George Walker by Stephen Haff

BOMB 59 Spring 1997
Issue 59 059  Spring 1997
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Top: (Left to Right) Jim Grollman as Stevie, Mitchell Hébert as Rollie, and Jane Beard as Elizabeth in George Walker’s Escape from Happiness, directed by Daniel De Raey. All photos by Stan Barough, courtesy Daniel De Raey and Round House Theatre. Bottom: (Left to Right) Nancy Robinette as Nora and Jane Beard as MaryAnn in George Walker’s Better Living, directed by Daniel De Raey.

George F. Walker writes comedies of shared anxiety, in which characters relentlessly expose their emotions. The language of these plays is direct and hungry; their situation always dire, or worse. Canada’s most celebrated and popular playwright, Walker began his career in the early 1970s. A Toronto cab driver at the time, he saw a flyer—stuck to a lamp post—soliciting new Canadian scripts. Walker’s response started a collaboration with the Factory Theatre that has lasted to this day. He has won many awards for writing and directing his own work, most notably the prestigious Governor-General’s Award, twice. His plays, all full-length, now numbering upwards of 30, hold box-office records in Canada and enjoy huge popularity and great acclaim around the world.

Early on, in such plays as Beyond MozambiqueZastrozzi, and Theatre of the Film Noir, Walker exploited the conventions of B Movies and film noir to create a stage world peopled by sick, obsessive yet heroically funny creatures—mad scientists, detectives, psychotics—escapees from genres ill-equipped to contain their insightful minds and bold, capacious hearts. Next, he dropped the filmic lens and told desparate stories of the urban working poor, stories inspired by his own upbringing in East End Toronto. Escape from HappinessCriminals in Love, and Tough! are some of The East End Plays, works that, without compromising Walker’s sustaining anguish, let some light into what had been a predominantly dark dramatic realm. There’s something like hope at the end of these plays, albeit a dearly earned hope, severely compromised by the characters’ struggle to survive.

Now, as his career approaches the end of its third decade, Walker is writing the Suburban Motel series, all set in the same motel room. He’s finished the first cycle of plays and projects at least a hundred more. While some characters appear more than once in the series, each play is meant to stand on its own. Set in a place that is chronically nowhere, in a room that could mark progress toward a better life but instead reminds its transient guests how very lost they really are, Suburban Motel, soaked in sadness, somehow manages to be Walker’s funniest and most beautifully human work to date. Suburban Motel opens mid-May at Rattlestick Theater in New York.

Walker recently left his native Toronto and now lives in Vancouver with his wife, Susan, and their daughters Courtney and Kate. I spoke with him by phone in January, as the sixth play of Suburban Motel was being written. We’ve known each other for 10 years.

Stephen Haff One of my favorite plays of yours is Featuring Loretta, Part 4 of Suburban Motel. It goes nowhere but deepens, explores the depths of its predicament, and its apparent formlessness lets the characters breathe.

George Walker That’s why I wrote the motel plays, so that the characters in the room, the relationship of one character to another, would decide what the play was about. The dilemma deepens because there’s nowhere to go and the information is out, and to varying degrees that’s what all the plays have in common so far. Finally I’ve found an interest.

SH Yeah. I’ve noticed that in your work over time the scenes have lengthened, and the number of scene changes has dwindled to none.

GW The rest, theatrically interesting as it is, is unnecessary. In struggling to make sense of the world and everything in it, there’s enough. Everything except what is said between the characters is just a diversion. What is important is what is said. There’s no great theme hovering over their heads, it’s just them, that’s the story: whatever happens between them in that moment, and then what happens as a result of that moment. That’s all it is. I find it very comforting to be there for some reason. Maybe it is just a time in my life where I’ve found that the simplest form of theater is what attracts me to theater, not the most extreme and not the most adventurous, but the simplest kind. The dilemma deepens, it just gets worse, harder to get a hold of, harder to dismiss.

SH It’s interesting that as you’re freeing the plays up, this is your darkest work.

GW Well. I don’t know why. My best guess is that I don’t care anymore. I don’t have any ambition. Not that I ever had a lot, but I feel that there’s so little to be gained by working in theater. I might as well just try and tell the truth the best I can—and sometimes the truth is not so pleasant.

SH But you seem happy these days, buoyant.

