Alumnus Spotlight: Walter Bilderback, '83
"I remember early in my Fundamentals of Drama class being told that drama is a literary genre that is only truly expressed in performance." That succinctly summarizes the approach the RC takes to teaching drama; our courses are equal parts literary critique and the hands-on experience of performing and producing theater. And this approach got Walter really excited when he came to the RC in 1972. "The greatest benefit I got, personally, was the constant sense that thoughtful, challenging theater could be entertaining and was worth trying to create and champion, and that ideas in theater more most powerfully expressed through sensuous and visceral means." He cites the vision of Peter Ferran - whom he describes as an "irascible, brilliant SOB" - and Martin Walsh as laying the groundwork of his thinking about theater. Martin became his mentor and gave him his first opportunities to teach. Walter also recalls that participating in the Brecht Company afforded him his first opportunity to play dramaturg. "But the nature of RC experience also meant that other faculty, such as Charlie Bright, Marilyn Young and Tom Weisskopf had a strong indirect influence on me as well, through conversations with friends about what they were studying."
After graduating from the RC in 1983, Walter started his own national tour of cities, theater companies, playwrights, and plays that people who don't travel for work may find dizzying - Walter uses the word "peripatetic" to describe his career over the past 35 years. He started with Ibsen in Pittsburgh, went on to his MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale, then went to La Jolla in San Diego with Lee Blessing's play A Walk in the Woods that was directed by Des McAnuff. It was McAnuff who took Walter to Broadway with Walk, making him the first budgeted dramaturg on a Broadway play. "'Dramaturgs' were such unusual creatures" back then, he says. He was also the first Dramaturgy Fellow at Baltimore's Center Stage. His next major collaboration came with Kenny Leon at The Alliance Theater, where Leon had just assumed leadership. The Alliance became known for bold programming including A Christmas Carol with an interracial Fezziwig couple and the box office record run of the first post-Broadway production of Millennium Approaches. He worked in Dallas, then George College & State University in Flannery O'Connor's hometown of Milledgeville, GA, then back to Atlanta for a stint before landing a job at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia where he has been based since 2004.
"At Wilma I have worked closely with founding Artistic Director Blanka Zizka in selecting the company repertoire for the past 14 years and helping her re-define the theater's mission in the past 7. This has included involvement with the creation of the HotHouse company, a resident core of actors who share a training discipline. This is very rare in the US, particularly for theaters that regularly produce subscription seasons. Accounts of the journey to the creation of HotHouse can be found in the January 2016 issue of American Theatre, a January 2018 article in the New York Times, and an article I wrote for the Fall 2015 issue of the Journal of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers."
Of the productions that he's particularly proud of, Walter mentioned the Wilma production of Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched, Hungarian director-choreographer Csaba Horvath’s Blood Wedding, co-creating and co-directing Proliferation of the Imagination, a dance-theater version of Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias - a play he saw on the RC stage his freshman year. He created a revision of Hamlet for the first professional production with a Black female star, Zainab Jah, and worked with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel in creating Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq, which involved many interviews with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Wilma has a long-standing relationship with Tom Stoppard, and in 2016 produced the US-premiere of Stoppard's most recent play, The Hard Problem. Walter arranged a public conversation between Stoppard and neurophilosopher David Chalmers, who coined the term “the hard problem”, and the event was moderated by fellow RC alum Elisabeth Camp.
Walter says to current RC students: "Take as much advantage as possible of the range of opportunities and experiences the RC and EQ offer. Remember that most important thing a liberal arts education offers is training in how to think, more than any particular specialized knowledge. And treasure the relationships you'll develop with fellow students and teachers." Walter certainly took advantage of many offerings in the RC. When asked about a particularly fun or odd experience he had in the RC, he replied, "A definite highlight came when I performed the role of MC for the Brecht end of term show in 1975. I performed as a kind of glam rock Joel Grey in face paint and platform boots with 4" heels, "singing" Brecht songs to original music composed by Stuart Hecht, smoking a huge cigar, and drinking mu tea (a 70s favorite best forgotten now) out of a Jack Daniels bottle, which convinced at least one person that I was totally wasted through the performance." Ha!
Congratulations, Walter, on all your accomplishments, and here's to many more. We are proud to call you an RC graduate!
RC students are encouraged to see Robby Griswold in Greene 1812 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org to get Walter's contact information.
Photos provided by Walter Bilderback.
Top photo: Tom Stoppard and Walter Bilderback.
Bottom photo: fellow dramaturgs and RC alums Scott Cummings, Alisa Solomon, and Walter Bilderback at the Maria Irene Fornes Marathon, Public Theater, NYC, August 2018