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Dramatic Intensity
by Dan Bortolotti

After 25 years of the theatrical life, George F. Walker

I S ready to take on new challenges

WHEN I MEET George F. Walker in the lounge of Toronto's Hotel Intercontinental, it is a soggy night in late December and most of the city is recovering from post-Christmas headaches. Walker is recovering from a headache of a different sort. The revival of his play Nothing Sacred has just been cancelled after a three-month run at the Winter Garden and Elgin Theatres.

I can tell he's disappointed at the production's abrupt demise, but I suggest that the run must surely be considered a success, given that initial forecasts predicted the break-even threshold was 10 weeks. "I'll reserve judgement on that," he says with characteristic humility. "For me it seems like the production has been one crisis after another."

Featuring the former "Street Legal" stars Eric Peterson and Sonja Smiths, the show won almost unanimous critical acclaim and, by most standards, a play that attracts more than 30,000 people would be considered a cork-popping success. But this production was different. The Toronto media, which covered the run closely, consistently suggested that the production's box-office success, or lack of it, would indicate the upper limit of serious Canadian theatre's potential for mass popularity. The name of Andrew Lloyd Webber was repeatedly invoked, and the critics wondered aloud whether a drama could be profitable without chandeliers or helicopters dropping onto the stage. After all, Nothing Sacred -- adapted from Ivan Turgenev's 1861 novel Fathers and Sons -- won every major award for Canadian drama when it first appeared in 1988 and has been performed around the world. If a play with that track record couldn't compete with the megamusicals, what Canadian play could?

I'm halfway through my third Upper Canada Lager when I ask Walker about the cancellation of Nothing Sacred. "It had become too in- your-face," he says. Holding a glass of whisky, Walker looks composed, and there is no hint of fatigue in his quiet voice, yet he admits to having been uneasy about the play from beginning to end. "I feel a bit uncomfortable when all the neighbours have seen it, and when the cancellation is on the national news."

Perhaps he has been too close to things. Walker hates directing, yet he decided to co-direct this production, and he was one of the principal investors in the corporation that bankrolled it. And all the hoopla was going on in Walker's home town. "I'm a lot happier when my agent calIs to tell me that a production is being mounted in Oregon or someplace where I don't have to worry about it."

In fact, there have been many productions outside of Walker's anxiety zone; theatres in the United States have produced his plays far more often than their Canadian counterparts. One of the reasons he's popular in the United States is that his recent plays, though rooted in the urban angst of Toronto, have just the right degree of universality so that their settings could be almost any North American city.

"American producers have called and asked to change a specific reference here or there, but most of the plays are easily transplanted into the United States," he says. Like the many Canadians working in Hollywood, Walker has quietly slipped into the consciousness of an American audience apparently unaware or unconcerned that he is not a compatriot. "The director of a theatre in New York once joked to me that their mandate is to produce plays by new American playwrights ... and George."

Making his plays suitable for export was not a conscious decision, but it has proved to be a lucrative one. "I would guess that 70 per cent of my income comes from outside Canada," Walker says, mostly in the form of royalties from US productions. He has also toured Britain with a production, directed another in Australia, and seen his plays staged as far away as Sweden, Israel, and Hong Kong.


LATE LAST YEAR, around the same time Nothing Sacred was being resuscitated, Coach House Press brought out Shared Anxiety, a weighty 500-page anthology of eight plays spanning Walker's long career.

The collection includes a cross-section of Walker's oeuvre, from his imperfect but promising early work to his more accomplished recent plays. While Walker's plays have been widely seen, they have not all been widely read: until

the release of Shared Anxiety, many had been available only in poorly designed, shoddily edited, or obscure editions. A few others appear here in book form for the first time, including 1981's Theatre of the Film Noir and Walker's most recent play, Tough!, a three-character drama of teenage love and hatred.

Walker's inauspicious beginnings have been well chronicled: he was working as a cab driver when he wrote his first play, Prince of Naples, in 1970, in response to a poster encouraging submissions for the newly established Factory Theatre Lab. Despite being just 23 and a dramaturgical tenderfoot -- he has said that the second live play he saw was his own -- the Factory produced Prince of Naples in 1971 and quickly signed Walker on as playwright-in-residence for the next five years.

His earliest work owes much to Ionesco and Beckett and has been criticized as being derivatively Absurdist. His plays from the mid- I970s, such as Bagdad Saloon and Beyond Mozambique, rely on exotic settings and bombastic language for their energy, and most of them have been more or less forgotten (with the exception of Beyond Mozambique, which appears in Shared Anxiety and continues to be produced today). It was not until Zastrozzi, which premiered at the Toronto Free Theatre in November 1977, that Walker realized his potential and found his voice. Zastrozzi, subtitled The Master of Discipline, is set in "Europe, probably Italy" in the 1890s and is inspired by, though not adapted from, Percy Bysshe Shelley's novella of the same name. The action concerns Zastrozzi, the self- proclaimed "master criminal of all Europe," and his obsession with exacting revenge from Verezzi, an eccentric artist with religious delusions who has committed an unspecified crime against Zastrozzi's mother. Though again set in an exotic locale and featuring larger-than-life characters, Zastrozzi is more accomplished and more accessible than Walker's earliest work, and it continues to be produced more often than any other Walker play.

Zastrozzi is obsessed with many things, not the least of which is accountability, a theme which reappears in several Walker plays. In a line that describes the climate in much of Walker's dramatic world, Zastrozzi declares: "Horrible is when things proceed unnaturally. When people remain unanswerable for their actions." This idea is one that audiences have consistently identified with, and it surfaces again in The Art of War and Love and Anger. The former was first produced in 1983 at the Factory and was published the following year as part of The Power Plays, a trilogy that begins with Gossip and Filthy Rich and features the likeable if somewhat pathetic Tyrone M. Power, ex- journalist turned private investigator.

