Keepin' it all together
The Wanda Shirk Interview - Part One
« on: Dec 21st, 2005, 10:45pm »
(The following interview originally appeared at Scribe's Oasis in August of 2005)
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Wanda Shirk about her exciting, albeit short, time on Survivor: Palau. To refresh your memory, Wanda (along with Jonathan Libby) was an unfortunate victim of a tribal pick'em twist that sent her out of the game shortly after it began. Wanda is a 55 year-old English teacher from Ulysses, PA with a tendency to break into song in an effort to bring a little joy to the people around her.
Wanda was gracious enough to give us a little of her time, between a wonderful Canadian vacation and her preparations for the upcoming school year, in order to answer a few questions.
Wanda was so forthcoming with information, I've decided to break up the interview into two parts. Part I is below and Part II will be posted separately. It's a good read, full of behind the scenes information I'm sure you'll all enjoy finding out. Read on!
MediaScribe: Hi Wanda, welcome! We know, as a teacher, this is quite a busy time for you, thanks for sharing a little of that time with us.
Wanda: You're welcome! Yes, my life is really busy! School started this week, and I just got back Sunday night from a major camping and canoeing expedition in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. (see picture above - MS) But I'm happy to talk with you!
MS: What did you do to prepare yourself for your Survivor experience?
Wanda: LOTS! SWIMMING! One of the questions I was asked in the first phone call from casting was whether I could swim. The gal told me that "On a scale of one to ten for swimming, with one being a beginner and ten being lifeguard, you need to be at least a six, because you will be dropped off in deep ocean and have to swim to shore." I could swim, but I wasn't up to distances over about 20 yards! I started swimming regularly, and got to the point that I was swimming a mile three times a week.
RUNNING! My first call from casting was on July 15, so school was out for the summer. I got a personal trainer and went for workouts of all sorts for about ninety minutes every morning. I did weight-lifting, push-ups and pull-ups, balance beam exercises, military jumping-jacks and mountain-climbers, and lots of agility-improvement work. I ran. When I started, I could only run about a quarter of a mile, and then I'd have to walk awhile before I could run again. I got to the point that I could run five miles without stopping. I ran a couple 5Ks last October. I had entered 5Ks before, but I always half-ran, half-walked them before.
EYE SURGERY! I had worn glasses since I was in third grade. My husband and I spent a couple thousand dollars getting LASIK surgery for me so that I wouldn't need glasses or contacts for the show. (I wore glasses for my first audition tape, which was for Survivor 7, and I did not get a casting call. I decided to do my second audition tape, which was for S-10, without glasses, and I did get a call. I think it made a difference, although the tape also has to be what the casting people are looking for!) Not needing glasses was great for a show with a lot of swimming activity. People with contacts had problems -- such as Ian, who lost his contacts in the water when he was swimming in to the island on the first day.
STRATEGY PLANNING! I also kept a journal every day, and thought a lot about strategy. I wrote out an elaborate plan called "The Bond of the Best" (BOB), which was my plan to make sure that good, deserving people would win. I hated Survivor seasons when "Under-the-Radar" seemingly-mediocre people in conjunction with people of lesser character voted off really good quality people early in the game because they deemed them threats. I should add that in addition to planning an overall strategy, I also gave a lot of thought to my character and personality. I really coached myself on things like being a good listener, showing interest in everyone around me, asking questions -- doing the kinds of things that would show my tribe mates that I cared about them individually -- so they would not want to vote me off.
ADVICE-GATHERING! I solicited advice on a lot of things and put notes in my journal, such as contacting a state-champion at "log-burling," which was a challenge in a couple of Survivors, and getting tips on how to do it successfully. It had a couple pages in my notebook of tips on various things.
SURVIVAL READING! I also read Survivor-related stuff, such as Tom Brown's Field Guide to Survival, which had useful tips on a lot of things, such as different styles and techniques of shelter-building.
MS: Did you find the application/interview process intimidating?
Wanda: I suppose some people do, but I didn't. There was a lot a paperwork, which was time-consuming. As for the interviews -- I love that kind of thing! I had written little songs that I was eager to sing, and I always introduced myself as "Wild and Wacky, Wise and Witty, Warm and Wonderful Wanda," and I had lots of little quips and quotations that I was eager to throw into the interviews. There was never a time when I felt at a loss or felt unsure or insecure in an interview. I loved every minute of that part of the process!
