Empty Nesters Interview

(Interview conducted 4/30/15 by Dennis Chowenhill)

Pamela and John Walker star in the current production of Garret Jon Groenveld’s Empty Nesters running May 18- June 14 at Thick House, in San Francisco.  The interview below indicates just how ideal that casting is.  Pamela and John are married, and are “empty nesters.” And they have had professional lives in theatre and film their entire adult lives.

John in recent years has been active primarily in film.  He was Associate Producer of The Iron Giant (Warner Bros.); Producer for The Incredibles (Pixar), for which both he and Pamela provided voices; and is currently working as Executive Producer of Disney’s Tomorrowland (starring George Clooney), which will be released May 22.  Pamela is currently developing for production a screenplay she has written and is directing an independent feature comedy/drama.  She is also working on a journal project.

So, they’re busy.  But also having a lot of fun rehearsing Empty Nesters, for which they could apparently have written extra scenes had they been necessary.


DC:  You both have deep backgrounds as theatre artists.

PW:  Yes!  We went to the University of Notre Dame together.  I majored in theatre there, and we did a lot of shows together.  Then I went to Circle in the Square on Broadway in New York for post graduate training—acting, singing and dancing all day, glorious.  I studied with renowned teachers Larry Moss, and director Michael Kahn, and many others.  And then we joined a company in Door County, Wisconsin, Peninsula Players, which was how I got into the Union, my Actors’ Equity debut.  That theatre is still going strong after 85 years.  It’s a gorgeous place to work, in the woods in northern Wisconsin.  John and I did about twenty-five shows together there before he started managing the theatre.  We started the Fall Season there too.  He proposed to me on stage during the curtain call in front of 600 paying customers, and our oldest daughter spent her first three summers there.  That was a very important time and place to us.  I really believe in companies.  We were challenged by many roles we might not play elsewhere.  We earned some “chops,” as they say.

We eventually moved full time to Chicago, and I worked a lot there, while we also raised our two daughters. I received some awards along the way—Actress of the Year in ’96 and a Jefferson Award nomination, Chicago’s Tony Award, along with Tony winners Lois Smith and Linda Emond.

Then an agent from Los Angeles saw me in a play at Victory Gardens Theatre and said he’d represent me in LA!  So I went to California for about seven months, commuting back and forth to Chicago.  I did my first movie with Randy Quaid, another one with Peter Fonda, some TV work, and started acting and directing in LA theatre as well.

Raising the kids well was the most important thing to us, of course.  We commuted; I went back to Chicago and taught at Victory Gardens, and continued to work in LA, then we moved the whole family out there.  We’ve been married for thirty-three years.  My work in the theatre has always co-mingled with John’s—on purpose.  He got a break in the film business and took twenty years off of theatre but we’ve talked about working on stage together again many, many times.

While in LA, we commuted up to the Bay area for three years.  I’ve been able to do some great plays here—for instance, at Playground, The Magic, Aurora, and TheatreWorks.  I’ve been writing and directing film as well.  I made the film Trifles while teaching acting at Pixar, using an all Pixar cast and crew, which began my foray into screenwriting, and doing other film work in earnest.  But I’ll work in theatre forever.   It’s an actor’s medium and is the most satisfying.

This is an auspicious moment, for us to be working in a play together again.

JW:   Our stories are practically the same.  I’ve always loved the theatre and found it while pretty young, in school when I was around twelve or thirteen.  I started as an actor, but I also worked on the sets and did all the things one does.  When I went to college I did some, but I never actually studied drama there.  I got a degree in English—I felt that if I was in college I should learn how to do something, and I couldn’t write very well, but I figured if I studied English I’d at least learn how to write a decent letter [laughs].   The best thing that happened to me at Notre Dame is that I met Pam.

After college, I thought, “Well, what am I going to do?” and I applied to law school and was accepted, and at the same time I applied to acting schools and got into a bunch of those.  Eventually I decided that I didn’t really want to be an attorney, so why go to law school—I’ll go to acting school instead.   I went to ACT out here in San Francisco, during the Bill Ball era and spent a couple years here and loved it.  At that time I had never seen the inside of a professional theatre—I had never met anyone who had made a living as an artist of any kind.  It seemed like a lark when I did it and it just didn’t seem real.  Even in college, even in my twenties, I had never really known anyone personally that made a living as an artist, of any kind.  But I got out here and saw that company, which at that time was just remarkable.  ACT was running in true rep, so they had three different shows each week, and a 220 member company.  They had a forty-five member acting company that was on fifty-two weeks a year.  They also ran their school, and I was part of that school, and the teachers in the school were the actors and the directors in the company.  It was just eye-opening.  We’d see the actors during the day as teachers, then at night they’d be performing, and the students were spear carriers and supernumeraries, and you’d watch your teachers acting.  The next day in class, you’d say, “I saw what you did .  .  ..”  There was that feedback loop between teacher and student that was really interesting  .  .  .  and that was Bill Ball’s thing, that a conservatory is designed to conserve talent.  I had never seen the inside of a theatre company before, so I thought, well, they’re all like this [laughs] .  .  .  and when I left I never saw it again!  That ten-to-fifteen year period of ACT was magical.

