Love Letter to a Klutz: The Secret Behind John Walch's Brilliant Plays

John Walch is a terrible dancer. I believe my first fateful experience as John's dance partner occurred at a Brave Combo show. The initial exchange went something like this:

John W.: I'm warning you, I'm a terrible dancer.

Lisa D.: [politely] Oh, don't worry about it.

John W.: OK, then ...

[In a flash, John W. wraps his left arm around Lisa D.'s waist and, clasping his right hand in hers, begins hurling her around the dance floor as a flash flood emergency volunteer might hurl heavy bags of sand onto the banks of a rising river. John W.'s wife, Shana G., stands at a safe distance, shaking her head, a knowing smile stretched across her face.]

Nope, Johnny can't dance. And I think I know why. Dancing, especially dancing with a partner, requires a great deal of precision and willingness to commit, with a vengeance, to a complicated set of steps, turns, and possibly even leaps. A good dancer is often both a firm lead and an attentive collaborator. A good dancer makes even the most complex dance look easy.

At this point in his young life, there is no way that John can tap any of the above-mentioned skills for his dancing: He is pouring every last ounce of them into his writing and the culture that surrounds it. You can see it his plays: in the precise, playful wordplay of his neo-creation myth, Craving Gravy; in the great leaps of imagination made physical in the sweeping, mystical world of his epic The Dinosaur Within. You can see it in his commitment to the writing community: in his tireless support for new plays and new voices as artistic director of Austin Script Works, in his ever-creative programming for the same organization.

You can see it in his artistic collaborations. Case in point: In the recent past, I was swindled into collaborating with John on a site-specific behemoth called The Parking Project, produced last summer as a work-in-process in the three-level underground Hartland Plaza Parking Garage. I say "swindled" because when John first approached me with the idea, I thought it was far too ambitious to ever get off the ground. I agreed, never really believing that the project would actually happen. Before I knew it, John had procured funding from the city of Austin, scoped out parking garages all over town, arranged time for us to work, and we were off and running. Every step of the way, John made the negotiation of this enormous project look easy, from his graceful, generous approach to collaborative writing to his resourceful method of producing our showing to his enthusiastic support of the ongoing life of the project.

I got to know John when we were both graduate playwriting students in the theatre department at UT Austin, studying with David Mark Cohen. I think it's safe to say that it was an exciting and tumultuous time for both of us: We were both striving to discover what kind of writers we were, dealing with the triumphs and failures of our first productions, searching for solid ground in the shifting, unstable artist's life we had chosen. Eventually and unfortunately, John and I had to deal with the sudden death of our mentor. Though heartbreakingly tragic, David's death had immediate life-giving effects, for it drew friends like John and me closer together, deepening relationships and forming lifelong bonds. Throughout this time of growth and transformation, John was a source of strength and relief for me. Today, I feel lucky to call him an old friend, a friend who brings out the best in me with his honesty and clear sense of self, a peer who challenges me to work harder through his gorgeous writing and commitment to artistic excellence.

John Walch is a terrible dancer. You've really got to see it to believe it. Because although he can't dance, he dances with a vengeance. He can take up the whole floor with his freeform solos, mow down a half-dozen couples with his gleefully fierce two-step. John's dancing always fills me with joy. Perhaps because he makes me want to dance with abandon, being no Ginger Rogers myself. Or perhaps because, as long as John continues his audacious dancing, I know that he is in the process of creating another playwriting masterpiece, of crafting another surprising collaboration, of concocting another great feat of the theatre. Keep dancing badly, Johnny. Keep dancing badly.

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  • Give Him Enough Rope

    John Walch's new plays -- the monologue The Circumference of a Squirrel and the epic The Dinosaur Within -- are inextricably linked: In their ambitious scope, in their genesis, and in the amount of national attention they're generating for this award-winning Austin playwright.

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