MS: You must have seen previous seasons where they just dropped the Survivors off without any warning. With all due respect, why in the world did you wear that long dress?! Did you regret wearing it after you were sent off the boat?
Wanda: Thank you for asking that question. I appreciate the opportunity to clarify! Being forced to wear that dress is the one thing that really made me mad in my S-10 experience. We were given specific instructions about 4 kinds of clothes we needed to pack.
First was a list of exactly 12 items for "game clothes" (long sleeved shirt, short sleeved shirt, sleeveless shirt or tank top, long pants, shorts, sneakers, socks, swim suit, rain coat, sun glasses, one set of underwear, and hat). We had to mail them in about two weeks ahead of time so that everything could be approved, and there were lots of requirements, such as no white, no stripes, limit black/khaki/gray, no bold/crazy prints, no logos.
Second was "jury clothes."
Third was "out-of-game clothes" -- what we would wear on a vacation after leaving the game.
Fourth was "press clothes" -- what we would wear for our ordinary employment, which was to be used to take a press picture or two. We had to submit pictures, which we did by email. They must have vetoed half a dozen of my choices. Again, prints and stripes were ruled out. They also ruled out pants or capris for me. They apparently wanted me in a dress so I would look like a teacher. Maybe (although they didn't say it) some of the skirts looked too restrictive for playing the game (though I did not know the "press clothes" would actually be "game clothes" ). Anyway, after they had vetoed a number of my choices, I finally got the idea that they wanted a solid colored dress, so I submitted the blue dress, thinking it would just be for one or two photos. I was and am still very upset that I had to wear it for the game. It seemed so unfair, because it made me seem very old-fashioned and school-marmy --- the very images I did NOT want to convey. In fact, Coby said to me, "You look like a judgmental, Bible-thumping school marm in that dress!" when we had a conversation and he found out that I wasn't a judgmental person at all. Meanwhile, other people, depending on their occupations, had far more appropriate clothing -- such as Ian, who was a dolphin trainer at the time, and got to wear shorts.
I knew the game would start that day, but they told us to wear our press clothes and take bags along with shorts and/or a swim suit to change into after the picture. Then we got in the boat, and they collected those bags of clothes from us, and we didn't get them back until we were out of the game. Tom was the only one to wear a swimsuit under his fireman's work clothes.
I think making people wear their regular clothes to play the game is a bad idea. It is unfair to certain people because of differences in occupation. Fair is for everybody to start on the same level, with appropriate clothes. Probably there are two reasons for the "work clothes" scenario: one, to make it look like a real- survivors, we-just-fell-off-the-boat situation, and two, to get people to play in less clothing, because if your clothes are inappropriate, you end up just taking them off. (You noted I was just in my slip by Day Three, when we had the early-morning "pick-up" game in which I was eliminated.) Even the guys who wore pants and chopped them off for shorts often ended up in their underwear, because the material of their pants would chafe their legs and give people terrible rashes. Finally, I think there are many parents and families who find the underwear-showing to be distasteful, and the show loses some of its class, if it could be said to have any!
MS: Did you make any alliances in the short time you were with the other Survivors?
Wanda: No, I was trying to make friends with everyone, but I didn't want to make an early alliance. For one thing, I thought it would be wiser to wait until we had tribes. What if you had alliances with people who ended up on a different tribe, and then you made new alliances in your tribe, and then post-merge you were in a bind because of two sets of promises made? For another thing, my strategy was "Bond of the Best," and I wanted to give myself as much time as possible to assess people's character before making alliances -- to find out who was a worker and who was lazy, or who was thoughtful and who was inconsiderate, or who was wise and who was a jabbering fool. Good character assessment takes some time for observation.
In Vanuatu, we recall that 5 guys made an alliance "as soon as they hit the beach," which provided safety for Chris even when he lost the first challenge for his tribe on the balance beam. Unfortunately, an early alliance like that sometimes eliminates some really good people (Brady climbed the greased pole for his tribe but was out early), and it may keep a poor team-player in the game longer than he/she should stay. It appeared that Scout and Sarge in Vanuatu both were conflicted later on about whether to stick with initial alliances or to change them after time allowed more character assessment. For better or worse, both stuck with their original alliances.
MS: Didn't you think that the singing might get on people's nerves and would make you an early target?
Wanda: Recall that I was there two full days. The song I sang on the boat took 50 seconds. I sang it once on the boat when everyone was there, once building shelter when half a dozen people were around, and another time on the beach when maybe two people were with me. I sang a couple of other short funny things, such as a little song about watermelon when someone was pining for watermelon. I probably sang about five minutes total during the whole time I was there. My intent was to look like a lively and fun person. The show made it appear that I sang almost constantly. That was not the case.