GW Well, I’m unburdening myself. I’m writing a lot. These plays have rebirthed me, and I feel strong. I’ve also freed myself from the superstition that you can only write a certain amount, that you were emptying out a pot. Now I believe it’s like a well. And the more you write the better you get. I feel stronger and stronger. Because I found this place, this room, and maybe I’ve always just wanted to write in a room, to let the characters go at each other. I’ve always had to struggle to do that because I’ve tried to make a terrain and a world at the same time. And once I’d done that, once I was inside, only there would I let the characters go at each other. So why don’t I just skip all that? Just let the characters go. I don’t know how many of these plays I’ll write, but at the moment it feels like a worthwhile and involving process. I have the family. I go to work, there are these plays, and they keep coming. I don’t care to be a citizen of theater, in the sense that I would feel responsible for where theater is going or for keeping it alive or keeping it different from movies or TV. Or dealing with anything other than putting these characters in a room and letting them talk. If people say that’s theater, that’s great. The room has more kinds of action and stories in it than I’ve ever written…

SH So what does it mean to “let them talk?”

GW When you let them be, they can be who they are. They’re responding to each other, and the story comes out of what they say and what they mean. Not the terrain or the world, but what they mean, what’s going on with them. And there’s nothing in the way.

SH So why, in Criminal Genius, Part 3 of Suburban Motel, do you kill off Rollie and Stevie?

GW They had to die.

SH It’s a play that for nine-tenths of its action is an excruciatingly funny Abbott-and-Costello farce, and then there’s a swift, thorough blood bath. What is that about? Why? They’re favorites of the audience, and you like them too. Does their death come from letting them be?

GW Yeah, I didn’t plan for them to die. I didn’t say, “You’re going to die now you assholes.” They just died. They were trapped. They were in this dilemma and there was no way out. You live by appalling stupidity, you die by appalling stupidity. So they zigged and zagged and died. I really didn’t set out to kill them. I was just as surprised as you.

SH Well, that’s reassuring. I guess. It seems to me that the characters in Suburban Motelaren’t ultimately trying hard to understand each other or be understood as much as they’re asserting the futility of the situation. It seems like a furious inertia, whereas before, in your East End Plays, they were driven by hope that something could be resolved. At the end of Part 1 of Suburban Motel, there’s an extended monologue by the young woman, Denise, about how no one can understand her, no one can enter. And she’s enclosed in a spotlight during that monologue, as if to emphasize that she’s alone and that’s it.

GW I think these people really, really do still want to be heard. Maybe even more so than in the other plays. It gets harder and harder. They’re more adult in a sense, but they’re still as innocent. Innocent but more experienced. They still want to know what the other person is saying. Max says of Donny, “This guy’s insane,” and it’s not a judgment, because I don’t think these people judge each other. He’s thinking, “Okay, so you’ve gone nuts. But what does that mean that you’ve gone nuts?” Rather than, “You’ve gone nuts and we’ll just dismiss you.”

SH So they’re still trying to get to the bottom of things.

GW Yes, and maybe they have a feeling that the bottom of things is not that great. Maybe they won’t be freed by getting to the bottom of things, but at least they’ll get there. Maybe that’s what I mean by “I don’t care anymore.” It’s okay not to feel better. And then feel better about not feeling better…I don’t know why the hell I feel so good, the plays end so depressingly. But at least they don’t try and pull one over on me.

SH So, what kind of experience do you want to give an audience?

GW Well, rich.

SH Rich how?

GW Rich in everything. Stuff is spoken out loud, that they can remember…Maybe I don’t have any notion of what kind of experience I want to give them. Nor do I care! Other than that they have some kind of experience. I’m not trying to put any poetry over on them. So I can tell you that I don’t want them to be impressed. That says it all.

SH What do you like and dislike about writing for theater right now, and how has this changed over the last few years?

GW Well, I like it when I’m having a good time doing it, and right now I am. Characters have always been what’s exciting about writing for theater. Finding the characters and letting them do most of the work for you. Trying to help them along. And what I don’t like about theater…it’s too long to even go into. Trying to find the fashionable thing and trying to hold on to it, trying to impress the audience, lying to the audience…it’s too complicated for me. I enjoy putting good actors in a room who can bring a lot of themselves. It’s working close to the bone. That’s good. There are so many trends in theater. I lose track.

SH How about directing. do you think you’ll ever direct your work again?

GW Oh, I don’t have any plans to do that at the moment. I enjoy writing too much, it’s a reminder of how much I don’t enjoy directing.

SH Is there something you learned from directing that helped your writing?

GW I learned a lot about actors and about the process. You can’t help but learn that.

SH Do you think that your work has a prevailing political and/or moral agenda? Not just the current work, but can you see something overall? Most of the characters are working-class people, and you’ve described comedy as democratic.

