Meet the Woman Putting on an Entire One-Woman Show Dedicated to Jean-Luc Picard
Ellen Waddell uses 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' to explore her complicated relationship with her dad.
About ten minutes into my Skype conversation with Ellen Waddell last week, I embarrassed myself. Kind of impressive on my part, really, considering we were talking about Jean-Luc Picard and Me, Waddell's absurd new play about her lifelong obsession with Star Trek. (I'm a Trekkie too, but this play takes shit to a level of geekery to which I can only aspire.) But when I asked whether she'd had any past experience onstage, she politely told me she had—as a member of Los Campesinos, a band whose debut record I listened to and played on my college radio show incessantly when it was released in 2008.
In my defense, Jean-Luc Picard and Me is a long, long way from the indie-rock stages of Waddell's past. (Though admittedly, one look at Los Campesinos' lyric book will prove both projects at least involve lots of Nerd Feelings.) The show is about as uncool as you can get: it's an introspective, 50-minute reflection on a childhood spent using Picard—the captain and main protagonist of Star Trek: The Next Generation—and his crew to cope with a tumultuous home life. Thirty-year-old Waddell's only costars are a PowerPoint presentation and a comically bad DIY mannequin with a cutout of Patrick Stewart's face tied to its head. Its terrifyingly dead eyes don't give a shit about four lights.
By now, the show has wrapped successful stints in Bristol and London; next month, Waddell will be taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it'll get another 11-day run. So obviously we wanted to know what exactly is going on here. She explains it all, but first she wants to make one thing clear: you don't have to know a single thing about science fiction, let alone Star Trek, to enjoy it.
VICE: Your show opened in London last night.
Ellen Waddell: Yeah, I've only done it about three times. London was a bit scary, because I live in Bristol, and London is [prissy voice] "London! Streets are paved with hipsters!" I worried about what the audiences would be like in comparison to Bristol, where it's a smaller community, but it went really well. I got some really nice emails from people afterward, who sort of felt inspired by it. I didn't expect that at all.
What inspired this show?
I had this idea lurking in the background for quite a long time, about how, when I was younger, I really liked fantasy and sci-fi shows. I wanted to know why, when I can't deal with stuff, that's my go-to solution, to indulge in a fantasy world and tune everything out. What is it about that?
So, I started thinking about how it started as a bonding experience with my dad. We used to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation together, and went to the cinema when Generations came out. Even before that, he showed me Aliens, and Terminator and Predator... stuff like that.
And then when my parents got divorced, I kept watching The Next Generation, carried on being obsessed with it. A whole part of my identity has to do with my dad, and having that bonding experience and then never feeling that close again. After my parents' divorce, my dad and my relationship wasn't great, he was quite upset with my mum about stuff, it was a very typical estranged parents, Kramer vs. Kramer-style thing. It was quite difficult, and then he straight away moved in with someone else. At that [age], you're still being shaped and everything affects you.
So the show is about how Jean-Luc Picard basically then became this replacement father figure for me, and how he and the show gave me advice. I saw a call for submissions from a theater in Bristol saying, "Submit your idea for a show and we'll put it on." So I did, thinking I'd finally have to write the show if they accepted it. They said yes and gave me dates, and I was like, "Oh no, now I have to write it!
There are far worse shows to learn from as a child than Star Trek . So it all started with your dad?
Yeah, he was a massive sci-fi fan. I think Aliens was his favorite film. We watched it together. Now I'm like, were we too young to watch that film? Definitely. At least my mum made sure I knew I was not named after Ellen Ripley.
Is there a recording we Americans can enjoy?
I'm not filming it, because I just can't watch myself on film. But I've got a really crap-looking papier-mâché head of Jean-Luc Picard with a little mask on it, and it starts with me talking to him and asking him for help. And that's the ending; the story is then how I ended up in that position, on my knees, begging to this model head Jean-Luc Picard. And then there's a PowerPoint presentation—
I know. It's like, in the guise of a TED Talk, but it's not a TED Talk. It's more like, why I like Star Trek, and going through my childhood really, really rapid-fire, sort of explaining what happened with my parents, what was so great about Star Trek... and how I really fancied Jonathan Frakes. He was sort of the first man to ever make me feel, you know, weird.
It also delves into details of bad decisions I made later about men, my obsession with characters in sci-fi and finding them in real-life men. And then I go through my time in a band, but really really quickly in the PowerPoint, to sort of explain how much of a whirlwind it was, and then how, even in the band, I still felt like I hadn't made my dad proud. So, it's about that as well. I was pushing myself to do things, because like, I was his Number One, or used to be?