Sure, they hired Willard to be a curmudgeon, and he did his job, calling me a lunatic. Ask anybody, now, who's more sociable and fun to be around. And okay, Coby called the singing annoying too. Well, I guess, retrospectively, singing does annoy some people. But I still dare to say that most people would rather have a cheerful person around, even one who sings sometimes, than a grouch. Where I work, I have known some teachers to sing or whistle in the hallways before or after school, and the positive attitudes always impress me. I also understand that people on Koror tribe sang a LOT, but songs that have copyrighted tunes or words can't be aired, so you never see on TV how much people actually entertain themselves with song. There's really a lot of singing.
We should note that the producers are trying to make a show. When people were pulled off for interviews the first couple of days, my 19 tribe mates were all asked, "Was Wanda's singing annoying?" Not "What did you think of Wanda's singing?" or "Did you enjoy Wanda's song?" Ask 19 people, and some will say they liked it (Ian told me he loved my song and wanted to learn it), some will be indifferent, and some will, of course, bristle with annoyance. What makes the good TV? Controversy! I was pulled off for exactly one interview in my two days there, and one of the first questions was "Is anybody annoying?" The search for drama is on!
It is my belief -- and it could be self-delusional, but I think not -- that if I had never sung, I still would not have been picked. I never had one vote against me. I think everyone liked me. I know I liked everyone else! I think I was not picked because I was the oldest woman in a game where nine guys (six of them in their twenties), were basically picking up dates for a six-weeks camping trip. If there had been six guys in their fifties and up, and only three younger guys, the demographic would have been reversed. Or -- we could consider something like a fair game for an initial pick-up game -- one in which there would be two people representing each generational decade -- the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s! Younger women will pick older men more often than young guys will pick an older women. I still say it was age, not song, that targeted me.
Finally, there was the choice of whether or not to sing at the finale. My family had considerable discussion about it. My husband said, though, that it was a no-brainer. If I had never sung, I would be a non-entity, another forgotten older woman who was there briefly. Having made a name as "the Singing Survivor," or "the Songbird of Palau," as I have been dubbed -- I might as well capitalize on it as best as possible. To be memorable or to be forgotten? Is that a choice?
MS: Did they give you any indication pre-game (or in the contract) that two people may not even get to play?
Wanda: Absolutely none whatsoever. NOBODY expected that. I've made the analogy that it was like preparing for a chess tournament and finding that first you had a win a round of Scrabble -- and I was given a tray of all consonants to start with. Being picked by one person to play is very different from being voted off by a majority. Also, friendships I had with females didn't count; I had no way of knowing that my survival hinged on having ONE close male friend and it couldn't be Willard, who was closest to my age, because he did not get to pick anyone.
MS: Do you think it was fair the way they eliminated you and Jonathan? It must have been heartbreaking...how did you emotionally respond when you realized it was already over?
Wanda: It WAS heart-breaking! I had been so excited about the opportunity to be part of this game! And I had worked so hard to prepare! The more one invests, the more one has to lose. It was doubly and triply difficult when I was back at "Loser Lodge," trying to be a cheerful welcoming committee as others returned, and having at least three people say, "Oh, I told them to vote me off!" People are there for different reasons. Some just want to be on television for a little, I guess; not everyone really has heart and soul into wanting to go to the Final Two.
I believe that we have to choose happiness in life even in times of great disappointment. We can be bitterly disappointed without being bitter. I accepted my fate, but I have kept a journal, and I can hardly bear to read back over it any more, because it seems "whiney" now. I had a really tough time getting over it. My husband will probably never get over it. We both put so much effort into my preparations (he would make meals and do the dishes so I could go out and run a couple miles after supper, for example)!
One of my Survivor songs I wrote after I was out of the game, the one to the tune of "Supercalifragilistic-expialidocious." If you heard it, you heard:
S-U-R-V-I-V-O-R -- I am a Survivor!
I can deal with any fate and be my own reviver!
When the venture's over I'll be stronger, braver, wiser --
S-U-R-V-I-V-O-R -- I am a Survivor!
Note that second line. That's the attitude. Take what fate deals you, and choose a positive outlook anyway. Find the good things -- the things you have to be thankful for in any experience. They're always there.
End of Part One.