Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Interview: George F. Walker

The Burden of Being Walker
by Jim Murchison

George F. Walker has received nine Chalmers Awards, five Dora Awards, three Governor General's Awards (including a 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award) and the Order of Canada. In 1997 his six-play cycle Suburban Motel premiered at Factory Theatre (Toronto) and Rattlestick Productions (New York). Plays from the cycle have since had numerous productions in the US, the UK and Germany. Walker's latest play The Burden of Self Awareness is playing at Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa.

CharPo Ottawa Editor Jim Murchison spoke with Playwright George F. Walker about his career.

The interview started a little late and I was initially paranoid that I had the date wrong as there was no one around that seemed to know an interview had been set up. But then George Walker came walking up the stairs pointing at director Arthur Milner saying “his fault”, as Milner nodded in agreement and said, “My fault, my fault.” Walker said he relied on Milner to get him where he needed to be. Milner told Walker he had already told him to stop doing that. After a sound check, there was some sound bleeding from the downstairs lobby into the gallery and so we went around the corner and found some comfortable chairs in the entrance of the mens washroom. So that is where I interviewed one of Canada's and the world's most produced playwrights.

CHARPO: What fascinates me most about your career is the way it started, working odd jobs; finally as a taxi driver seeing a pamphlet for Factory Theatre Lab: You were obviously already writing, doing poems and stories I believe? I mean were you thinking when you did your first try at a play that this was going to be your career? 
WALKER:  Oh, Absolutely not. I just... wrote one.

CHARPO: (laughs)  
WALKER: I'd only seen one live play. I saw Henry... I don't know Henry something, at the Royal Alex. 

Maybe they were as ignorant as I was

CHARPO: There's so many Henrys. 

WALKER: There's a lot of Henrys... and then the second time it was mine. Anyway through this pamphlet and a friend of mine who was interested in theatre, he said why don't you write a play and I did. It was a two character play. It was basically a conversation and a kind of little adventure inside the conversation and I enjoyed the process and then Factory Theatre was starting, and it was basically in a warehouse. My impression of it was, before I knew that there was, I did it with an empty space and I could fill it any way I wanted, in theory, but my ignorance carried me forward. You know, not knowing theatre ....and I wrote this play and I did it there and Ken [Gass] said let's sign a deal.. and he did it on a napkin or something. I’ll do everything you write.

CHARPO: That’s one of the interesting things: coming from that and coming from a working class background, did you find it easy to connect to characters, were there people that were in your cab that became characters.

WALKER: Well I always kind of drew from stuff and I used to frame it. It was always what was going on in the world and then media and even if it wasn’t I would put a generic frame around it, but like I said I didn’t have any kind of grand notion on how to do it. I just was having an interesting time doing it and people were coming up to me and telling me I was doing it wrong and I didn’t know anything which was all true, but the audience seemed to connect to it, almost right away. Maybe they were as ignorant as I was, you know, it wasn’t that there was something that formed between us, right: that I was a barrier to a connection. I felt that pretty much right away; that certainly not everyone but a certain percentage of them got what I was doing and that’s what I need, you know, to push forward. 

CHARPO: You don’t have to be able to play all these grand scales on a musical instrument to connect with an audience. 

WALKER: No, I think effectively you just want to connect, that’s your ambition, to kind of make the connection with them so that they’ll either laugh or do whatever they need to do… what happens, in some ways the same response that you have to the material that you're interested in writing.

CHARPO: And when you start with your writing process now, having done it for so many years even writing for film and TV and stuff as well, do you find that it’s evolved a lot or do you still like to go into it with that sense of adventure or blindness.

WALKER: Well I love to write you know. I mean I don’t have writing blocks because I just listen to characters. I just go wherever they go. I don’t have direct plans about writing plays. There’s a little voice in me which controls structure. I do that a little bit better than I used to... or even care to do. It’s always been I hear the people literally talking in my head and eventually become a stenographer for what’s going on and I kind of believe and follow the notion that narratives should start the character, not the other way around. The character determines the story and knows what they want and where they’re going. Now that’s kind of slightly more, I wouldn’t even call it sophisticated, but it’s a thing you work on - what your voice is and how you do it. It’s very much your garage; it’s where you do the work. And how you do it, it’s what you do. They say well you do dark comedy I guess. Well you can call it whatever you want. It’s pretty dark, sometimes it’s also funny but it’s also not very structured comedy. It’s not like a joke. You kind of take what you think is in the world and comedy for me is a sort of saving device. Take the comedy out of my shows and they’re really very dark and almost nihilistic. Comedy is not just a lightening agent. It’s part of it. It’s an intrinsic part of the writing. It allows me to get through it. It allows me to keep my distance from it and it also allows me to say this is all true but we still have to go on. To take the pathos and have a good giggle at the same time. That’s kind of always been my mantra in a way. 

As I got to know actors better I learned how they worked;  it was very similar to how I write

CHARPO: And do your characters ever take you to a place so quickly that you weren’t anticipating that it actually surprises you?

