Give Him Enough Rope

John Walch Unties the Gordian Knots of Playwriting

John Walch
John Walch (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

One day, when playwright John Walch was wandering on the beach in Mexico, he happened upon a rope that was buried deep in the sand. It was, as he describes the tequila-amplified discovery, "going right to something we didn't know." So, perfectly in keeping with his curious nature, Walch pulled on the rope. Later, he worked this striking, silly image into a play: Craving Gravy, dubbed "the optimist's Waiting for Godot" by Chronicle arts writer Robert Faires and a winner of new play awards from the Austin Theatre Critics' Table and the Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival. That was in 1997. Four years passed without another major work from Walch, but now he is finally unveiling not one but two new complete plays: the monologue The Circumference of a Squirrel, which opened last week at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, and the epic The Dinosaur Within, which will be produced by the State Theater Company in January of 2002.

The new works are inextricably linked. The former was in many ways born of the latter, and the success of The Dinosaur Within -- the play was awarded a $40,000 grant from the Kennedy Center Fund For New American Plays and earned Walch the 2000 Charlotte Woodard Award, identifying a promising new voice in the American theatre -- has much to do with Walch's completion of The Circumference of a Squirrel. And despite their differing scales, both plays are huge in scope. In The Dinosaur Within, Walch contends with aboriginal Australians, stolen dinosaur footprints, Hollywood's (fallen) stars, and measures of time; in The Circumference of a Squirrel, it's one man's personal journey into his relationship with his father, a squirrel and a bagel, an inner tube, bigotry, and oh, yes, humanity.

"I just like digging, digging in the ground," says Walch, who finds himself drawn to the mythical and preternatural in human existence. "I have an interest in creation mythology. And I'm interested in where people believe they've come from and how that influences who they are. I am interested in those things that are essential to people in terms of their spiritual identity. And then, when those things are snatched away from them, how do they react?" Walch gravitates toward those enormous ideas, grabs hold, and tugs.

Ordinarily, plays involving great themes take a long time to develop -- consider the gestation periods of such mammoth works as Tony Kushner's Angels in America or Robert Schenkkan's The Kentucky Cycle. As this is the scope of Walch's work, four years might not seem so long a stretch between plays. But the delays in completing Dinosaur and Squirrel have as much to do with Walch being busy on several other fronts. Despite the energy required to pen works of such enormity, he continued writing smaller works, winning playwriting residencies around the country, contributing to local newspapers (The Austin Chronicle and Austin American-Statesman included), and manning the helm of Austin Script Works, the local arts agency that supports area playwrights.

All of this competed for the playwright's attention, naturally, especially Script Works, for which he is artistic director. "It's hindered [my work]," Walch admits, but he is quick to add that he feels the need for such an agency and believes this one has helped him push his plays to a national audience. "In my wanderings on the national scene, people are really interested in what is going on in Austin. I feel that the current success I've had on a national level is because I'm an Austin writer, because people are interested in, have heard a lot about Austin. It's like, 'Ooh, people are writing down there, what's going on?' And I feel my work has been read more carefully by people on the outside because of the reputation that Austin's built for itself. So, I think that we as a community have to support that talent, that impulse, in -- for better or for worse a term -- an institutional way, in a structured environment that provides a place for people looking for work coming out of Austin to come to, that's not tied to a particular aesthetic vision. That's where I think Script Works' strength lies. We have all these different visions going on, all these different styles happening in our writing pool. And I think that no one theatre company can support all that. It takes a support service organization to do that."

You always get the sense that John is chuckling when he writes, observes Pier Carlo Talenti, literary manager of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, which is not to say he's winking at his audience;  I think it's that he keeps surprising himself.
"You always get the sense that John is chuckling when he writes," observes Pier Carlo Talenti, literary manager of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, "which is not to say he's winking at his audience; I think it's that he keeps surprising himself." (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

In some ways, Walch's continued leadership of Script Works is repayment of his perceived debt to Austin, particularly to the playwriting area at UT-Austin, and perhaps more specifically to David Mark Cohen, a co-founder of Script Works and Walch's professor, mentor, and friend. Walch attended the graduate playwriting program in the UT Department of Theatre & Dance under the guidance of Cohen. The Beckettian Craving Gravy was his thesis play, and the production of it turned the black box space of the drama building's Theatre Room into something of a metaphysical desert through which two slightly more-than-mortal characters searched for the meaning of their existence, as well as the location of their next meal. The play was enormous in scope, dealing with creation mythology and incorporating shamanistic ritual. It conveyed a sense of timelessness amid the barren, wasteland setting. And peppered throughout were moments of humor and some deft clowning by actors Michael Arthur and Amy L. Washburn, whose characters toted the bones of a dead comrade along their perpetual mythic journey. Walch's language was equal parts philosophical and playful, sounding out Big Thoughts while goofing around with the mundane and inane.

