After relocating to Portland from San Francisco in 2005 and promptly releasing Troubled Times—one of the strongest albums to come out of Stumptown in the past decade—it took singer-songwriter Holcombe Waller six years to produce a follow-up, 2011’s equally masterful Into the Dark Unknown. Even as he released it, though, he was steering his music in an increasingly theatrical direction, generating a one-act performance piece, Surfacing, and its new companion production, Wayfinders. While music from the show was presented in concert last November at Alberta Rose Theatre, its staging was developed in April at Seattle’s On the Boards. This weekend, the completed piece premieres here, in advance of performances in November at Brooklyn Academy of Music and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Waller spoke to us by phone after a grueling day of rehearsals.
Holcombe Waller: I feel great about it. It’s definitely the craziest, longest, biggest, most expensive, most developed project I’ve ever done. Whether that’ll make it better or worse than anything else I’ve done, that’s really in the eye of the beholder. We as a team, working on Wayfinders, it’s almost like group therapy. We’ve been really critical of what we’ve done, and incorporated the critique back into it. The show’s characters are in a virtual space that they’re empowered to create however they imagine, so they have full agency to say, “I have no idea what’s going on. I need more exposition,” or, like, “Your costume is hideous. It’s too Shakespeare-y. Like, what are you wearing?” There’s a component of both [Wayfinders and Surfacing] that’s about performance art itself, about creating music theater in the way that I’m doing, so they’re a bit self-referential.
Is there a danger of insularity with that process, that self-reference becoming a kind of closed feedback loop?
Well, the show’s about a group of six people alone on a spaceship, heading faster than light toward the edge of the known universe. So insularity is the name of the game.
What specific sci-fi works influenced it?
Like, all of them. We were talking through the script the other day, and my video technician said, “So, it’s kind of like Beetlejuice meets 2001 meets Her,” and somebody else was like, “No, I think it’s a little more like…” and rattled off another set of movies. I think it’s like The Matrix meets some sort of new opera, experimental performance piece. I portray an auto-navigation program operating this transhuman ship. The other performers are passengers plugged into the ship, experiencing their sense of consciousness in a collective way. It’s this vision of us becoming immersively connected with our technology, in a way that takes every imaginative thing we could come up with to its extreme.
The last time we spoke, you were moving away from traditional music performance and toward theatrical work. Any desire to make inroads back into the folk-rock world?
Well, I’m never again going to make another CD. I do want to put out a collection of music, but I would never in a million years try to sell it to anyone. And I certainly would never lift a finger to try to tour music venues. I would love to play shows, but I do not have enough self-torturing bones in my body to try to pursue that kind of life. It’s just too hard.
I’m putting together an album of music from Surfacing and an album of music from Wayfinders. It was part of the crowdfunding I did for the piece, and it’ll be available to people who might see it and want to buy it, but I’m not gonna try and do anything else with it. If you want to make albums, it better be a hobby, or you’d better be incredibly socially connected and very ambitious, because it’s just very limited at this point, outside of a wonderful thing you do locally or just a passion of yours, or you want to be part of a community. These are all reasons to do something. But I’ve been fulfilling that part of my life with these [theatrical] works.
SEE IT: Holcombe Waller presents Wayfinders at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave., on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 15-16. 7:30 pm. $12-$35. All ages.