Gemma Wilcox on playing 21 characters in Fringe Fest's Magical Mystery Detour
During her career as a performer, Gemma Wilcox has played dozens of intelligently crafted characters. The U.K.-born, University of Leeds trained actress is a one-woman cabaret of personas, and today she spends most of the year taking her shows on the road across the country and through Canada. She tries to make it back to Colorado for the Boulder International Fringe Festival, though; she's presented a piece in almost every fest since the event's inception in 2005.
For this year's Fringe fest, with the help of director and collaborator Elizabeth Baron, Wilcox will bring 21 characters to life in the Magical Mystery Detour, the story of a car trip-turned-personal journey, with the first of multiple shows set for 6 p.m. this Saturday, August 18, at the Carson Theater in the Dairy Center for the Arts. In advance of that run, the now-Boulder resident spoke with Westword about the appeal of performing a one-woman show, and what it means to carry more than sixty characters around in her psyche.
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Westword: Without giving too much away, can you talk a little about the Magical Mystery Detour storyline?
Gemma Wilcox: It's about a woman called Sandra -- she's a character that I've been working with for about ten years. Sandra's mother has passed recently, and she gets a letter from her mother's lawyer saying that her mother wanted her to go on a journey to Land's End in Cornwall, which is the southwesterly point of England. She wanted her to go see the Transit of Venus. It was a trip they had planned before her mother died -- but her mother wanted her to do this regardless.
So Sandra does this trip from London down to Cornwall with her dog, Solar, and basically discovers all sorts of magical, mysterious and sometimes even mundane characters along the way. She experiences a lot of detours and blocks in getting there. So on one level, it's a story of a car journey and the things that happen, the rerouting that has to happen and other things she doesn't expect. It's not the smoothest of journeys.
Then, on a metaphorical level -- at least I hope it gets communicated, we'll see (laughs) -- it's also kind of exploring the detours that come up in our lives. We sometimes think we're supposed to take a certain path or road or course of things or we expect things to look a certain way, and then something else happens.
I've very much been drawing on that metaphor and theme in my life in the last couple of years, and what happens when you have a certain expectation or what the picture should be. Then life throws you something completely different. How to deal with that can be very painful if you're very attached to what you thought was supposed to happen. What is it about a one-woman show that is appealing to you?
The thing I love doing, particularly, is playing multiple characters. One of the things I love about that -- as one person playing 21 characters -- is that I get to explore all of the different parts of myself. I believe all of these characters are different elements and aspects of myself. In this show, I play men and women, animals, inanimate objects, certain things in nature.
As one actor, I get to explore this incredible range of emotions, voices, physicality and things that I'm kind of attracted and inspired to play -- and maybe I have certain challenges to play. I get to really play across the board with so many different emotions. It may be a little esoteric to say, but as an actor, sometimes I think about how many different parts we have to ourselves. Maybe even take it a bit further into spiritual realms and say we are all one, but there are all of these aspects to that one kind of being. I get to bring all of these parts to life.
You wrote all of these parts?
Yes. And this is my fifth one-woman show. I was thinking about it the other day -- that's coming up to about sixty-plus characters? I haven't counted them all, but that is a lot characters! (Laughs.)
That's, like, sixty different sides of you.
Yeah, it might be things I see in other people, or I often merge different qualities of people in my life, maybe family members. Sometimes I draw on things that I am jealous of in other people, or may be envious of or repulsed by, or absolutely love or am attracted towards. I very much draw on my life, but I also then create a fictional character that might have three or four aspects of different individuals in my life.
Then I get to go, okay, well, those things that I see in others are part of me, too, because here I am playing them.
Did you come across anything particularly tough when writing or putting this performance together?
I learned to drive in America, on a manual. In this play, she's driving on the other side of the road, on the right-hand side of the car. So I'm having to learn to drive a manual, in mime. It is really bizarre. (Laughs.) I'm thinking, huh, I wonder if I will actually be able to drive in England now, because I've learned to drive in mime!
Something my director realized yesterday is that if I do a turn, like a right turn, the car doesn't actually move, because I'm sitting on a bench. So I have to really leave more space and take my time so that the audience can fill in that information. I'm doing the beginning action, but they've really got to see it turning. It was a realization for us, like, oh! We have to let the minds of the audience catch up with what we're going.
Because, well, they're watching an imaginary car move.
Gemma Wilcox'sMagical Mystery Detour opens at 6 p.m. Saturday, August 14, at the Carson Theater in the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street #1 in Boulder. Tickets are $12-15; for more information on tickets and times, visit the Boulder International Fringe Festival's website. For more information on Wilcox, go to the performer's website.
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