"Your whole time learning your craft [as actors] is about forging your link to be strong."
Walter Borden is a lovely, personable, and affable gentleman. He loves opera and told me he worked in a parking booth in the early 90s and had music playing. He is a Black-indigenous, teacher, poet, artist, and playwright.
During a recent Zoom conversation with him, Walter also spoke about his activist role in the theatre and its potential influence five years from now. Artists are not there just to entertain. That’s part of their responsibility, but it’s what Walter calls the ‘spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down.’ No matter what theatrical discipline they find themselves in, actors and artists must always look to the future to see how societal demands will affect what they have been called to do.
Borden opens at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre this week in ‘The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time’ to be directed by Peter Hinton-Davis. Billed on Tarragon’s website as a deeply personal reflection, the play is called an invigorating, solo performance that will feature ten characters. Walter will explore homosexuality from a Black perspective and offer an experience of the resilience of the human spirit. ‘Epistle’ was initially written and performed in 1986 as ‘Tightrope Time Ain’t Nuthin’ More Than Some Itty Bitty Madness Between Your Twilight & Your Dawn.’
What about the theatre industry still draws Walter back to perform?
He paused momentarily and explained how difficult it was to say what he wanted to say. He always knew he would end up somewhere in the theatre world from 1953 when he had his first gig onstage in a Christmas play. He didn’t know how that would evolve but didn’t think about it. He let things evolve as they should. He said: “I knew it, I let it, and I had no idea how it would manifest itself.”
The theatre is the ultimate classroom for Walter because he calls himself a teacher. He proudly stated that he began his work in a regular classroom. Walter’s family had planned that he would become a doctor, and he even went into his first year of pre-med. He knew he was a teacher because: ‘the theatre became my final classroom.”
What a beautiful analogy. And all teachers get that understanding.
Where does he see the live theatre industry headed over the next proverbial five years?
Walter smiled on camera and thought the question was a good one. His response:
“The theatre is being challenged as it has never been challenged before. It is a place where humanity can be reflected back upon itself. That can be dangerous because audiences sit there and are told what’s going on”.
We shared a good laugh over that last statement because it’s true.
In Walter’s humble opinion, and understandably so, society is evolving at the speed it is in such strange ways. One of the strangest is this desire to gallop backwards instead of forward. The theatre is locked into that. One of the most significant challenges is to be ahead of the game. Always.
Why is this problematic now?
Borden knows why.
It’s become more and more of a financial difficulty to sustain theatre, so there is a reliance on funding sources. To keep the good grace of these sources, theatres must behave and do certain things. The moment this is done, one taps into the lifeblood of the theatre. It is supposed to do all those things that are now under scrutiny – what can be said, what can’t be said. Are government guidelines or other interests placed in the theatre?
For Walter, all this is strangling the industry.
That attitude of making it toe the line in every instance with what societal dictates suggests that those in theatre, or revere it, are incapable of being morally responsible in all other ways. More and more people, as Walter sees it, who are responsible for the wellness of theatre acquiesce to the demands being put upon theatre from the outside. Dialogue is essential for all involved; however, if there is no understanding of what theatre is meant to be, and what it has always been, it aggravates Walter in many ways. It’s a difficult time.
Walter loves speaking with young actors.
He tells them:
“The moment you decided that you wanted to enter and commit to the craft of acting and the world of theatre, you became the weakest link in a chain that stretches into antiquity. Your whole time learning your craft is about forging your link to be so strong. When someone comes along and links to you, you are strong enough to hold that chain and don’t break.”
That is how Walter sees the theatre.
Rehearsals for ‘The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time’ have gone very well. Borden sees the challenge of the material because it is challenging even though the script is several iterations down the road over 49 years. The challenge is that everyone involved, from director Peter Hinton-Davis, Walter and the creative team, still sees the material as NEW.
Borden then raised an interesting comment about this Toronto Tarragon production. ‘Epistle’ was performed last year in Halifax. Walter talked about the difference between remounting and revisiting the script. The script hasn’t been lying fallow in over a year from Halifax since everyone knew it was coming to Toronto. Instead, the script has been revisited continuously. It has been constantly in motion, refined and tweaked in preparation for the Tarragon production, and the script has been looked at again as new.
A point of interest – NIMBUS will already have published the script for the Toronto run, and the Tarragon production will be the definitive version.
Borden first met Peter at the Stratford Festival. Peter directed Walter in several plays. At that time, ‘Tightrope Time’ was still being written. Borden knew he was headed for what he wanted to be the completion of the work. He was at the stage of deciding whom he would want to direct because that was the most important thing. Even then, Walter knew many years ago that he wanted Peter to direct him at ‘Tightrope Time’s’ completion. He admires Peter for his shaping and insight into the play.
He adds further:
“Naturally, being associated with it for so long, I was automatically writing layers and layers that I didn’t even think about. But Peter could see the layers the first time he read it and would question me about these layers, saying such things as: ‘What were you thinking about when you said that?’ “
As we concluded our conversation, I asked Walter what he hoped audiences would take away from ‘The Last Epistle’:
“You know, that’s always the hard one. In spite of everything in this work, I started from a straightforward premise from Maya Angelou’s: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unlike.” This is reflected in the work. I hadn’t started it that way, but Peter did…the play is an illumination of the resiliency of the human spirit. More accurately, it is about the insurgency aspect of the human spirit. Resiliency, I see as running in a circle addicted to survival, which is its basis. You’re not surging forward.”
Life has two main arteries for Walter in ‘Tightrope Time’ – ‘Maybe you will Boulevard, maybe you won’t Avenue, and they intersect at Carnival Crossroads. It divides your path into four directions: Lamentation Lane, Capitulation Alley, Resiliency Road and Insurgency Highway.
What’s next for Walter once ‘Tightrope’ has finished?
He is finishing off the second book NIMBUS will publish. It’s a book of poetry that includes the poetry that had to be excised from ‘Tightrope Time’. The third thing NIMBUS has contracted him to do is to write his memoirs for 2025. Regarding work, when ‘Tightrope’ concludes at Tarragon, it will travel to Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. He has a month off and then goes into rehearsal for ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’ at Neptune first and then brought to the Mirvish season.
‘The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time’ by Walter Borden runs until October 15 at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. For tickets and other information, please visit tarragontheatre.com.