VO5. Little Red Wolf. Held. You may recognize one or more from the Madison arts scene, but did you know the same person has played a part in all three? Kelly Maxwell made her initial mark locally as a musician, but is now sharing her talents on a different stage. “Held: A Musical Fantasy,” is playing weekends through June at Broom Street Theater. It’s Kelly’s directorial debut, and first full-length work. “Held” is on the dark side of fairytales, with the consequences of power driven by the music, and weaved between the characters – one, demonstrating charm and a gift for the supernatural – the other, a determined realist. Let’s just say it leads to a powerful end.
I recently asked Kelly about using her own power to move between music, and theater. And why this may be the start of a real-life fairytale, come true.
Maximum Ink: Many people may know you as part of the music community. What led you to theater?
Kelly Maxwell: I am very comfortable calling myself a singer, and an actor. A performer, first and foremost. I’ve been involved in Madison community theater since 2006, mostly at The Bartell Theatre and Broom Street Theater, and with several productions of locally written, original scripts; so I’m familiar with the possibility and the process of bringing original work to life. But, I never considered myself a playwright until a project called “Are We Delicious?” came along in 2012. “Delicious” is the brainchild of my friend Tony Trout, and it has been an excellent presence in our community theater scene. Since its inception, more than 100 five-minute scripts have been written, rehearsed, and performed by Madison artists! Nine of those were mine, including one musical I wrote. My writing partner for that project was none other than Meghan Rose. We were randomly, yet fortuitously, paired together and came up with a piece called “I Have To,” which ended up being the inspiration for my current work, “Held: A Musical Fantasy”.
Now, let me tell you about Meghan. We’ve been playing together since 2008 in a band called Little Red Wolf, and loved working together within that context. In 2013, she signed on to be music director of the production “Xanadu,” and convinced me to audition. I was cast as the lead, and it’s when our creative relationship expanded to include theater. “Delicious” happened right after “Xanadu,” and several months later, I was offered a slot in the 2015 Broom Street season. I accepted immediately, and knew I wanted to work with Meghan on our earlier “I Have To” piece by expanding it to full-length.
I also sang with Madison disco band VO5 from 2007 until very recently. I left to free up more of my creative energy for theater and writing.
MI: And you lived out west, but you’re finding your groove here?
KM: Yes, though I am actually an Iowa girl, born in a small-ish town on the Mississippi River called Muscatine, and went to college in Iowa City at the University of Iowa. I then spent a few years in Portland, Oregon after college, but made my way back to the midwest to be closer to my family. I chose Madison, and moved here in 2003, because it was close, but-not-too-close to my hometown, which is about 3 hours away. I considered Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Chicago, but Madison was the best fit for me because of the lakes, the size, and the progressive attitude. But, it didn’t really feel like my home until I got involved with theater.
The music and theater community is my chosen family, and it is 100% due to this community that I have chosen to stay here.
MI: Tell me how moving away from the musical stage, and more to the theater, fits into your plans?
KM: It is my hope and dream to stay open to the creative possibilities all around me. There are so many people I’ve met and seen here with whom I would love to collaborate. I’m at a very exciting moment in my “career” as a semi-professional artist – I’m feeling more confident than I
ever have before, both as a performer and writer. I wouldn’t say I have found my voice, but I would say I am definitely learning how to recognize it when I hear it, and more importantly, how to listen to it. I value my own voice more than anytime in the past, and it’s an incredible feeling! My personal mantra throughout this—at times intimidating—process of writing and directing my own show has been this: “I have a voice. I take up space. I am not perfect.”
Just saying those words right now brings tears to my eyes. Such simple ideas, but if you are feeling it as being true for the first time, it’s incredibly powerful and freeing.
MI: I want to hear more about your current work, “Held.” You opened to rave reviews, and sold out shows. Are you feeling a sense of accomplishment?
KM: “Held” is the project I’ve been working towards for many, many years, and without really knowing it. It feels like the final expression of a certain aesthetic that has been present in my art since even way back in my Iowa City days. I was mainly a visual artist then, a painter, and beginning songwriter. The imagery, the colors, the lighting design of this show and how it plays on the actors’ faces – I recognize all these things from earlier work. I love dark, sad, beautiful, poignant, stark, ruined, intense, desperation, and love these things in contrast to purity, innocence, otherworldly, shimmery, light, and energy.
I think Meghan and I get turned on by the same kind of sounds and feelings in music, and as I developed the script, we would identify moments that could be intensified or clarified by song. She would record long piano sketches of the mood she envisioned, and I would free-write lyrics while listening to her recordings on my headphones. Then she would turn those things into the songs. It was a great way for both of us to work. Collaborative, and in the best way. Plus, she is a wizard, and works her ass off to make her music great.
MI: What’s next for you?
KM: I have a few ideas for my next script. Images, and bits of dialogue are floating around in my mind. We’ll just have to wait and see which ones demand to be heard.
Interview by Teri Barr, Maximum Ink Magazine