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In Conversation with Tanja Jacobs and George F. Walker

Mar 8, 2022

During the first week of rehearsals for ORPHANS FOR THE CZAR, director Tanja Jacobs spent a lunch break chatting with playwright George F. Walker who was at home with his seven-month-old granddaughter. 

GW: Hi Tanja, how are you? 

TJ: I’m really good. Today is only the second day of rehearsals and we already feel steeped in this world and these people. That's a reflection of the play, of course. Everybody is craving to think in detail about the characters they're playing, and these wonderful, horrifying conditions that the characters are in. That's a delicious feeling. And I haven't had it for a long time because I've been, you know, locked in the house, too, for a couple of years. But we're in the water now and loving it. 

G: Yeah, love, that’s the biggest thing, that you love it. Quite honestly, you’ve been inspiring for me, and I realized that that's where the new draft came from, wanting you to love it even more than you already do. I'm trying to match your enthusiasm. So that's why that draft happened. Really. I thought I should probably become part of this in some way. And I enjoyed it, I don't think I've ever enjoyed a rewrite as much as I enjoyed doing that. 

T: Oh, I'm so happy to hear that.  The play feels so, especially with these changes, so present for so many reasons. 

G: I feel very, very, very confident with what you're doing, I'm just not worried at all.  

T: That's crazy you know, I’m quaking a bit when I hear you say that, and of course, it's thrilling too. But I'm scared because the play is so good.

I realized today that I have never asked you when you started thinking about writing this play, and why you started working on it. 

G: I first started thinking about why there were these people, so many bad people, getting all these followers. Starting with Trump, but I was also just thinking of Putin back then. I heard a lot about how they attract the people who don’t usually pay attention to all that stuff. But I thought there's something else going on here. They are vulnerable. There's a whole bunch of people who are just vulnerable. 

Then I remembered Gorky's The Life of a Useless Man. I read Gorky when I was in my late teens. I had a memory of it being what I was talking about, thinking about, so I read it again. The word orphans; it's vulnerable. I wanted to figure out why people follow Trump for example, or Putin, and what happens there.  And then I just started writing. 

I always say, just give over to it and see what happens and what the conflicts are. I write basically out of conflict, or for conflict, or about conflict, which is so very easy to find in the world today.

I don't really think once I get going, I just kind of follow it. I guess I'm a method writer. I just get there, inside of them, and let them talk. I have a small voice inside of me that has some basic understanding of structure, but that small voice is just there to make sure I don't go off the rails. The big voice is through the characters. They talk, they tell the story, and I am transcribing it in a way.  My wife thinks I get possessed by them.

T: You've been writing for the theatre for a long time. And it's a just a delight to sample your work from various phases of your writing life. You have also gone through a period where you were not creating so much work for the stage, but now you are flush with ideas bubbling out of you. What's the relationship between having looked away from the theatre for a little while and now being back at it with such urgency. 

G: I'm really, really excited about writing now. 

You get to the point where you're thinking I should try something else, but then I wanted to come back. When I came back there seemed to be something going on in the culture that said I was too old. And I thought, well, that's not true. I have never paid more attention to life or to the world than I am now. It's partly because I have grandchildren, and it's partly because that's just what I do. 

So, I didn't start to write again. I said, well, okay, they think that I'm not timely. And then I said, I still need to write. And I started to write again, and I tell you, more enthusiastically than ever. I just started to feel great about it, actually, and then after I wrote this, I just kept wanting to keep writing. 

T: In your writing the stakes are extremely rich and extremely high. The astonishing achievement that you show over and over again is the proximity of death and danger and loss and violence to comedy; and the resilience of human beings and their capacity for wit while on the verge of losing everything. Your loyalty to that idea, and the insistence in your writing, make it possible for these two things to coexist.  

G: I believe the higher the stakes are in the world, the higher the stakes must be in anything you write about the world. I believe that tragedy and comedy are intertwined. The world, in so many ways is on the brink, and not just because of Ukraine, but because of lots of other stuff. And all of it is important. You have to feel it to write about it, you know, and why wouldn't you, because it's everywhere, and it's so intense. In that way, it's a good time to write now. I start to feel guilty if I'm not responding to the world in some way.

T: I’d like to make an observation about your work that I feel very passionate about. I feel like it is a miraculous victory that you have had as an artist, and an advocate, in creating this huge range of female characters who use their voices to speak. It seems unbelievable to me that we are still living in a time where young women are not encouraged to speak or communicate in a really direct way. The case of many of your characters is that they've also been silenced by their circumstances. The plays give them this opportunity to speak directly and say, actually, what they mean, not what they hope people will like from them. It's a radical achievement and I kind of feel crazy saying that. It is thrilling and necessary for women to see models of women speaking with freedom and saying exactly what they mean. 

G: The women in my life are my life really; three daughters, five granddaughters, three sisters. My mother had five sisters. It’s what's inside you, so you're writing not just for yourself, but you're advocating for all sorts of people. They are a huge part of my life, a huge part, and I see all the things. I love writing about them too. It’s not a hardship, it's not a thing where I have to manufacture concern. It is a part of who you are, you don't have to search for it, it’s just there. 

T: Well, I'm back to rehearsals in seven minutes.  I want to say how grateful I am to you George, for having spent your life doing this.  

G: And I want you to know you I'm not the least bit worried. I'm just want you to have fun, you know? 

T: Yeah. Ok, George, thanks so much.