And my dream at that point was that I wanted to be an actor-manager.  I wanted my own company—to run it, to be the producer of it—but I also wanted to be an actor.  I wanted to be John Wilkes Booth without the assassination.  So that’s what I worked on.  I bugged the producer at ACT at that time, Jim McKenzie, because I wanted to learn his job.  I kept hassling him about working for him and he let me do things like filing for him.  At one time he taught a producing class for middle managers, and I really wanted to take that class, but he said, “You’re an acting student:  you can’t take that class, you don’t know anything about it.”  Finally he said, “Look, I’ve never taught a class before, and if you took the class, you could be the lowest common denominator, and you could come up after class and tell me what you didn’t understand.”  I remember one discussion of his when he was talking about budgeting and kept talking about the “bottom line,” and I went up to him after class and said, “Yeah, I think I got everything, but what is this ‘bottom line’ thing?”  He said, “Man, you really are the lowest common denominator!”   So he became a great friend and my mentor and got me my first job and we worked together at his company in Wisconsin, the place where Pam and I did so many shows together.

While I was at ACT, Pam was in NY at Circle in the Square and she would come out and visit .  .  .

PW:   We were working out our relationship then, how it would fit into this lifestyle.  He mentioned Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir so I read a book about them and realized they never married but were together for fifty years or something.  Hmmm.  To counter, I presented him with a book about Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

JW:   That’s right.  We’d try to figure out what we were going to do when we both got out of acting school.  We worked up an audition in sign language for the leads in Children of a Lesser God and won the parts.  We wound up going to this company in Door County for many years where we got to do lots of great roles.  Then we went to Chicago and Pam worked as an actor.  I stopped acting and managed theatres and produced.

PW:  We produced a few of the shows we starred in together, too, which was great.  We’d gone to college with Theresa Rebeck, and we did a number of her plays.  We arrived in Chicago as Equity actors, and so we started producing by default, because there are many non-union theatres there where you can do your work and get into the community that way, but we couldn’t do that as Union members.   Peninsula Players had been a great place for us for over half the year.  John began producing professionally in Chicago, but we still did plays together on and off, which was very special.  We were managing a family and making our living in the theatre!

JW:  When Pam got the offer from an agent to go to LA, things sort of switched for us, as we uprooted our family and moved and started over.   At the time, it was a really scary thing to do and I was not a big fan of it, but Pam was a champion, very adamant about it and it turned out to be a good move for us.

PW:  My accepting offers for work also revolved around trying to keep the family together.  Having a family and being in the theatre each required 120 percent.  I didn’t want to skimp on either, so I had to be very choosy.  I could have left town to do Regional Theatre, I could have gone to NY, which I wanted to do—we couldn’t figure out how we were going to manage that one.  Actually, we were able to produce a successful Chicago show off-Broadway in NY together, a play by eventual Academy Award nominated writer John Logan, and starring eventual Tony Award winner Denis O’Hare.

It’s been an amazing ride in both theatre and film.  It’s turned out better than our wildest dreams.  Right now we’re very happy to be doing another show together.

JW:  We haven’t acted together for almost twenty years.

DC:   The two of you can appreciate Empty Nesters purely on its artistic merits, without needing to identify personally, just as you can appreciate Taming of the Shrew without your own courtship being anything like Kate and Petruchio’s.  That said, you are empty nesters, and Groenveld’s play presents issues faced by empty nesters who are reviewing not only their future plans, but their relationship.  Are there specific things in this play that are speaking to you?

PW:   Absolutely!  I was just taking my hour walk with the dogs, and running some lines, and the play has this section about the husband’s obsession with sports, which is a really funny beat that a lot of people can relate to.   And all the while that I’m processing the lines, I know it’s not exactly our story, but as an actor I have to find how it relates to me personally so that I can play it, and then translate it, so the audience can find that universality.  Well, sports is not an issue with us, but in our own lives, all of a sudden we were thrown into this amazing experience in film, where everyone is as passionate as in theatre—obsessed.  But for women, and women of a certain age, it’s not exactly friendly and welcoming.  So I could relate what happened to me with his job in film, feeling a bit left out and tired of hearing about it from the men, to the sports issue in the marriage in this play. How do we get the marriage back on equal footing again?  Lots of specifics to mine as an actor.  We’re in a long, committed marriage, and we ask ourselves, what choices will we make for the rest of our lives?  What gets sacrificed for our greater good, over ego, money, and fame, let’s say.  We’re heavily influenced by what our culture dictates as important and sometimes you have to push back.