"You always get the sense that John is chuckling when he writes," observes Pier Carlo Talenti, literary manager of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, "which is not to say he's winking at his audience; I think it's that he keeps surprising himself." Talenti, who will serve as dramaturg on the Taper, Too production of The Circumference of a Squirrel in June, says the theatre is very excited to be introducing Walch to L.A. audiences. "The first play of his I read was The Dinosaur Within," says Talenti, "a wild and woolly play whose epic story matches its ambitious thematic scope."

Walch credits Cohen with encouraging him to explore his big vision and comic undertones and considers the educator central to his development as a playwright: "David was my mentor, advocate, sparring partner, adviser, and friend," Walch told the Chronicle in 1998. "I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had such a caring person to help guide me through these formative years ... [He was] unconditionally supportive of my work and allowed me to write in the style and on the subjects I found most compelling. He was uncommonly tolerant in this respect." Cohen's tolerance has paid off, although the teacher is no longer alive to see the pupil's successes. Cohen died in an automobile accident over the Christmas break in 1997.

Cohen saw Craving Gravy win the Austin Theatre Critics' Table New Play Award for 1997. When it was similarly honored at the Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival, however, Cohen had died, and the ACTF had renamed its award in memory of Walch's mentor. Though by the time Walch was reaping these honors, he was well into going nowhere with The Dinosaur Within. Working out his writer's block and discovering the underlying cause of his inability to finish what he had begun with the play took years.

"A lot of it had to do with the death of David Cohen, I think," Walch says, "in terms of what happened with [The Dinosaur Within], in terms of my process on it. David died ..." Walch breaks off: The unexpected and tragic loss of his friend and mentor took Walch on a long, divergent course as he attempted to craft a "perfect" play, what he describes as "in some weird way some sort of homage to David."

"I started The Dinosaur Within at a playwright's retreat in El Paso, Texas, the summer before David died," Walch explains. "And I conceived it as this rather large play. I got 80 pages of it done at this retreat. It was great. David had heard it was good and kept saying, 'Show it to me, show it to me, I want to see it, let's do a reading.' And I was like, 'It's not done, it's not done, I'm working on it, I'm working on it.' And I never showed it to him. Because I wanted -- in some sort of strange, twisted, graduate school guy's mind -- I wanted to show this guy who had taught me that I was brilliant. I wanted to deliver to him this perfect play that he could not say one thing wrong about. And so I was working on it and one of the last conversations we had was: 'You're going to show me that play. When we get back.' We were in a party together smoking cigars and drinking scotch -- which was very unlike David, since he did not smoke cigars or drink scotch, except this once -- and one of the last things we talked about was, 'Next semester we're reading that damned play. And you're going to show it to me.' And, of course, he was killed in a car accident. He died over the holiday break. So I never showed it to him. And that's when the craziness of this play began, internally.

Martin Burke in <i>The Circumference of a Squirrel</i>
Martin Burke in The Circumference of a Squirrel

"There are a couple of characters that die in the play, and I had to write some death scenes. Well, first of all, the play sort of broke open and became a two-part play. After David died, I made this ill-informed decision to make it a two-part play. So the play just kept bulging at the center; it wasn't going forward. I kept adding more characters, [doing] all of this research. Because I was dealing with Australian aboriginals and old Hollywood; I was dealing with geological phenomena; there's a wild bird in the play, so I was dealing with the avian line and maybe its descent from the dinosaurs. I have all this great research and all these characters keep coming in. It just kept growing and growing and growing. So I thought, Well, it's a two-part play. It's going to be huge. It's going to be brilliant. And David from his grave will know.

"This was all, obviously, internal: I didn't recognize this until last year. So that is where it sort of went for about two years. I went on this wild goose chase about a two-part play, and what did that mean, and how do you structure that evening. And I never actually finished the play. And the thing that I couldn't write were the two death scenes. I just kept putting it off. I kept sitting there: I don't know how these people die. I don't know how they die. And then finally, I guess it was last year, I was at a retreat at The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis working on the play. My good friend Lisa D'Amour was there and we had this conversation and we were figuring it out. I was like, My god, this is all about David. This is where I am sticking.

"There were some breakthroughs earlier [when] I was on a retreat in Los Angeles in the spring of that same year and I realized that it wasn't a two-part play. All these things sort of lined up and eventually I [realized], Oh, of course, it's David that I'm not dealing with. So once I identified that and got that kind of emotional focus and center and that ability to identify what I was avoiding and why I was avoiding it, I was able to finish the play."