But a lot of it is me doing impressions of my family, from the perspective of a kid. At the time, my mum used to drink a lot, smoke a lot, a bit like Edie from Absolutely Fabulous. [Frou-frou voice] "Sweetie, dahling, sweetie, dahling, everything's fine, dahling." And she was a counselor as well.
Wow, what a great combination.
Yeah, so it's a little about having a harsh, strict dad and a mum who's like "It's not your fault, everything's OK." If I told her I hated her, she would thank me for feeling kind enough to express my emotions.
Oh my god.
Yeah, but she was like Deanna Troi! So it was fine. I mean Troi's powers were sort of spotty, like, "Oh, no, they put up a force field, I don't know what they're thinking!" [But if they weren't] I guess the whole episode would be over.
Apart from just watching the shows, did you grow up going to conventions or being a part of the Trek community at all?
I didn't go to my first Comic Con until I was 20 or 21. I went with my mum and my sister, weirdly. My mum was like, "I'm really interested in this thing you girls like." She found all the costumes amazing.
I sort of talk about this in the show, but my epiphany moment was going through the Seattle Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. [Los Campesinos] toured a lot around America, so every time we were in Seattle I would go there. They were some of the best days of my life. I remember once, they had a Battlestar Galactica exhibition on, and I [went through it] just on my own, crying—well, not crying. But nearly crying! It was amaaazing. They even had a Muppet exhibition once. I was eager to touch a wall of Muppet fur.
What about Picard in particular—and I guess, by extension, Patrick Stewart, since Picard was such his character—attracted you to him as a father figure?
He was very stern about things, and very commanding, but he was always very fair. He sort of lost his temper about things sometimes, but it was always in a very reasoned way, he always explained it. My dad sometimes got angry about stuff, but it was about his own issues and inability to be patient with kids. I talk in the show about how he saw kids as little adults. I absolutely adored my dad; I thought he was the bees' knees, but Jean-Luc Picard has got all that: he's commanding, he's very good at taking control, but he's also sort of mannered about it. That really appealed to me. I was like, "I would follow him!" Picard had that troubling relationship with Wesley.
Picard didn't really understand children, either.
Yes, he was very similar. There's actually a part in the TV show where he says to Riker, "Can you help me not make an ass of myself in front of kids?" But eventually he gets on with Wesley, they totally like each other, and he becomes a faux-father figure to him. You know that weird thing [with fictional characters] where you go, "Maybe one day this is the stage I could get to"? It was like he could be paternal if he let himself.
So it was a possibility thing for you then. It presented an alternative, different set of circumstances under which a person like that could be a father figure and learn from it.
Also I think when you're young, anyone who seems like they have their shit together, who can be like, "I'm gonna save everyone's lives, and I'm gonna do it in an awesome way and say something smart at the end." How do you do that? I want that. I also love a well-spoken person.
And he's the British guy on the show, which I'm sure helped... sorry, I mean "French."
In the show, I talk about how I found Star Trek quite believable in comparison to a lot of cinema that came out at the time, where the parents would always get back together in the end, like The Parent Trap and Liar, Liar. Star Trek was more realistic because the relationships were more real. I was like, "Well, my parents aren't gonna get back together. I can't make a magic wish." It's that weird thing where you go, "This is real, apparently; it's set in our world. But I find it more unrealistic than Star Trek."
Have you met Patrick Stewart? Does he know about this?
I haven't met him, but people have tweeted at him about the show. I haven't because I feel like that might be trying to get attention for the wrong reasons, and also you don't want him to be like [stern Patrick Stewart voice] "What is this. Who are you. Go away." [fake sobbing] "Oh god, why, Patrick?!"
He would never!
No, he wouldn't, he wouldn't. He'd be like, "Hmm. Interesting."
How were you able to expand the show from that one-off in Bristol to these London dates?
It's just me on my own, organizing everything, and London just seemed like the next place to try. The venue I'm doing it at [the Canvas] is part of this thing called a " happy café network," where they let people write on the walls about things that inspire them, and have workshops.
I think some people think that if they don't know much about Star Trek, they won't get the show, but I always explain things, and I don't ever use Star Trek as anything other than a metaphor. There are some geeky references in there, but it's really about the fallibility of your parents, and growing up, and realizing that no one ever really feels like a grown-up and that's totally fine. It's not really about Star Trek. It is, but it's about more than that.
Jean-Luc Picard and Me is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival August 19-30. For more information, check out it's festival page here.
Follow Devon Maloney on Twitter.