Squirrelly Problems Solved

Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

So far, not many people have seen John S. Walch's solo plays.

One of his solos had an audience of only one--his then-girlfriend, actress and director Shoshana Gold. He asked her to marry him in a 75-minute monologue that he performed in what he calls their "Teatro de Living Room." The piece drew on a historical survey of unusual marriage proposals, including a previous experience of his own--when, as a gag, he had used the scoreboard at a minor league baseball game to ask a lesbian friend to marry him.

After the living room solo was over, Gold said yes. "Which is what you want any audience to say," Walch said in a recent interview. They married in 1999.

Until this year, Walch's only other credit in the solo genre was from a class on solo performance in which he performed an original piece called "Performing Is My Greatest Fear."

Yet Walch's profile as a writer of solo shows is about to rise, with the opening next Sunday of his work "The Circumference of a Squirrel," part of the Taper, Too series sponsored by the Mark Taper Forum at the Actors' Gang.

"John is a very exciting new voice," said Taper producing director Robert Egan. "He meditates on the voids we all have in our lives and asks how does one go about filling them."

Walch, 33, still isn't comfortable with acting. Chris Hogan will perform Walch's show, under the direction of Mark Rucker.

But this is definitely Walch's play. It was inspired by an incident he witnessed on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. A squirrel was diligently trying to carry a bagel up a tree. For Walch, the sight set off a string of memories.

He's even less comfortable with squirrels than he is with performing. When he was a child in suburban St. Louis, a squirrel bit his father, who had to undergo a series of rabies shots. Years later, the Texas squirrel led Walch into some serious--and comic--ruminations about squirrels, fathers, sons--and anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism? Yes--the central character, a squirrel-fearing microbiologist, marries an East Coast Jew and brings her home to meet his WASP parents, including his anti-Semitic father.

In real life, Walch also brought his East Coast Jewish bride home to meet his Episcopalian folks. His parents are not anti-Semites, Walch hastened to add. However, "there is always a certain amount of discomfort and negotiation when you cross-pollinate," he said.

Walch's father is an attorney, and his mother is the development director for a charity. But John's uncle Ted, a theater director, had a greater influence on his aspirations. As a teenager, John worked one summer as a lighting intern at the Ohio theater his uncle ran. Ted Walch is director of theater at Harvard Westlake, a tony prep school in Studio City.

John Walch's paternal grandmother was an Inge, and according to family lore, they were distant cousins of the famous playwright William Inge. However, John Walch said that he hopes not to follow too closely in the footsteps of Inge--who committed suicide.

Walch entered theater from a backstage perspective: "I liked to build things, and I always enjoyed the craft. Theater is this bastion of hand-crafted art that still exists. The amount of work that goes into an average production is enormous, considering the number of people who see it."

But he also began writing at Colorado College, where his first play was performed. After graduating, he took behind-the-scenes theatrical jobs in Washington, D.C.--where he met Gold--and in Chicago, Kansas City, Mo., and Minneapolis.

He started two small theater companies: Pig in a Poke in Chicago and Panic Productions in Kansas City, where he produced his own plays. One of the Chicago plays, recalls his uncle Ted, "was a disaster, almost incomprehensible." Yet he adds that his nephew "is his own best critic. He isn't wound up tight, with a snooty, proprietary attitude, like many young playwrights. I think that entering from the technical side of theater gave him a different perspective."

On one opening night, the Chicago theater was closed by a fire marshal--the building wasn't zoned for a theater. Walch was not deterred.

"Younger playwrights have to take the initiative," he said. "You can't wait for the Mark Taper Forum to say, 'We want to do your work.' You can write a million plays, but if they're not seen by an audience, you don't really know what your play is."

Walch found fertile ground for new playwrights in Austin, where he attended graduate school on a James Michener Fellowship and earned a master of fine arts.

"Austin theater is defined by a very vibrant fringe community. It has no theater that's as flagship-esque as this place," Walch said, referring to the Taper. "So there is a lot of opportunity for smaller companies to distinguish themselves." Walch encourages Austin writers by running a support organization called Austin Script Works, which is like L.A.'s A.S.K. Theater Projects "but without any money," he said.

Walch's "Craving Gravy, or Love in the Time of Cannibalism" was produced in Austin. And with Austin writer and performer Lisa D'Amour, Walch created a site-specific production that sounds ready-made for L.A., "The Parking Project--Phase 2." It was presented on three levels of a parking garage and explored the drama of the search for parking spaces, with each of six main characters driving a car through the garage.

The biggest deal of Walch's career is his "The Dinosaur Within," which won a grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, was partially developed at A.S.K. in L.A. and will be produced at Austin's State Theater Company in January. It started as a two-part epic, and although it is now down to one evening, it's still at the opposite end of the size spectrum from "Circumference." Three years ago, wrapped up in "The Dinosaur Within," Walch wouldn't have dreamed of writing a solo piece, he said. Among other reasons, he always thought of solo shows as performances by their authors, and he didn't want to be on stage.

He started writing "Circumference" as a novel but realized it wouldn't be long enough. This coincided with a period of frustration over "Dinosaur," which has a father-son theme, among others. So he focused on the father-son theme of "Circumference" and turned it into a solo play, which helped him to solve the problems he was facing in "Dinosaur."

The Taper grabbed "Circumference" for last year's New Work Festival, which is where director Rucker and performer Hogan came aboard. But Gold staged the official premiere in Austin earlier this year with actor Martin Burke.

Now, after his own success and after seeing solos by the likes of Anna Deavere Smith and Luis Alfaro, Walch is a believer in the genre. "It's so theatrical to watch an actor transform from one character to another in a second, it makes up for the lack of seeing a stage populated with people."

He also enjoys the freedom--"looking from one person's perspective frees you to take that person farther, to go into outrageous or dark territory." By contrast, in multi-actor plays, "you want your characters balanced. You don't want a white hat and a black hat."

Walch may now try some other genres. "I would never think I'd write a musical, but maybe I will. Some of the better writing comes out of that feeling of 'I have no idea what I'm doing."

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"THE CIRCUMFERENCE OF A SQUIRREL," Actors' Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Dates: Opens June 17, 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends July 1. Price: $20. Phone: (213) 628-2772.

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