DC:  They use the word “plan” in the play.

PW:  Ah, this piece has kind of dropped from heaven .  .  .  it’s amazing and wonderful.  Another thought – we have friends who have little kids—Jim Kleinmann, for instance – said no matter how old your kids are, you start freaking out when they’re born that they’re going to be gone in eighteen years.  So it’s not only about people whose kids have just left the house—it’s a life-long anxiety provoking concern, a universal theme.

JW:  Right, and this play—we’ve had almost every single one of these conversations, probably twenty times!

PW:  Well . . . not exactly!  Don’t get the wrong impression!  But there are many we can personalize.

JW:  No, but he [Groenveld] has a great ear.  I can’t imagine any married couple that hasn’t had very similar discussions.

PW:  Yes, there are differences between what men and women want.  Success in this endeavor, marriage, is about weathering storms, navigating core differences and being respectful of those differences.

DC:  And as the play demonstrates, in order to be respectful it is necessary just to notice.  In part of the play the husband is not even conscious of his wife’s concerns.  It’s not yet a matter of his being respectful of her deep concerns—first he has to know.  The two of you have not only been parents—you have both also been professionals at the same time.   As you just said, it’s 120 percent plus 120 percent.  So where’s the percent devoted to the task of “who are you?”

PW:  Right, when does life slow down enough that you can look each other in the eyes?  And my character in the play says: if you can just notice, if you take the time to look into my eyes and talk to me for at least two seconds.  Because we get caught in this whole roller coaster of what we’re supposed to be doing, and how much we’re supposed to be making, and what material stuff we should have.

JW:  So we’ve had such a kick working on this play.  Just learning the lines, we’re cracking each other up.  We’ll get to a point in a rehearsal and just start laughing .  .  .

PW:  .  .  . giggling .  .  . and crying . . .

JW:  .  .  .  giggling with each other, like kids, and the rest of them are just wondering, what the hell’s going on with you guys?  The material is so available to us on so many different levels that it’s effortless.  And the challenge, for me at least, is not to get too big a kick out of her because it won’t serve the piece!

PW:  You can’t enjoy it too much!  But if we have fun, the audience will have fun, and that’s going to come through for sure.  This play has come to us at a perfect time, while we have this moment to do it, to get back to our theatrical roots together.  What a blessing.

JW:  That’s right, and that has actually happened to us all through our lives.  I don’t really have this thought well-formed in my mind, but in our lives different pieces of the movies or the theatre or other artistic projects kind of came into our lives and helped us reflect on our own.  It seems like things kind of drop in for us at the right time.

PW:  Fate, higher power, whatever is going on .  .  ..  Maybe we’ve been tapping into the universe for what we want and need and then getting it back somehow.

DC:  Yes, though you might not be giving yourselves enough credit.  Since the classical era there has been the figure of Opportunity, with his forelock that must be grabbed when he appears.  As represented in literature, the only people who benefit from this are those who recognize Opportunity when he arrives, and who take the initiative—which often involves risk—to grab that forelock at that moment.  It seems that the two of you, when presented with opportunity, have had the communication among yourselves that is necessary for you to take advantage of many opportunities.

JW:  Pam is much more intuitive than I am.  She is not encumbered by structure; she’s much more willing to take a leap of faith than I am.  I think that’s an interesting and good dynamic.  She’s ready to leap, and I’m running around moving the net!

PW:  It’s like in the play.  We’ve always called this, between us, a “closed system.”  Like yin and yang.  When one of us was out here and the other pulled back .  .  .   they’re doing this in the play all the time, too, between the characters.  And the fact that we have art at the base of our lives—art has the potential to heal, you know.   And when you go off and you’re the boss for a really long time you have to exercise that side of you, you lose the little boy inside you, the artistic side that heals and brings you back to the earth and nature and things that are really very important.  Maybe it’s the feminine side?  I don’t know.  We’re both now at a time in our lives when we’re able to call up our feminine and masculine sides when we need it.  He understands me more, and I’ve gotten a little more macho because I’ve had to survive .  .  .  the film business is difficult, and I’m in it too.

DC:  So the arts are sort of a catalyst here for you?

PW:  Yes, and one can’t be passive.

DC:  Imagine that Groenveld said to you, “I need to expand this play, so I want you to suggest another scene that further develops what you understand this play to be about.”  What would you suggest?

