying "Shackleton!" to each other. It would inspire us to stop complaining and get resilient.
Years later, when we met Joe DiPietro and started brainstorming about what to write (at the time we planned to write a one-woman show for me to perform), I knew I wanted it to be about something epic, something I could really sink my teeth into...and I blurted out "how about Ernest Shackleton?" It was the most exciting topic I could think of.
His story is so relentless, so harrowing, so extreme and so heartwarming – and the fact that the actual images and film from the expedition survived makes it even more vivid. It seemed to lend itself really well to musical theatre - but a one-woman show about Shackleton?? The banjo was really the key. As soon as Joe heard about the banjo, and its importance to Ernest on the expedition, he knew how to tie together the journey of the Endurance with the tale of a modern female musician. He had the brilliant idea for the premise and Kat’s character, and within a week had delivered to us the original outline.
The story of Kat, and how she is awakened to her own empowerment and self-reliance by Ernest (who soon became part of the now two-person show, as our director Lisa Peterson very wisely suggested), was hugely resonant with me from the get-go; it was always based partly on my actual life, and has become more so as we've developed the piece. It is such a personal passion project for me, I can't imagine NOT being involved.
What’s it like to sing your own lyrics each night? How much of Val did you put into Kat when you wrote them?
I'm the luckiest person in the world! I love writing lyrics – the emotional-word-puzzle challenge of it – and there's nothing like the feeling when you know you've nailed a moment, when you've got something good. This whole show has been extremely collaborative, so not every single word is mine - but most are, and I'm so proud of the lyric work in this piece. Getting lyrics to sound effortless and conversational, and still have them fit and rhyme and pack a punch...this is always the task, and I'm inspired by lyric masters like Sondheim, who does it so craftily and beautifully. With Shackleton's descriptive awe about the Antarctic, some of it comes directly from his own diaries, because he was so eloquent and appreciative about nature, even in the midst of misery. The voice of Kat was the easiest because it is closest to my own - she's just a little more edgy and foul-mouthed.
Over our long development process, we've done TONS of rewrites...and it's such an amazing feeling to know (and then see and hear the proof every night from the audience!), that we've made a song more impactful, more aligned with the book, better calibrated - sometimes with just a few words.
The song "Burned Again," which is Kat's 11:00 number, was the last rewrite we did - and it's the one I put the most of myself into, my own life reality and circumstances. When we started writing this show, I was not a single mom, as Kat is. But now I am, and this song is all about that pain and growth, the empowerment of forced self-reliance. That rewrite was gut-wrenching. For me it was about not only the sadness of the personal breakup but also the professional abandonment by my partner, which occurred just as we were bringing the show to New York, making my life even more like Kat’s.
The most cathartic and fun part was when the whole creative team brainstormed with me in the theatre, yelling out words until we all agreed we had our final version. Now that song reliably gets laughs AND a big emotional response...and getting to experience that every night, to ride that soaring wave, is the best thing ever.
It's a cold snowy night and a historical figure climbs through your fridge. Who is it, and why?
Leonardo da Vinci! In addition to being one of history's great polymaths, he was (like Shackleton) one of the great optimists, which to me is even more important. The kind of person who marveled at everything in the universe, never tired of learning new things, and bought caged birds just to set them free and see them fly. How incredible to be in the presence of a person/mind/heart like that...plus, he'd be great in a lifeboat.
Wade is a powerhouse of beard and man. When you were onstage with him, what was the energy like?
Wade is a buoyant, whip-smart, radiant light of a human being, and I adore him in every way. He brings such intelligence and humor to the work, and is always a blast to have in the room. He's got that immense physical strength (every night when he did his slow-motion pull-up as we climb the mountain, we could hear the audience gasp in amazement).
We are very good friends and have been told we have terrific chemistry, a statement I agree with wholeheartedly. As we've developed the show, more chemistry has developed between Kat and Ernest, which is reflected in our rewrites. A little more flirting, a little more Hepburn & Tracy, a little more depth in the love story aspect of the piece. I've learned so much from Wade about preparation, stamina, self-care, nutrition, fearlessly trying new ideas...it's been wonderful, and such a gift to do a two-person show with this particular, spectacular guy.
BroadwayHD is archiving your beautiful lyrics and show for generations to come. Why is this something you wanted to do?
It’s thrilling! I feel so honored to be represented here, in this cutting-edge curated way, along with the growing collection at BroadwayHD. It's a wonderful thing, making theatre so accessible online, and I love that it is a very different experience from seeing a show in person. Instead of diminishing ticket sales, it actually helps them grow, along with the visibility and life of the show itself.
Our plan is to return to NYC to remount the show soon - and so having it up on BroadwayHD, beautifully shot, is a big help.
What are you working on these days?
Many exciting things are afoot, and here are the most immediate: ESLM has inspired my next two projects! One is already launched, and one is about to launch.
1 - I perform concerts as a solo live-looping artist, using the technology we use in ESLM and many of the songs from my solo album "Just Getting Good." As we go forward, we're adding new music (my partner on this is ESLM music director/orchestrator Ryan O'Connell), as well as new performance opportunities. What's lovely about "Just Getting Good" is that I can do it almost anywhere: a theatre, a music venue, even the occasional private home.
2 - I'm adding something different in the new year, a musical keynote presentation called "Peak Aliveness"—drawing upon my own life lessons as a classical violinist turned rebel (as well as some inspiration from Ernest Shackleton himself), to help people connect with their own resilience and optimism to reach new goals. I'll be speaking to companies, women's conferences, etc. The timing seems perfect, and I'm delighted to be starting this new project!
Check out our Q&A with Ernest Shackleton Loves Me book writer Joe DiPietro and view Ernest Shackleton Loves Me on BroadwayHD.