Author discusses the creation of his play, which is opening this weekend at College of the Siskiyous in Weed.
It’s taken a long time to get to this point, but my play, “Walking With Walt,” is in the final stage of rehearsals before opening night this Friday, Sept. 7, in College of the Siskiyous’ Kenneth Ford Theater.
I’m happy not only for myself, but for the play’s characters – Walt Whitman, Sam Marler, Rebecca Graves, Sweet Betsy, and all the others – who’ll finally come to life onstage after being trapped for so many years on the printed page.
I wrote the first scene of “Walking With Walt” over a decade ago, in a burst of inspiration. I had rarely, in a long writing career, had anything flow out so effortlessly. In that first scene, Sam Marler, a longtime dock worker, decides to quit his job and walk across the country. He wants to see for himself the diverse and vibrant young country he’s read about in the pages of “Leaves Of Grass,” Walt Whitman’s great collection of poetry.
Marler is accompanied on his journey by the Great Poet himself.
So Sam and Walt are launched on their journey, but then what? What happens next? That simple question was something I wrestled with for many years and involved much writing and rewriting. At first I took a simple, picaresque approach, having Sam and Walt encounter a variety of colorful characters as they tramped across the country together.
That sort of thing was fun to write, but I soon realized that it needed something more. It was hard to imagine people sitting on the edge of their seats, breathlessly awaiting the introduction of yet another character, however interesting he or she might be. There had to be a narrative thread that an audience could take hold of, and watch with interest and anticipation to see how it spins out.
I won’t bore you with all the twists and turns, all the writing and rewriting this required, but what gradually evolved was the idea that, after his initial burst of freedom – what Whitman would call “the freedom of the Open Road” – Sam gradually comes to realize that his journey is not just taking him away from something, but taking him to something, something profoundly important in his life.
And that something turns out to be a long-lost romance with his old high school sweetheart, Rebecca Walker, now Rebecca Graves, who’s recently become a widow.
Now things begin to get interesting. Now there’s potential for some real drama, some conflict, tension, and uncertainty. How do you rekindle a romance that’s lain dormant for 30 years? What if the lady in question has issues with the way she was treated back then? And what if there’s someone else, someone who fits more readily into the life she’s led since she knew Sam?
Before a play comes fully to life onstage, it typically takes some timid, tentative steps out into the world in the form of reviews by friends and theater people and, later on, rough performances in which actors read from the script while going through the motions onstage.
These are necessary but not always pleasant experiences for the playwright. One veteran actor, after reading “Walking With Walt,” expressed doubts about whether the subject matter, which includes a lot of Whitman’s poetry, was suitable for a play. Perhaps it should just be presented as a poetry reading, he suggested.
One theater producer in Sacramento, initially enthusiastic about the play, backpedaled a few months later for unknown reasons. Polite rejections from other potential producers came in the form of suggestions that I “workshop” it – have it go through more readings and critical reviews – another way of saying it needed more work.
Which was true. “Walking With Walt” has undergone endless rewriting and will likely never be truly finished. Lines that looked good on paper made me cringe when I heard them at those staged readings. They begged to be cut or rewritten.
Finally, though, “Walking With Walt” found a home on the COS stage. What the long saga of “Walking With Walt” has taught me is that a play is a living thing, constantly changing and evolving. Even now, as we go into the final rehearsals, it’s being rewritten, cut and revised by me and the director, Neil Carpentier-Alting, and the actors.
As the play comes to life onstage, there are endless decisions to be made about how each character moves, what lines need special emphasis, how each actor relates to the others onstage – and to the audience.
I am playing the role of Walt Whitman. It’s my first big role in what has been, to date, a very modest acting career. For the past few years I’ve been doing a one-man show in which I perform as Walt Whitman, talking about my life and reading my poetry. Other than that, my resume consists of playing the role of Prince Paul in a high school production of “Anastasia.”
By taking on this major role I’ve signed up for what amounts to a course in Acting 101. I’m learning a new vocabulary. We actors are told to “open up to the audience.” In other words, not be so totally engaged with the other characters onstage that we fail to engage the people we’re doing the play for. I’ve been told I have “happy feet,” which means that when I’m delivering my lines I sometimes move aimlessly about the stage, without rhyme or reason.
We are constantly being asked by the director to think about why we’re saying our lines, what’s the reason for saying them, the motivation behind them. Don’t just mouth lines you’ve memorized, in other words, but put some depth of feeling and thought into them so that you come across onstage as a real person, not an actor.
The next stage in the long saga of “Walking With Walt” comes on opening night and the following five performances. What will audiences make of all this? Will they be drawn in by Sam Marler’s story, his attempts to win back his old flame? This will be the first time many of those in the audience will have heard Whitman’s poetry. Will they find it as powerful and compelling as I did when I first read it?
I will tell you in advance that there are no violent fight scenes, no steamy sex scenes. Just Walt Whitman’s evocative and powerful celebration of his country and the American language, and the journey homeward that his poetry inspired.
Performances are scheduled for Sept. 7, 8, 14 and 15 at 7 p.m. and Sept. 9 and 16 at 3 p.m. in COS’s Kenneth Ford Theater. All seating will be onstage. After the performance, audience members are invited to remain for a discussion of the play and Walt Whitman. Tickets are $10. For more information call 530-938-5206 or visit the COS website: www.siskiyous.edu/theatre/.