PW:  That’s a great question.

JW:  In any relationship, each person has some personal passions that the other one is not so into.  I think it’s really interesting when one of the partners goes with the other one on the thing that the other person really likes, and feels all the while, “Oh, god .  .  .   ugh .  .  ..”  That to me is interesting.  Each of us has brow beaten the other into going to do something that just the initiator really likes and the other one can’t stand .  .  .  [PW laughs] .  .  . and the result is usually a disaster, because the person you drag along is not having any fun and that ruins your fun at the same time.  That might be interesting to add.   In the play the wife seems to like going to the sports events, at least somewhat .  .  .

PW:  .  .  .  yeah, but the more polarized they get, the funnier it is.

JW:  We’ve had many of those.

PW:  We have many examples of these things in our lives that we could write in one afternoon.

JW:  I drag her to the top of Squaw Valley and she drags me to .  .  .

PW:  .  .  .  O.K., yeah, a silent retreat.  He hasn’t done a silent retreat yet .  .  .

JW:  Exactly—I think there’s gold in those hills!

DC:  You bet.  In the play it is sort of assumed by the characters that each has some sort of “Plan” and a question is whether they are conscious of it or not.  The action of the play suggests that larger plans tend to be organic rather than formally stated, with the partners slipping into the roles they need for those plans.  As actors working season to season, and producers working project to project, many of your plans must be fairly structured.  But do you see yourselves in your personal lives as consciously working on the “Plan” in your marriage or do you just organically manage to follow each other?

PW:  We’ll probably have different answers on this.  From my perspective, I’d like to plan a little bit more for the long term.  Because otherwise, in the wake of some big opportunities we’re given, one of us might end up flailing around a bit, not able to make choices.  That betrays who we are.  To be true to myself, I need to say, “this takes a little bit more organizing.”  Part of it is hearing what fate is offering and having the ability to go with it wisely and, well, consider both sides in the journey.

JW:  I like to plan on the short term:  what are we doing tomorrow, tomorrow afternoon, this weekend?   And Pam likes to be very improvisational in the short term.  You know, “It’s 10:00, let’s

go do this!”

PW:  “I’m going to have a surprise party for you, tomorrow!  And thirty people will show up! .  .  .”

JW:  .  .  .  and “I’m going to call thirty people tonight!”

PW:  [laughing]  That’s just about it.  The big decisions I like to plan, though.

JW:  And with the big stuff, I have no freakin’ idea—the world is too complex.  I can’t think about six months from now.  And we sort of clash about that.  I’ve never planned my career much.  I kind of knew what I wanted to do, and I just, well, grabbed the forelock—“Oh, there’s one, let’s go do that!”  I knew I wanted to work in theatre and in the arts, but I wasn’t too particular about what part of it as long as I could be in it.   When I got an opportunity, for instance, to be a producer on an animated film at Warner Brothers I thought, well that’s out of left field.  I had two offers.  I could run the Geffen Playhouse in LA as a managing director, or go work on this animated film.   I went to talk with Gil Cates, who was running the Geffen at the time, and I told him thank you, but I also have this offer to make an animated film at Warner Brothers.  He looked at me like, “Well, if you want to make cartoons .  .  ..”  But I thought it sounded kind of interesting, and I’d never done anything like it.  I knew what the job was with him—I had done that work for twenty years—and the Geffen Playhouse was cool and I thought it would be great.  But I thought, maybe I should just do this crazy thing.

PW:  Can I just say . . . that’s very interesting.  The  foundation of our marriage was that we were a team and had a partnership with our work, our life, and as parents, the whole shebang.   Some of our big decisions had to be based also on money, because we needed it, and so we did that.   But I felt some of my opinions weren’t considered due to the stress and pressures of that time, JUST like in this play!   One of the central questions is what are we going to be when they grow up?  A turning point for me was hearing people refer to JW and his business partner as an “old married couple,” and my response was, no, no, no .  .  .  that’s not going to cut it with me.  We are an old married couple.  And this, the theatre, is our home.  We did the work thing, we raised our kids, now I’m going to be included in the big decisions and in the art.  It’s our time.  We live in this culture, where at times women are devalued and not heard. It could drive a person crazy!  That’s why I love this play, because it speaks to that.

DC:  Both of you are impressively articulate about these issues, from the play, from your experiences as a couple, and as empty nesters.  I’m thrilled that the two of you are performing this play.

JW:  Well, I feel as if I have to bring this game on that I haven’t done in a long time.  And she’s really good.

PW:  [laughs] If he would just listen to my wise ole’ ideas and directions.

JW:  Yeah, I’m not going to do that.  Well . . .