George F. Walker has been having a recurring dream. A man knocks on his door, says "I just hate your stuff," and offers him a million dollars to stop writing. Walker gleefully agrees, then cuts a side deal by which he can write all he wants but must hide it away in a drawer, never to be seen. Presto: Walker's in paradise.
The mysterious millionaire has never materialized in real life, but Walker's newest play and his first stage work in a decade, And So It Goes, came perilously close to finding its way into that drawer for good.
It took the entreaties of Ken Gass, artistic director of Factory Theatre, to not only pry the piece away from the renowned Toronto playwright, but convince him to direct it. Because for the good-natured, humorous Walker, bringing a play to life for the first time is a terrible ordeal.
"It was getting emotionally hard to do, you know. I'm not that comfortable with this guy," Walker says about his brand-name persona. "That guy was not really me, so it was hard to get out there in the public eye."
Walker has run that gauntlet of emotions dozens of times, pacing through every nook and cranny of a slew of playhouses, feeling sick, sitting under the risers to hear - but not see - his new work unfolding. "That's what it does to me," he says.
So for years, TV writing took over. He created This Is Wonderland for CBC-TV (he half jokes that the idea came to him when a critic slagged him as "the best TV writer we have working in theatre"), and is now writing for TMN's Living in Your Car, which debuts some time this year.
There were many moments, he concedes, when he thought he might not write any more plays. TV gives him more distance, less fear and greater anonymity. But Walker was having nagging thoughts about the economy and mental health issues, and then, "this play just kind of escaped from me. … It came out really fast, like in about 10 days."
And So It Goes follows the decline of a middle-class family - Ken (Peter Donaldson), a laid-off investment adviser, his wife Gwen (Martha Burns), a deeply dissatisfied former teacher and their daughter Karen (Jenny Young), who at 25 has unwittingly derailed the life they knew by developing schizophrenia. Dropped into the mix is Kurt Vonnegut (Jerry Franken), who dispenses sage advice from beyond the grave as a ghostly family therapist. Though the play is characteristically grim, some of the darkest moments are cut with a healthy dose of humour. It's not Vonnegut-level absurdity, but it lightens the mood.
"It's his spirit that I thought the play needed," Walker explains. Two of his three daughters (including Courtney, who is assistant director on the production), are devoted Vonnegut fans (though Walker supposes he would turn to Joseph Heller or J.D. Salinger for dead-writerly advice).
Gass never doubted that Walker would return to the theatre because he loves live encounters, not to mention the freedom to write what he likes. And Gass thinks the play, while rooted in Walker's early works, is a departure of sorts.
"He's writing in a sparer, more focused way," Gass said. "He's gaining a stylistic freedom and, to me, it suggests a new face."
The other thing Walker missed was directing his own plays, a habit he developed out of a desire to be close to the cast.
"In some cases he could be extremely articulate about what the playwright wanted," Burns said. "He would even sometimes say, 'I think the playwright wanted this.' And in some cases, he couldn't be [so articulate] which is always the magic of the collaborative process."
"You get in there and you're so close to the actors - that's the only real upside. The rest is pain," Walker adds. "But you forget the pain."
Before he's had time to forget, though, Walker will brave the stage again this summer with his own version of The Beggar's Opera at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, titled King of Thieves.
And he's finding it at least a little easier this time because Toronto's theatre culture is, on the whole, so much healthier. He eagerly reminisces about his early days when Factory, which produced his first play in 1972, was surviving month to month and he was plagued by the distinct feeling that if his play crashed, "you were going to take the whole structure down with you."
Before he died in 2006, long-time Globe and Mail theatre critic Herbert Whittaker told Walker: "You're my favourite. Because you do your work and then you go away." Many Canadian theatregoers will be thrilled to see he's come back again.
And So It Goes is now playing and runs until Feb. 28 at Factory Theatre in Toronto.