Love and Anger, Walker's hugely successful 1989 play, is set in a scarcely disguised Toronto at the height of the yuppie dynasty. This time accountability is demanded from John "Babe" Connor, publisher of a local sensationalist tabloid who is kidnapped by the play's main character, Petie Maxwell. Petie used to be a stuffed shirt with a major law firm until he suffered a stroke that made him renounce his former livelihood: "They used to call me Peter. They call me Petie now." Now he operates his own practice along with his loyal secretary Eleanor in a rundown basement office. Together they put Connor and his lawyer Harris on trial for their crimes in a hilarious kangaroo court.

Love and Anger was seen by some 80,000 people during its lengthy run at the 300-seat Factory Theatre. "Lawyers came in droves," Walker recalls. "I heard about one lawyer who was told by 10 different people that he had to see the play because Harris was exactly like him." That's a familiar reaction to a Walker play. "I've seen people in the audience nudging their partner at certain scenes, or speaking out loud to them, and of course they hiss or boo or cheer when one of the characters utters something that they would like to have said to their boss, their husband, whatever."


JUST AS Zastrozzi had seven years earlier, the premiere in 1984 of Criminals in Love marked another watershed in Walker's career. In addition to winning him the first of his two Governor General's Awards, the play ends on a more optimistic note than many of his earlier dramas: whereas Power in The Art of War, for example, is utterly broken ("I'm tired of losing. It's so ... depressing"), the young characters in Criminals in Love find hope for the future in their love for one another.

Walker doesn't like the term hopefulness. "It's more subtle than that," he says. In a 1988 interview with Robert Wallace he explained, "I think it really is a matter of searching for possibilities, of looking for the light." And if that means ending a play on a sentimental note, Walker is willing to do that. "Sentimentality is okay if you've earned it. I think it's just critics and theatre professionals who are suspicious of it. Audiences understand sentimentality."

Criminals in Love also introduced audiences to Gail Quinn and Junior Dawson, who have become two of Walker's most memorable and enduring characters, appearing with their families in later plays, notably Better Living and Escape from Happiness. The family situation varies from play to play, but in general, Gail, in her late teens and the youngest of three sisters, is the embodiment of clear-headedness while middle child Mary Ann is flaky and timid, and Elizabeth, the oldest, is a hard-nosed bisexual lawyer with a short fuse. Nora, their over- pressured but remarkably strong mother, is doing her best to hold the family together after her husband Tom, a paranoid ex-cop, has done his best to break it apart.

I suggest to Walker that a family like this could only exist in a play, and he disagrees entirely. "I could show you a number of families like that one. You may not want to be around them, but they exist. I've had people come up to me and say 'Mary Ann is me,' or "Nora is my mother. "' Indeed, Walker's characters have real-life models. "I'm interested in the articulate poor. A lot of people don't realize that they exist, but I know they do because that's where I'm from. Just because a person has little or no education doesn't mean they can't express themselves. I want to be able to represent them without being stereotypical or patronizing."

Walker is able to effectively dramatize the lives of ordinary working people by distilling the intensity from life's banalities: each scene in a play such as Escape from Happiness represents an event of great immediacy or importance. That is why Tough!, written in 1993 for Vancouver's Green Thumb Theatre for Young People, presented such a challenge.

"Tough! is the only play I've ever done in real time," says Walker. "I didn't set out to write it that way, but I realized that because it concerns teenagers, that intensity is always there." The only characters in Tough! are Bobby (who is written with brilliant ambivalence so that the audience simultaneously detests and sympathizes with him), his pregnant girlfriend Tina, and Tina's hot-tempered friend Jill. Bobby and Tina never leave the stage, and there are no blackouts or scene changes.

The one-scene structure of the play works because the young love being dramatized is "always intense, always vitally important." Walker shakes his head when I suggest that the problems facing Bobby, Tina, and Jill aren't really as important as they think. "Are you talking about some objective idea of importance? Who decides what is or what should be important to other people?" I reply that when we look back on our own youth, we see that things weren't as intense as we thought they were at the time. "Maybe," he says. "Either that or we've lost our passion."


IT IS NOW MORE than two years since Tough! premiered in Vancouver and some 25 years since he answered that now famous lamppost bill soliciting scripts, and Walker has reached another turning point. Or rather, a turning-away point. As the melting ice waters down his glass of Jack Daniels, Walker sits back and reveals that he may have written his last play for the stage. "I have no plans to work in theatre right now," he says without a trace of frustration. "I've had it in the back of my mind for some time that after this revival of Nothing Sacred, that would be it, at least for a while. I think it's time I tried television and film."

His decision to leave the theatre, he says, is not at all the result of complacency or of bitterness. "I just want to know how I'll do at these other things. I'm tired of patterns, and I need to hear different things." For the most part, the airwaves are unfamiliar to Walker. He wrote several dramas for CBC television and radio in the 1970s, but he's been almost exclusively a playwright since then. "I don't know a lot about either television or movies, but my instincts tell me that I'd be better at TV. It seems more intimate. And film is a director's medium anyway."

After a career spent largely in small, often subsidized theatres, he is wary of the big money machine that drives the film industry. Nevertheless, Walker and an American writer have already drafted a screenplay for Better Living that is being shopped around in the United States. Here at home Walker is working on a proposal for a television series, although the details are being kept under wraps for now.

George Walker will undoubtedly enjoy success writing for whatever medium he chooses. And he will undoubtedly worry as much about that success as he did when he was writing for the stage. "The problems in theatre are always the same," he says. "Maybe I just need new problems." Shared anxiety, indeed.


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