But while Walch was still struggling with The Dinosaur Within, still being haunted by its interweaving multiple storylines and characters whose paths intersect, while he was stuck trying to figure it out and was banging his head against the wall, he saw, he says, "this little thing." The little thing was a squirrel -- for most people cute, bushy-tailed critters, for others bird-feeder thieves and attic pests. But for a select few, squirrels instill a particular fear and loathing. "I was in Sherry Kramer's Form and Structure class," offers Walch by way of some personal historical perspective. "She was one of those kinds of teachers who would take you outside on a nice day -- and we were sitting there and, you know, UT is just inundated with squirrels. It has tons and tons of squirrels around campus. Makes me a little fidgety, a little nervous. So we were sitting in this circle and there were all these squirrels around us, and we were talking about Long Day's Journey Into Night that day. And there was this one particular squirrel that was just, back there ..." Walch throws a nervous hand over his shoulder, indicating the intrusive vermin of his memory. He shrugs, or shudders, at the memory of the stalking squirrel and turns to the slightly more benign incident that was the impetus for a new writing project. Again, Walch was sitting on the UT campus, "And I saw this squirrel trying to carry a bagel up a tree. It was just a very funny struggle to watch. I happen to have a very strange relationship to squirrels. I do get wigged out by squirrels. I have a bit of a fear of squirrels. Which is what the narrator of the play has. A negative fascination, as he puts it. So I saw this image and I just came home and I started writing."

Walch concentrated on a theme that he couldn't resolve in the increasing enormity of The Dinosaur Within -- the relationship between a son and a father -- and tried to deal with it separately, on its own. "I just wanted to focus on one thing," he remembers, "just explore it in a totally different setting. They're not the same characters, just the same relationship. So I was taking that relationship, transferring it to something else, to see what I was trying to say with it. And, at the time, it was just whsht!" Walch snaps his fingers. "I just wrote it right out. It was great. It was one of those blessings you get as a writer. It was done in two weeks. I got up every day and I worked on it and it was just outstanding."

"It" was The Circumference of a Squirrel, Walch's first complete play since Craving Gravy -- although it wasn't originally intended for the stage. The piece "actually started as a short story," the writer says. "I was sort of hoping that maybe it would be a novel. [But] it came out to about two legal pads of pages, which, once I transcribed it, was about 60 pages, or something like that [and I thought], Damn!" Too short for a novel, he jokes, so he turned it into a play. "I think it works great as a play," Walch insists now. "It's about 40 pages. It's a monologue, a one-man show. The challenge has been to [edit out] those bits that are more suited to prose, which are more reflective in nature, as opposed to active discovery. Edit it, cut it. It's been exciting to see that transformation," says Walch of turning prose into play.

"It helped me enormously because it made me feel like a writer to a certain degree, since I was so blocked with the other play. I don't know if The Circumference of a Squirrel provided any final reconciliation, but it did make me feel that I can write, that I can write something different. And I think one of the things that's strong about the piece is that it has that energy. This is not my 'perfect play,' you know? This is just this thing that I was doing to not do my 'important play.' And I think sometimes your best writing comes from that, because it's always a magic trick. You're writing with your nondominant hand. 'Oh, this is just this silly thing that I'm doing to waste time.' But I think a lot of the best writing comes out of that impulse, too; because you don't think it's going to be anything. Especially when you switch forms. 'Oh, I'm not really a fiction writer, so I can't possibly write a great piece of fiction.' Then you write this piece of fiction and in a sense you're tricking yourself."

The Circumference of a Squirrel may deal with Walch's unique brand of minutiae, but quickly, as in Craving Gravy and The Dinosaur Within, the one-man account grows into something much, much bigger. "I think what I find so appealing about John's work is its scope," says the Taper's Talenti. "Even in The Circumference of a Squirrel, a much smaller solo play about one young man, John has his story branch out in many directions that seem tangential until you see how and where each branch attaches to the trunk of the story. The play's full of such moments. John refuses to stick to the straight and narrow, and as a result his work is very theatrical."

In fine Walchian manner, the myriad tangents of people, place, and time that shoot out from a play in progress all will be neatly tied up as the playwright gets to see his completed work, premiering on Austin stages. "I'm really delighted that [the plays are] coming to fruition here in Austin first. I feel there's been a lot of support and understanding [among the local theatre community]. It feels like a phase in my life that I am finally going to be able to put down. And that they're being done in the community in which the plays were written is really great for me. I'm really excited about that." end story


The Circumference of a Squirrel runs through May 6 at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center Whisenhunt Arena Stage, 1510 Toomey. Call 476-0541 for information.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

John Walch, Craving Gravy, The Circumference of a Squirrel, The Dinosaur Within, Austin Script Works, David Mark Cohen, UT Department of Theatre & Dance, Michael Arthur, Amy L. Washburn, Pier Carlo Talenti, Mark Taper Forum, Taper, Too, David Mark Cohen Award, Kennedy

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