Friday, October 16, 2015

George F. Walker - Canadian Dramatist

George F. Walker is one of the most successful Canadian playwrights.  He is somewhat known outside of Canada (probably more than any other Canadian playwright writing in English, though that isn't saying much).  I had actually seen one of his plays, Beautiful City, in Chicago, though I have to say that was not the best introduction to his work.  The production itself was pretty sloppy, and the plot features a self-identified witch, who may or may not have actual psychic powers.  After seeing this, I'd say I was still vaguely interested in his work, but he wasn't really on my radar as a must-see playwright.

It's hard to say when this actually turned around to the point where I go out of my way to see his work.  I have actually managed to catch almost all his recent work (where living in Toronto really pays off).  I'm fairly sure that I picked up my copy of Suburban Motel in a Vancouver thrift shop (Wildlife Thrift on Granville St. in downtown Vancouver) right after I moved to Vancouver.  Of course, I might be wrong, and I bought it at the occasional book sale held at the Vancouver Public Library.  I might have gotten it elsewhere (even Chicago) but Vancouver seems far more likely.

There probably were a few other opportunities to see his plays in Chicago, but I can't really recall.  I do sort of remember there was an opportunity to see 3 of the Suburban Motel plays either in Chicago or Vancouver, but I passed for some reason.  Either the location was subpar or I wasn't sure why they had picked those particular 3 out of the 6.

After about a year living in Vancouver, I did have an opportunity to see all 6 of the Suburban Motel plays during the Vancouver Fringe, where they were being produced at the Waldorf Hotel.  I'm having a bit of trouble reconstructing my mental reasoning of why I didn't go, since in retrospect I am totally kicking myself. (I actually was hardly blogging at all at this point, just book reviews really).

As best as I can recall, these were my reasons: Number one -- I had only seen one so-so production of one of his lesser plays.  I still hadn't seen some of the terrific productions I have seen of his work here in Toronto where they really got the balance right between the humour and the violence.  Number two -- the productions actually took place in various hotel rooms and the seating was incredibly limited, and it sounded just a bit too claustrophobic for me.  Number three -- the timing was not ideal.  Had this happened in July or August, I would absolutely have seen it,* but my family was back from a long stay in Chicago and frankly they weren't adjusting very well to Vancouver (ultimately we decided to uproot and move to Toronto).  That's how bad Vancouver was for us.  (Nonetheless, it was the right move, since TransLink really became a very different and much worse place to work less than a year after I left.  After all, the job had been, for me, the main positive of being in Vancouver, and it certainly wouldn't have been worth sticking it out once things went south at TransLink.)  So it just wouldn't have been a great idea to boogie off for a couple of evenings to see all these plays when things were fairly tense at home.  Still, a major lost opportunity.  I saw that this past spring Edmonton was lucky enough to get a full run of Suburban Motel right before theatre C103 closed its doors, and that would have been cool, but not worth traveling just for that.  I figure if I wait long enough someone will try to remount the whole series here in Toronto.

Anyway what really turned things around was seeing a very good production of Escape from Happiness at Alumnae Theatre, relatively soon after moving to Toronto.  I've written about that production here, including how I really wanted to see Better Living (and I still do).  I would really have liked to see Better Living followed by Escape from Happiness with the same cast.  I guess that is the sort of thing one could attempt if one had a theatre company...  I did see the actor who played the semi-comatose father turn up again in We the Family, which was sort of an amusing echo of Escape from Happiness.

After that, I was basically primed to catch Walker's plays, and there was a good production of Problem Child at the Red Sandcastle Theatre.  I felt that I finally was getting a handle on Walker's dark humour** and his take on working class characters.  I saw a double bill at Theatre Passe Muraille of two of his plays about urban education (Parents Night and The Bigger Issue), and then just a few weeks ago I saw We the Family at Hart House.

I also was at a talk Walker gave at Hart House where he mentioned that the middle class has become so insecure throughout North America that they have kind of fallen down into his area of interest.  (He's not a playwright that generally cared to write about the elite (unlike say Daniel MacIvor), although there are a few rich characters in his work, often serving as targets of his ire.)  I think he has started to take public education seriously as an area where children of different social classes do interact (often a bit more easily than their wary parents would have it) and the general increase in angst among middle-class parents is definitely a rich field to explore.

He also encouraged people in the theatre to get some real-world experience outside the theatre and to talk about things outside of theatre.  So many plays are really in conversation with other plays, and not with reality.  This echoed something John Patrick Shanley said about how film-makers are mostly talking to other film-makers and not the audience when they make their films.

