“Walter is someone you will like. He doesn’t want your pity. He wants you to understand how it feels to be him”

“Walter is someone you will like. He doesn’t want your pity. He wants you to understand how it feels to be him,” director Ron Weihs says. “He is a warm, sympathetic human being. This is really the point of the production: he’s your brother, your son, your friend.”
Local arts lovers know Weihs, along with Judith Sandiford, as the dynamic duo behind James St. North’s recently shuttered Artword Artbar. In November 2019, Weihs and Sandiford promised their artistic endeavours would continue in the community despite the venue’s closure. Just a few months later, they have a new theatrical production about to open under their Artword Theatre banner: Walter. The show is one of a series of planned collaborations with co-producers Gallery on the Bay. It opens March 4th at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church.
I asked Ron, “What made Walter the right inaugural ‘post–Artbar’ project for Artword Theatre?”
“Artword has always been committed to doing work that is meaningful, original, and has something to say about the world we live in,” he said, making the connection to the ‘powerful script’ by Dr. David Laing Dawson, a noted psychiatrist with decades of experience. “This play is based on what he has heard from [clients] about what it is like to live with schizophrenia,” Ron explains. “The play is entirely non–judgmental. It doesn’t preach and it doesn’t prescribe. It just shows what schizophrenia feels like from the inside.”

It features Hamilton actor and returning Artword collaborator Sean Emberley in the title role. “When I approached Sean about playing the role,” Weihs relates, “he said that he was looking for a play that mattered.” Weihs wanted Emberley for the project because “he’s very versatile, and he performs with great honesty and clarity.”
It’s been some time since Emberley’s last show, Eli and Pearl at the 2018 Hamilton Fringe Festival. “The reason I stepped away was classic and unsurprising: I burned myself out,” he says. “I had been doing shows almost nonstop with seldom a week or two between them, and more often overlapping each other, for more than a decade.”
Many people will relate to one motive behind his prolific output: “I was using my work on stage to fill a void in my being, and it just wasn’t doing the job anymore.” Luckily for Hamilton theatregoers, Sean Emberley has gotten his mojo back, and Weihs says audiences will be amazed by the performance Sean has created through ‘tireless’ immersion into his character. Emberley puts it simply: After a year and a half, he missed doing theatre, had always wanted to do a one hander and, well, Ron Weihs asked. He brought up the project the night Emberley performed in a closing celebration for the Artbar. Soon afterwards, they met with Dawson (who also wrote MacBush, another of Emberley’s Artword shows).
“Walter fit like a glove. Maybe too well, to be honest,” Emberley muses. “He’s a really wonderful guy who has had some challenging times in his life and it has been a true pleasure getting to know him. It’s raw, real deal kind of stuff. It’s the sour and the sweet.”
He goes on to explain what it is that makes Walter ‘matter’: “It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t had a brush with mental illness either personally or through family and friends. I live in the downtown area of our fine city so I have had plenty of opportunities to witness good people with not–so–good symptoms on a daily basis. I spent a couple of seasons busking with a guitar at King and MacNab and I got to know a few folks who I think have had Walter–esque lives... it’s a really interesting layer of intensity to plaster onto my own built in peculiarities.”
Meanwhile, many will know Weihs’ passion for what he calls ‘my ongoing experiments in using multimedia in theatre,’ and these elements will be present as well. He invited musician Dave Gould, the man behind the sound for Artword’s Whoever You Are, to create “a soundscape using ambient street sound and music.” Gould, “pushed his own envelope, using four separate speakers for surround sound. We are also using projected imagery to create visual montages.”
For Sean Emberley, his focus is on crafting a performance within Walter rooted in compassion and realism. “The fact that this play was written by a psychiatrist with a boatload of experience, and that he was involved in production, has made that easier,” he says. “I don’t want anything trivialized. I’ve asked him questions and gotten solid answers, and used them to the best of my ability.”
“I think it will resonate [with audiences] because it’s genuine,” he explains. “Walter is a fascinating guy with wants and needs and loves and troubles like anybody else, but who also has a set of experiences that few have shared. It’s got that universal appeal of a person sharing slices of their life. It’s true and thoughtful and a bit dark with sprinkles of humour where appropriate.” V

March 4-7 and 11-14 at 7:30 PM, $20
March 7 & 14 at 2:30 PM (matinees), relaxed/PWYC
Artword Theatre
St. Paul's Presbyterian Church
70 James St. South
Wheelchair accessible at the
rear into St. Andrew's Hall
Tickets at the door
or contact (905) 543-8512 or for reservations

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