GW My struggle to live in the world is part of the reason why I write. I don’t think there are enough blue-collar characters in theater, specifically in American theater, so if I have to make a choice about a character, he or she will likely be that, to redress the imbalance. But I don’t have to make that choice very often, these people just come out. In Part 5 of Suburban Motel, the husband and wife are looking for a job. They’re lower middle-class, he’s an engineer. My middle class is usually in distress before they find their way into my world. Then the class thing falls away to a certain degree, something happens and they descend forever into my world. It’s not an agenda, it’s just who I am. I feel confident enough putting all that stuff in there. You don’t really see blue-collar theater. I don’t understand why that is. Are we afraid of that? Aren’t they part of the world? Do we pretend that we’re all middle-class? No wonder we can’t get them in the theater. We can’t get all sorts of people into the theater because it’s got nothing to do with them. If you write about an ever-narrowing band of people, then it seems to me that you’re ever-narrowing the band of audience. When I hear young people talk, that’s who I hear talk. I was on the edges of the middle-class for a while. But mostly I hear those working-class voices, especially in young people.

SH What do you mean by comedy being democratic?

GW Well, very simply, that the audience votes by laughing. You hear it. They’re not schooled, they’re not prepared. They’re presented with material and they laugh.

SH What do you find funny about your own work?

GW Nothing.

SH No? You really don’t?

GW No, I don’t, I don’t think in those terms, I don’t think of the word “funny” or “not funny”…

SH But you do laugh…

GW Yeah.

SH You don’t care to identify what makes you laugh?

GW No, it’s not that I don’t care to, I simply wouldn’t know how to go about it. I’d have to try to relive the experience. (pause) I guess I laugh a lot if I’m surprised, when I’m taken aback. And I like that. Theater still hasn’t come to grips with what comedy is. Most theaters, especially in North America, are afraid of real comedy. That’s why they do old comedy. They’re comfortable with things that aren’t actually funny, but are “studies” in comedy. Shakespeare’s comedies, things like that, they’re funny in theory, but they’re not really funny, because we know them too well. They’re not really about us. Things that are really about us are jarring, unpredictable, and that’s real comedy. Movies and TV don’t seem to be afraid of this, but theater largely is. You’ve got to wonder why in theater you hear the sound more often of fake laughter, the “ha ha,” as opposed to the noise that is guttural and not pleasant which is real laughter. People honking. Real comedy is neither witty nor clever. It’s desperate and kind of zonky, it’s life ripped in some way. That’s comedy. Not all that clever stuff. Why is theater afraid of comedy? There’s an essay for you. I think because it’s unpredictable. You look at most theaters and they make their reputation by doing their own shows over and over again, their favorite productions of Chekhov. They are already stolen, xeroxed. But you can’t do that with real comedy, you have to do it from scratch every time. And let it fail on you. Let it soar and dip.

SH So, what about this comment, from a friend of yours, that when he’s at one of your plays he feels that he’s locked in a room with someone who won’t let him go until he promises to be a better person.

GW Well, I guess there’re a lot of attempts in my plays to try and see the other point of view. To try and understand the other: what he’s feeling, what he’s doing, what he wants. And then you’re introduced sometimes to characters in my plays who don’t get seen much on stage these days. Denise is a great example of that in Part 1 of Suburban Motel. Where else do you see her? And she knows that too: “You’ve watched me for an hour and a half, you think you know me, well here’s some other stuff you don’t know.” I think it’s really generous what she does. She doesn’t need to take the time to talk to us. She’s got a lot of problems and struggles. And I think that’s what’s in the plays, points of view that you don’t always see.

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Mitchell Hébert as Rollie and Jane Beard as Elizabeth in George Walker’s Escape from Happiness, directed by Daniel De Raey. All photos by Stan Barough, courtesy Daneil De Raey and Round House Theatre.

SH You write very strong women characters, like Denise who has everything against her but is heroically strong. And in fact most of the men in your plays are crooked or goofy or inept or unreliable. They seem to be the butt of some cruel cosmic joke that they don’t get. Do you dislike men? Or are women better than men? What is that about?

GW Men are in transition.

SH Perpetual transition?

GW Well, for the next half millennium. No, I don’t dislike men, in fact, I specifically love the men in this series of plays. I think they’re still in transition, and not quite as heroic as the women, but I think they’re getting better, in my own little universe.

SH The East End Plays were plays about a family. The idea of family is coming up again: aspirations for a family, loss of family…Could you talk a bit about what family means to your work.

GW Well, a community. Who we know and who we feel obliged to and who we worry about. It’s not specifically about a family in these plays, but a residue of familial concern without having the formal existence of family. As strong and as comforting and as interesting as a regular family is, it’s also limiting, it’s hard to let strangers in. And yet strangers are in your life all the time. I don’t intentionally not write about family, but a family has yet to make it into the room and not be interrupted by something else. There are new liaisons being made in these plays, people are bumping up against each other in different ways. And I don’t know how much that has to do with the suburban locale, or just me. It’s interesting that it is opening up in an emotional way, and yet it’s all in this one room.