WALKER: All the time, almost always, almost always. That's because you start paying attention to them and not trying to control them. listening to what they need and what they want, just like an actor does; it's really very close to an actor's process, what's the emotional situation? And what do they want? As I got to know actors better I learned how they worked;  it was very similar to how I write, so it just made sense that I started working as a director as well.

CHARPO: So you're almost...  improvising your way through it in a way?
WALKER: Nnnng. I'm not improvising so much. I consider it the voice in the centre and if they're nuts that's fine. But really I'm not trying to tell a story for a story's sake, I'm not even here. I'm letting the characters tell their story.

CHARPO: You don't want that pretty Broadway ending that ties it ...
WALKER: I can't do it, I mean not only do I not want it, I don't understand it and I can't do it. You can't... I was talking talk to an American writer about it, the notion of what you're trying to do is put your rhythms of life on stage, but then they expect you to come up with this great ending... but there's no neat ending to my plays, I call them stoppages. There are several stoppages and then well they've gotta go home. It can't go on forever. I've stumbled on to a few satisfactory endings, but I really stumbled on to them. A lot of people were dead or whatever, “Oh there it's over now”, but I never in my mind said, Oh I have to build to an end, but people do that and that's fine if that's how they work.

CHARPO: Interesting that you'd only seen the one play before you saw your own play. Do you see a lot more stuff now?

WALKER: No, I went to theatre for a few years when I first started and then I found it too stressful. The advice I give to young writers now is just don't go to theatre, don't  hang out at the theatre that much. Get to know how it works and the most important thing is to see how actors work, that's what you need to know m ore than anything and then discover your own voices. Stay in the world. I don't really need writers to be writing about theatre. They don't need to be that interested in how theatre works. They need to know how actors work so they can do the work and you can help them do the work. Not theatre. I don't write about theatre so I didn't need to be hanging around theatre. I've met some good friends in theatre but generally speaking we meet at the bar or rewrite the newspaper. Let's do something else, so I was never enamoured with it in that way. It's a good place to do my work.

CHARPO: Do you ever get stressed in the actual writing process or only just before you open?
WALKER: I don't get stressed anymore.
CHARPO: You don't get stressed at all anymore?
WALKER: Well what are they going to do? (Both laugh) and what can I do? This is what I do and this is how I do it. Really clearly... but you know I don't know if you've ever seen a Metallica concert. This is how they introduce themselves, “We are Metallica and this is what we do.” (right)  and then they do it. And that's what I feel like. This is what I do and  if people know the work, they know that... and they're all different plays whatever... if they don't  someone said the other night “well there's so much swearing in this it's like an American play.” I went ... or NOT! ( both laugh) I mean, you know, well sure... I guess. I don't know where that came from. But that's his response and that's cool. It was one of their audience members. I just overheard it. But this is what I do. And I guess it's been interesting that I do this and there's an audience, I mean I have an audience. This much I know now. I don't know if it's here in this city, but I know where it is and it's various places in North America and Germany and it's because I do that... They know... they're not going to go... (chuckles) they know what they're going to get in some ways. Sometimes they get a little more than they bargained for, sometimes a little less, whatever.  

It got pretty heated at that point. You know, I mean come on. That's just misery.

CHARPO: In fact if you went out there and tried to give them The Music Man they'd be like... cursing you. It'd be like...

WALKER: Well yeah. What's that about?
CHARPO: That's not a George F Walker play!
WALKER: And it's not like I think of it as a George F walker play. I just kind of think of them as what I do, and then I sign them... (Both laugh) but people have an opinion about that, whatever it is. But that Metallica thing, I'm George and this is what I do, it really clears it up. I'm not pretending to do this or that. I remember I had a discussion with Marsha Mason, Neil Simon was married to her too and she was in a play of mine in New York and she was wanting me to come see her and I said, “Why I've seen the play. I directed the play, I have no interest in going there.” And boy she got really incensed about that, really quite angry at me,  “Well my ex-husband went everywhere to see his productions.” I went, “Well why the fuck would he do that?” (Both laugh) It got pretty heated at that point. You know, I mean come on. That's just misery.  And so I  put it out there and let it be who it is and what it is and you know it's open to interpretation, so 50/50 sometimes they nail it, sometimes they kind of nail it, sometimes they fuck it up, whatever... it's the life of a playwright. I just like to do it.

(At this point we are interrupted by George Milner coming out of the washroom and there is an overlapping conversation.) 

WALKER:  My friends are doing a play are you coming out? 
WALKER: What's wrong? 
MILNER: Are you Okay here? You want to go to the office.
WALKER:  I did that apartment 613 interview here. It's the quietest place in the building. 
MILNER: there's an office.
WALKER: Well there are chairs!
MILNER:  I'm not complaining. People are in there  looking.
CHARPO:  This just made the interview so much more interesting. Now we have the interjection of the director .

MILNER: Here I am. Here I am.
WALKER:  And he wants to tell me now where I can talk.
(Laughter. I shut off the recorder as we seem to have stumbled on to an ending)
CHARPO: Well I know you're not nervous about it now but good luck (Walker laughs) and  keep those cheques coming in (Walker laughs) and connecting with your audiences and it's been a pleasure talking to you.

WALKER:You too (chuckles). Take care of yourself. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. Please read our guidelines for posting comments.