Feature: Local Playwright Puts a Creative Spin on Walden

Andrew Gall talks writing in secret, the current state of theatre, and reframing Thoreau’s masterpiece for the post-MAGA era

By: Jun. 02, 2021
Feature: Local Playwright Puts a Creative Spin on Walden
Doug Blackburn in "Walled In," Photo by Bill Sigafoos

Andrew Gall has always been a writer - and a multitalented actor, director, playwright and designer for 30-plus years. But in his new home of Richmond, Virginia, the formerly North Carolina-based theatre veteran's newest project is a return to source material he couldn't fully appreciate until this point in his career - and he shines it through a societal and political prism that's never been more relevant as it is today.

"I was a real late-bloomer," Gall says of the years it took him to embrace his love of writing. He wrote his first play, an adaptation of Robin Hood, in fifth grade. But then he entered a long period of denial where he was secretly writing poems and song lyrics - most of them terrible, by his own assessment.

He would write things and then hide them. Start projects and talk himself out of them. It took Gall a long time to trust in his ability and to believe that his work should find a stage.

The pressure for writers can be different than for actors and directors, especially writing for the theatre. "It is heartbreaking, maddening and yet oddly compelling," he says.

However, when Gall has something to say, directing and acting - which are more about interpretation - don't really scratch the itch. And this has led him to focus on creating his own original works.

In most cases the ideas come from something external - something he read, something that someone has said, and then he gets curious about it. "Once I know how the play ends, I am ready to write. I have to give myself a deadline and stick to it. I write every day. Every. Day. Even if it is just gibberish in my journal," he says.

Gall didn't go to school for playwrighting, although he wishes he had, so he's learned instead from playwrights who trod the path long before him.

"I definitely owe a lot to Sam Shepard, August Wilson, Tom Stoppard and Paula Vogel from a playwriting standpoint. I learned so much by just reading what they have said about writing, and as a result those works have a special place in my heart. I love Shakespeare. Love. I am a closet poet and I like language and words. I also like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Caryl Churchill, there are so many. Too many."

His new play, Walled In, which Gall wrote and directs, is unique for several reasons. It is an adaptation, of sorts, of Henry David Thoreau's book Walden; Or, Life in the Woods. "It is not something that I would have come up with without some prodding from Joel Bassin at the Firehouse Theatre. It was basically a challenge to create a theatre piece for one actor using Walden as the source."

Feature: Local Playwright Puts a Creative Spin on Walden
Portrait of Andrew Gall by Jeremy Bustin Photography

And after decades of victories and hard knocks, Gall was prepared to return to Walden, which he hadn't picked up since his sophomore year of high school. However, there was a problem in adapting Thoreau's seminal piece of transcendentalist literature to a one-man show: It needed conflict. Walden is basically a series of essays about a very specific experience the 19th century naturalist, writer and philosopher had while living at Walden Pond.

"There is no conflict in Walden. None. It is an extremely unlikely source for a theatrical piece and aspects of the book get into really contemplative stuff," Gall says.

To get around this and give the audience a way in, Gall created a character, Lester, who is forced into an encounter with the book. The play is about Lester's experience and how he changes because of this encounter. The character is a fictional inmate, an arch-conservative political operative type along the lines of Roger Stone, Steve Bannon or Paul Manafort who, while in jail, is forced to read Walden for a class he is required to take.

"I might add that he is in class in order to avoid being assigned to manual labor that he feels is beneath him," Gall says.

While Walled In is about an inmate whose perspective is forced to shift, likewise Gall went through a transformative experience while writing the play. "When I started, I had a distant relationship to Thoreau and Walden itself," he says. "Re-reading Walden at this time in my life, after raising children, experiencing loss, divorce, adversity, personal failure, heartbreak - all the things that have happened since I was a teenager - I appreciated what the book had to offer. It is a fascinating, dense book. It sticks with you."

And Walled In demonstrates what happens when an unstoppable force like Walden meets an immovable object, like walled-in Lester. And it may never have been timelier for a project like Walled In to be performed.

Feature: Local Playwright Puts a Creative Spin on Walden
Doug Blackburn in "Walled In," Photo by Bill Sigafoos

"We are living in such a complicated and divisive time. People are cynical, toxic and desperate, and this is reflected back in our universal body politic. You may not like or agree with the politics of the character in Walled In - I don't, but I wanted him to feel authentic, so I had to really consider things from a point of view that were not my own."

To create the play, Gall had to step out of his comfort zone, and he learned a lot through the process, as there wasn't much foundation within his own life's experience for him to build the project.

"I am relieved to say that there is not any circumstantial autobiographical crossover in Walled In. I have been at rock bottom though, and I have had my life unravel into a chaotic mess. I have had to learn things the hard way at times, and I think those experiences, which are at the heart of this play, are things that are easily identifiable and universally human," he says.

To have the dual responsibility of writer and director requires a certain mental flexibility. "The director and the playwright share a bed and you should never go to bed angry, right?" Gall says.

