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Q&A with George F. Walker, Playwright

By Kenneth Ingram on June 12, 2014

George F. Walker, 66, is a distinguished Canadian playwright and screenwriter. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1996 and is the recipient of numerous awards, including three Governor General Awards. His The Burden of Self Awareness premiered at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) earlier this month. We sat down with him on May 29th to talk about the production, its inspiration and what drew him to the GCTC.

Apt613: In the blurb that everyone will read[about the play], there are three magical ingredients: sex, money and murder. And I understand there’s quite a bit of profanity in this play?

Walker: Yeah, people swear like hell. Profanity. There’s a word that won’t go away. It’s funny in the theater how that’s an issue. It’s not an issue anywhere else. Certainly it’s not an issue in cable television now. Certainly it’s not an issue in the movies but there’s something about people saying those words out loud.

I’ve also noticed that people get more upset when women say them out loud, which I find is kinda bizarre. Too bad.

They’re not there for my pleasure. They are there because they’re usable words. They’re strong words. If the material demands it and if the characters demand it than there it goes, it’s in.

There are also some disturbing thoughts in [the play]. There’s also big questions that don’t have answers in it. I would be more disturbed by the subversive nature of some of the material than I would be by the language.

Apt613: Can you give us an example of one of the questions that doesn’t have an answer in this particular play?

Well, is there ever enough? Can you ever have enough money? Why is it that people don’t seem to be able to ask themselves…is there ever enough?

I’d be worried if I was a very very wealthy person in this world and the middle and working classes are crumbling around me. So, that’s in the play as well.

Apt613: What inspired the dialogue for this particular play?

A simple conversation with my wife about that:

“Is there ever enough? Can people just ever say to themselves I have enough?
“[Do people ever say] I don’t have to have anymore?
“[Do they ever consider] maybe I can spread some of it around?

If there was a government saying that, they’d call it socialism. For me, if an individual says it, it would be common sense in some way. Common humanity. That was the conversation and…stuff just emerged from that conversation.

Apt613: Why Ottawa and why the GCTC [for the world premier of this play]?

I have a long history here…going way, way back. And Arthur [Milner, the play’s director] is my friend and I think he would do it really really well. I didn’t want all [of my plays] to be birthed in Toronto…and this is a good, other home for the play.”

Apt613: Does it have anything to do with what happened with the Factory Theatre in Toronto and you publically boycotting that theatre and maybe spreading out?

Well, I would never have done a whole bunch of plays in Toronto all at once anyway and like I said, I wrote 67 plays in a two-and-a-half year period so they gotta go somewhere. I would never have wanted to do them all at the Factory. Certainly that’s what happened to the play that’s running in Toronto now, Dead Metaphor. I actually pulled the play from the Factory after they did this horrible, unreasonable, inexplicable thing [about two years ago], firing the founder of the theatre [Ken Glass].

[For Apt613 readers who may be unfamiliar with what happened in Toronto, Ken Glass was allegedly fired for proposing a multi-million dollar transformation of the theatre into a modern arts centre. Click here to read more.]

I didn’t want anything more to do with them. This seemed like a good home (at the GCTC) and mostly because of Arthur and because Eric (Coates, GCTC’s artistic director) responded so immediately, so strongly and so intelligently to the material.

But that’s that one thing. It’s past. Ken’s moved past it. I’m probably angrier than he is in some ways.

Apt613: There’s an interview that you did with Stuart McLean on CBC [Radio] back in 1985. Back then, Stuart asked you if you used a typewriter and your response was that you used longhand. Do you still prefer to use longhand?

No. When I got into TV [as a screenwriter]… the amount of re-writing and polishing …was too much so I started working on a computer. My handwriting also deteriorated [laughing] to the point where only my wife could understand it and she could just barely decipher it after a while. And they said someone would look at [my writing] and say ‘well how do you understand this guy’s writing?’ and [my wife] said ‘well, he only uses a few words .

The computer became my friend.

Apt613: It’s been noted that some writers tend to tame with age and I think you’ve avoid that. I’m wondering how you’ve avoided that?

I stay alert to what’s going on in the world. I’ve said this many times: If I woke up and it was wonderful I would just go sit under a tree and enjoy the wonderfulness of it…but I wake up…[and] I’m still agitated by [what’s going on in the world], or wonder about it. I’m not complacent and I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I’m not trying to gain fame or notoriety. Writing has always been a kind of expulsion of feeling for me and what’s going on…so I’m still feeling things. I guess I’ll have to write about them or I’ll go nuts. It just comes out.

I’m not smug and I’m not happy and I’m not comfortable with this stuff. I look out and…it should be better…let’s try and make it better.

The Burden of Self Awareness runs until June 22 at The Great Canadian Theatre Company (1233 Wellington Street West). For tickets (starting at $30) and showtimes, click here. Read our review here.