SH The language of your plays has changed, you use more profanity. And there’s also more of an uncertain or searching quality. A lot of ellipses, a lot of fragments. Before, people’s thoughts came out whole, complete, and were aimed at somebody. Is that something you’re aware of, that you’re working with?

GW I’m aware of it. I don’t know how much I’m working with it. but I’m letting it happen. Someone asked me, “How do we interpret all these ellipses?” I said, “Well, it’s kind of like an indicator of air, and it’s different for all the characters. Sometimes it’s frustration, sometimes it’s breakdown…it’s all sorts of things.” Every sentence still tends to come to a stop. There are some that sputter to a stop, there are some that have a hard time getting going again. Again, it’s the characters. Their dilemma has deepened, the solutions, the truer ones, are harder to find and to hold on to. I hate to use the word real, unless you have a modifier in front of it like “hyper-real,” but these things are getting more and more real, harder and harder to write. I’ve never been a tidy writer, but it seems that I’m getting untidier. And I’m less and less afraid. There’s always been a certain amount of profanity in the plays and there’s an increasing amount because I can’t make it go away. It’s also my way of making the profanity not seem gratuitous—to overload it. If you eat enough garlic you won’t smell of garlic. And Susan, my wife, actually said there are so many profanities in Part 3 that she didn’t notice them.

SH Really?

GW She just had a sense of them. I’m pissed off that anyone notices how many there are in Escape, so I’m going to put more in. I think that’s the right solution. I believe strongly in the words. The words are the words of the desperate. If the situation darkens and deepens, the language has to do that too. And I have nothing against those words. I love those words. So there will be more of them. Some day there may only be them. If a character is angry and desperate enough.

SH I think it’s one of the things that frightens some people.

GW Oh, definitely…

SH And not just from a superficial prudishness. It probably has to do with what you were talking about before, the unpredictability, the genuineness of it, the kind of feelings that are erupting and are flying around the room. That’s what scares people.

GW I don’t think the audience generally has any problem with anything, really. They’re way ahead of the people who are programming theater. Light years sometimes. The “ha ha” laugh is the laugh of tolerance: “If they’re putting this up in front of us. the polite thing to do must be to laugh, so here’s a polite laugh.” Give me something that I recoil and bellow at, and I’ll do that too. Or get mad. It’s pretty organic, the language in this stuff. Those cops are talking like they talk. It just has to be that way. And then the programmers, as I’ve taken to calling artistic directors, have to deal with it. Why not deal with it? They’ve got to stop all this namby-pamby stuff. Get with it. We’re running out of time here! This isn’t a museum activity, it’s supposed to be a real activity. Being in that room without distractions has allowed me to go for honesty in everything. If I can just stay alive for awhile, I know what to do.

SH You had no formal training as a writer, but is there something or someone who affected your writing in a way that you’d say taught you something?

GW No. I learned mostly about writing just by writing. And then writing for theater by being around actors a lot. That helped. It’s also important that you learn how actors work so that you’re not in the way.

SH Do you feel a kinship with any other playwrights or writers? Like you’re a member of some…

GW No. You go and see some plays and you wonder why they were ever written. Where does this take place? It’s not life as I know it in any way at all. So how and why do some people recognize it? Is there a large alien culture I’m not aware of on Earth? You know what I mean?

SH Yes I do. (laughter)

GW This happens in theater in particular, which is why it’s hard to go to the theater sometimes. Like I’m the wrong species, this seems to be perfectly fine entertainment for this other species.

SH Is there any advice that you would give to an aspiring, beginning playwright?

GW Oh, just go. Go for it in all the ways that “go for it” means. Empty the inside, be adventurous, and have fun and write everything that you are and everything that you wonder about, all the things you know and all the things you don’t know too. And then just get as much as you possibly can down on paper before you ever, ever worry about structure, or “does it mean anything?” Just free yourself from the burden of being important, or unimportant. If you have to write it, write it. And also, get to know really early on that people are going to have a lot of opinions. And they’re entitled to have their opinions and the only opinions that are valuable to you are the opinions that help you go forward. And if you need only to listen to positive criticism, then just do that. If you’re jarred and shaken up and helped by harsh, and negative, brutal, unrelenting gratuitous comments about your work, then do that too. Whatever works.

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Originally published in

BOMB 59, Spring 1997

Featuring interviews with Tim Roth, Amy Hempel, Emmylou Harris, Matthew Ritchie, Wallace Shawn, Christian Wolff, Gilles Peress, Kendall Thomas, and George Walker.

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Issue 59 059  Spring 1997