Directing and writing are deeply integrated for him, creatively speaking. The two disciplines are a conjoined force. "I think of myself as a theatre-maker, and I am really there to serve the play, and each play I have worked on - and after 30-plus years, there are hundreds of them - has been different. I go into each process new and open to the possibilities," he says.

Just as it took decades of life experience for Gall to gain the perspective he needed to translate Walden into this new play, a project like Walled In isn't something Gall would have tackled when he was a less experienced writer.

"Earlier in my career, I was desperate for approval and recognition. I was directing to please others or make myself look commercially viable to others. That's not really authentic and, ultimately, I found this stifling," he says.

"Once I had my ego-death, I really started to get a little more courageous with my writing and my creative practice matured. Now, I am not so sure I really worry about what others think. I am fine with people not liking what I do. I create what I think is going to be meaningful and what I can authentically speak to. So far, when I have followed that intuition, I have been successful, and that work has found an audience," Gall adds.

While Gall is the writer and director of Walled In, the play is performed by actor Doug Blackburn.

"I think it is reasonable to write and direct, or occasionally direct and design," he says, but he never mixes acting with the other disciplines. "For me, when I'm acting, I like to just be an actor."

Gall began acting as a child, discovered design from a mentor, came out of college as a director and later became a playwright. The convergence of these talents and broad first-hand experience gives him a unique perspective, helping him to appreciate the struggles and challenges that his collaborators face - as well as value the creative contributions, sweat equity and input everyone brings to projects.

"I am deeply curious," Gall says. "And my curiosity to know, understand and experience new things drives whatever creative talents I might have."

He likes to think that curiosity leads him to interesting creative places. He learns from everyone he works with, and the sum of Gall's experiences is that he doesn't take himself too seriously.

However, it wasn't only curiosity that inspired him to move from North Carolina to Richmond, but the move was also for love.

He had been coming to Richmond for a while before actually moving there. "The food, the museums, the river, the whole vibe really spoke to me," he says.

More importantly, Gall fell in love with someone who was living in Richmond, and the rest is history.

"I am not in the least bit sorry, either," he says. "I associate Richmond with all of the dizziness and warm feelings that come from being in love."

For Gall, none of those feelings have faded, for his partner or for the city.

"I am in a wonderful relationship that is the source of tremendous personal inspiration, affirmation and love," he says. "I came here to live my best life and, so far, so good!"

Gall arrived in his new home just before the pandemic, when everyone was having to adapt to living with COVID-19 all around them. Thankfully, Gall and his family have been relatively unscathed by the coronavirus, but he knows lots of people who were sick and suffered terribly with the illness, including a friend in her 40s who may never fully recover and one acquaintance who died.

"It was a dark and frightening reminder of just how fragile we really all are. The pandemic offered some hard lessons about our society and left some big unanswered questions that have political, social and deeply personal implications. It's a lot to take in. I am still processing all of that," he says.

While much of the world has turned a corner in its fight against the virus, thanks to vaccines and public health campaigns, the question of how the effects of the pandemic on live theatre will endure into the future is impossible to answer.

Livestreamed theatre, where the entire theatre experience is assigned to a computer screen or smart device, has its challenges. "It's definitely not the same [as watching it in person]. Because we have no alternatives, it has been OK."

However, the fact that Walled In is livestreamed as well as live does not affect Gall's direction, and the fact that it is one actor and language-driven helps it translate to livestream well.

While Gall prefers to experience theatre live, he expects that application of technology to endure in some form even after theatres begin welcoming full houses again. "[A] positive is that I have seen things I would not have had the chance to see," he says.

In addition to inspiring technological workarounds, Gall says the pandemic has emphasized issues regarding work in the industry and systemic inequities within theatre that were already approaching critical mass.

"The 'pandemic pause,' as I have heard it referred to, has allowed for an opportunity to reset and rebuild from a values-centered place," Gall says.

"I am really tired of seeing good people driven out of the theatre community for dumb reasons," he adds. "The theatre industry/community is simultaneously capable of wonderful inclusivity and openness and harsh cruelty. We need more of the former and absolutely no more of the latter."

While there have been challenges bringing Walled In to life during a pandemic, Gall says Firehouse Theatre has done an incredible job of navigating the pandemic. "We are able to work safely. Audiences are able to gather safely. Everyone working on the show follows the process and it has been smooth."

On top of that, Gall says the Firehouse has made sure the artists feel creatively supported. "If I sound effusive in my gratitude and praise, it is because I am," he says. "I know that Joel, Todd, Tad, Emily, Grace and everyone else there has put a lot of hard, unseen, thankless work in so that we can come in and create work, and people can see live theatre safely."

For those who see Walled In, whether live or over livestream, Gall hopes the play sparks something: "Curiosity to learn more about themselves, about people who see things differently, and maybe some people will read Walden."

Walled In opens June 3 and runs through Saturday, June 26. Get tickets for the live performances or livestream for $33.

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