“I’ve never had an idea for a play,” says George F. Walker.
Over the past four decades Walker, arguably one of Canada’s most prolific playwrights, has written over 30 plays, was appointed a member of the Order of Canada, and received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. He has written for TV shows like The Newsroom and Due South, and has contributed to various radio shows and wide-release movies. Considering his extensive résumé, his claim comes across as a bit counter intuitive. It’s as if Leonard Cohen told you he’s never had an idea for a song before.
But the longtime playwright is insistent on this point. “I just listen to the characters in my head talk and argue with each other, and then I just transcribe the argument … I don’t have any big picture in mind, ever. I’m just trying to tell these stories.”
Primarily, Walker’s plays revolve around poverty and the underrepresented. “I often write about people who no one else writes about; that is, the poor and the desperate and the messed up … there’s very little voice for the poor in Canadian theatre, so I tend to gravitate towards that.” On September 18, his most recent play, We The Family, opened at Hart House Theatre, acting as Hart House’s first production of the 2015-2016 season. The play follows the after-effect of a wedding between two culturally divergent families; the families fail to understand one another, and in the midst of this chaos, hilarity ensues.
When I ask Walker how he creates the characters for his plays, he’s quick to tell me that actually, I’m making an assumption. “I’m not creating them, I’m hearing them,” he explains. “These are people in the world. They’re people I’ve encountered or I wonder about or I’ve heard about or I’ve actually met. I don’t spend a lot of time in theatre, so I’m not creating them — I’m channeling them.”
Rather than actively create characters, Walker bases his characters off real people. But even this is kind of hazy. When I ask him if the characters in We The Family are based on real people, he replies “Of course. Well, they’re not based on someone, if that’s what you mean. They’re characters based on what I observe both about human nature and specific people … they’re just there. I don’t actually sit down and say ‘I’m going to write a play about so-and-so.’ I hear that person talk to me, and I wonder what they’re doing … eventually you can actually hear the conversation that these people are having.”
To my own discredit, I didn’t believe Walker when he first told me this. He insisted that he only writes plays when he hears characters suddenly appear in his head — a process I assumed was reserved for the fully unconscious or the profoundly deranged. On top of this, I found it difficult to grasp that a writer of his caliber could describe the process of playwriting with such nonchalance. But, once again, I was making an assumption.
Walker’s writing process — something he claims doesn’t exist — is much like being blindfolded and led through a vast landscape without any direction in mind. He lets the characters guide him, and, as he explains, “Only when I’m about two thirds of the way through telling stories do I actually get a sense of how it might end.” His writing process is different than that of other playwrights, most of whom develop a structure for their story before writing it. Walker is quick to acknowledge this. “Well, yeah. I mean, for me, it seems like that just kills the process. To know where you’re going, why do you have to discover it? And therefore, why do you have to write it?”
One of the themes that distinguishes We The Family is its distinctive urban vibe. The two families come from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, something that is all-too-familiar in a city like Toronto. Walker, who grew up in the city, can trace some of his most recent play’s character back to Toronto’s multicultural personality. That being said, he couldn’t possibly explain the influence that Toronto has had on him. “I was there, I don’t live there now, but I lived there for almost all my life. To explain to you what that was would be impossible. You’re part of your landscape, you’re part of where you are, and it’s part of you. And your family and your friends and anything you’ve ever read or even seen or ever heard on the street is part of what has made you and your point of view … I couldn’t sit here and say what part of it [has influenced me], although the multicultural aspect of it has helped.”
We The Family runs at Hart House Theatre until October 3.