Walker does recycle a few things in his talks, particularly how he finds it so strange that people object to the swearing.  He discussed that for a bit at Hart House, as well as when he was in Ottawa promoting The Burden of Self Awareness, which has apparently not had an opening in Toronto.

Walker also dwelt on the idea that in general he didn't want to make art about working class people for rich people to ogle at or, even worse, to treat as a kind of anthropology project.  That was one reason he generally worked with smaller theatres and start-ups.  At the same time, he was aware that even cheap tickets weren't always going to be enough to allow working-class people to go to the theatre, as their time budgets were so tight to say nothing of possibly having to arrange child care and so forth.  There is a reason that the arts are still the preserve of the middle and upper classes.  But he didn't have to be happy about the situation and the contradictions in his own life.

I think the one aspect of the discussion that troubled me is that Walker still assumes he can look at a working-class neighbourhood and understand how life is like there, since he grew up in a working-class neighbourhood (Leslieville, not all that far from where we lived last year).  There is some truth to that.  Many of the kids will go down the path of not caring very much for or about education and will take a variety of dead-end jobs and their tension over their precarious economic (and social) status will spill over into their family life.  But what is new in Canada -- and Walker is only haltingly addressing this -- is that the ethnic and religious differences are much greater than they used to be.  Walker notes that, in his day, there were tensions between Italians and Irish and Jews due to differences that were blown out of proportion by some of the gang ringleaders.  I would argue that the grounds for mutual understanding are narrower today and the opportunities for misunderstanding are much greater in multicultural Canada.  That may make for powerful theatre or novels (both investigating the sources of tension and then how this is overcome or not at the personal and neighbourhood level), but it is relatively unexplored at the moment, even in Walker's work.

Of course, sometimes his particular sensibilities don't quite come across well.  He does have a tendency to write somewhat cartoonish characters, particularly his villains, who are often drawn from the corporate elite.  It takes a strong cast to pull this off, particularly if we are supposed to have any sympathy for characters that have just been acting violently or at least threatening violence.  There is often a lot of chaos in his scripts, and that is not always focused or channeled that well in lesser productions.  Still, there is enough of interest that I will general seek out new productions of his work, hoping for the best.

So for now, I'll just end with a list of the many, many plays George F. Walker has written and had produced.  I will keep track of whether I have seen them in a live production (with a P), I have read the play (with an R) or merely own a copy (with an O).  So ideally I would get to the point where many of these are marked as "PRO," though that certainly isn't the case at the moment.  I'd say in terms of interest level, I'm most interested in trying to catch Walker's latest, The Crowd, followed by the rest of the Suburban Motel series, and then Better Living.  While I don't imagine there will be a remount of And So It Goes in the near future, I'll keep an eye out just in case, since this interview indicates it is sort of the turning point of a slightly more serene style for Walker, though Dead Metaphor was a bit of a throw-back, triggered by his anger at the Tea Party types that had seemingly invaded Canada on top of mucking things up down South.

Plays by George F. Walker

Prince of Naples (1971)
Ambush at Tether's End (1971)
Sacktown Rag (1972)
Bagdad Saloon (1973)
 O Beyond Mozambique (1974)
Ramona and the White Slaves (1976)
Gossip (1977)
 O Zastrozzi, The Master of Discipline (1977)
P Filthy Rich (1979)
Rumors of Our Death (1980)
 O Theatre of the Film Noir (1981)
R Science and Madness (1982)
The Art of War (1983)
 O Criminals in Love (1984)
 O Better Living (1986)
PO Beautiful City (1987)
 O Nothing Sacred (1988)
 O Love and Anger (1989)
PO Escape from Happiness (1991)
 O Tough! (1993)
Suburban Motel (1997):
PO    Problem Child
 O     Criminal Genius
PO     Risk Everything
 O     Adult Entertainment
 O     Featuring Loretta
 O     The End of Civilization
Heaven (2000)
And So It Goes... (2010)
King of Thieves (2010)
Dead Metaphor (2013)
The Burden of Self Awareness (2014)
The Ravine (2014)
P Parents Night (2014)
P The Bigger Issue (2015)
P We the Family (2015)
The Crowd (2016)
P The Damage Done (2016)

* If the cycle had been playing after I had gotten more familiar with his work, I'm sure I would have gone anyway, despite the tension in the air.  As I said, just bad timing all the way around.

** He actually talks about this aspect of his work in this interview, which also gives his reasoning for working with smaller companies and sometimes premiering his work with small companies or even university drama societies.  As it happens, I was not even in the GTA when The Ravine premiered down in Niagara.  I'm not sure I would have made it down to Niagara in March anyway, but perhaps.  After all, I am seriously considering going to Peterborough in February to catch a Tremblay play.

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