Before any one performance of “From Ship to Shape,” Walker Vreeland requires two months of intense rehearsal — because even though he wrote the words he acts on stage, he does not feel like the person who once lived them.
“It is very much like I’m telling the story about somebody else,” he said. “And that is sometimes amusing, sometimes painful, because I didn’t have the clarity I have now.”
It takes every moment of the rehearsal process to fully step into the version of Walker Vreeland who was drowning in self-doubt aboard a cruise ship 16 years ago, he said, someone who did not feel worthy as an actor, or as a person — an identity that fed into his mental illness and the subsequent breakdown that unfolds in his one-man play.
With levity, hope and resilience, Vreeland will bring “From Ship to Shape” back to Bay Street Theater on Monday night, where it premiered during the third annual New Works Festival in 2016. Shortly after, Vreeland hired Academy Award-winning director and producer Milton Justice to analyze the script, now 15 minutes lighter with a tighter structure and added music.
A year later, it would have an extended, sold-out run Off-Broadway.
“A lot of times, people see the show and say, ‘God, is that exhausting?’ and I say, ‘Actually, no. It’s the opposite. It’s quite energizing and quite exhilarating to relive my nervous breakdown on stage,’” he explained. “Every single performance is another exploration of what did happen to me, and it’s like one thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another.”
The year was 2001 and Vreeland was a borderline cliché, he said. The young actor had just graduated from the Stella Adler Studio of Acting at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. He was optimistic, idealistic and naïve, and he said yes to every opportunity.
“Really, that’s what you’re taught,” he said. “‘Don’t say no to anything. Who are you to say no to anything? You think you’re too good for a cruise ship? Who the f–k do you think you are?’”
It was that mentality, a weak sense of self and a struggle to find steady work — “It’s the oldest actor’s story in the book,” he said — that landed him aboard a ship in the Norwegian Cruise Lines fleet in June 2003. And within his first voyage from Manhattan to Bermuda, the 24-year-old wanted off.
Hired as a lead singer, he was told to learn three different musical reviews in one week, with nothing more than a trio of scores and a low-quality VHS tape to help him. He had no scheduled rehearsals, and they also wanted him to dance.
Then, management announced that anti-depressants were no longer allowed aboard for staff. Already losing the ground beneath him, Vreeland decided to increase his dosage instead of making an expensive call to his doctor, succumbing to an atmosphere that felt like “an earthquake in the entertainment capital of the world,” he said.
In there, he lost himself.
“As I joke, if you think you may be at risk of going over the edge — figuratively or literally — do not get on a boat. Like, any boat,” he said. “Don’t get on a cruise, don’t get on a sailboat, don’t get on a fishing boat, don’t even get in a f—–g canoe. Because when you are feeling crazy, there is already a lack of solid ground under your feet.”
Less than three weeks after stepping foot on the cruise, he stepped off. Quitting felt like a failure, he said, “and I didn’t have any foundation under me to fall back on.”
“As a person, my identity was so tied up in being an actor that when I felt like I failed, I lost it,” he said. “I lost it.”
Five months later, he woke up in a bed in Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Mood Disorder Psychiatric Ward, after suffering from a severe mental breakdown.
“I think in any kind of downward spiral, there are these signposts along the way, and most of the time, you cannot see them and you cannot stop it,” he said. “I think it’s the nature of a downward spiral. You reach a point where the momentum is so strong that you have lost control and you don’t feel like you have any agency. You feel like you’re not operating the controls. You feel like you’re no longer driving the car. You’re just at the mercy of this whirlwind descent into hell. And it’s really scary.”
“But, I have to say, it’s so much fun to do it on stage.”
Sparked by a series of journal entries — beginning on the cruise and continuing through his lithium-induced haze at the hospital — Vreeland wrote the majority of his one-man, three-act play on Long Island, where he worked as a radio host for WBAZ-FM 102.5 in Southampton until 2016, the same year “From Ship to Shape” debuted at Bay Street Theater.
Three years ago, and through his play, Vreeland sought to bring his audiences one step closer to a world free of the stigma surrounding mental illness. And while he feels they have, there are countless steps to go, fueling a conversation that still needs to be had — especially in places like the Hamptons.
“I think it’s hard when you live in a place that’s like paradise,” he said. “It’s easy to feel like you’re the only person ever to have a panic attack in the middle of paradise, and I think that disparity between one’s mental state and one’s surroundings can intensify feelings of isolation and shame.”
The playwright said he certainly felt that way while not only living on the East End, but also aboard the ship, cruising back and forth from a tropical oasis.
“You’re saying to yourself, ‘Here I am at the beach, here I am at a farm stand, here I am within this postcard charm of this town, why do I feel like such shit? What is wrong with me?’ and part of my message is, ‘Nothing is wrong with you,’” he said. “You may be challenged by the mental illness demons, but it doesn’t mean anything’s wrongwith you.
“I think the sooner we can accept the mess that we are, the sooner we can get on that path toward healing,” he continued. “I don’t think we allow for enough messiness, and certainly not in a place like the Hamptons.”
These days, Vreeland is living in Washington Heights, producing a number of podcasts and working on a new project, but he isn’t sure what shape it will take yet. It’s too soon to tell, he said, and that is perfectly fine by him.
“Life is really good,” he said. “I’m very grateful — for all of it. I really am.”
Walker Vreeland will present his one-man show, “From Ship to Shape,” on Monday, June 10, at 7 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. Tickets range from $35 to $45. For more information, call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.