Staffer-scholar takes literary path to stage
In more than one sense, Michael Walker is a Renaissance man. As a scholar
he specializes in late 16th- and early 17th-century drama. But as an actor,
director, rock musician, photographer, filmmaker, and occasional restorer
of antique bicycles, this BU employee also fits the popular definition
of a Renaissance person: one who takes varied and adventurous paths to
increase his understanding of the world.
To Walker (GRS'95), assistant to the director of Purchasing Services,
theater is a significant part of that quest for comprehension. He is currently
directing Christopher Marlowe's rarely staged play Doctor Faustus at the
Boston Center for the Arts, a project that combines his expertise in English
literature and in theater.
"My background as an academic is intrinsically tied to my work in
performance," he says. "That was a big reason for my going to
graduate school. I wanted to get a solid background in textual analysis
that would help me as an actor."
Walker began acting professionally 13 years ago, while attending the University
of North Carolina in Charlotte, but he has had scant formal training apart
from voice and diction lessons. His directing experience began in the
mid-1990s, when he was working for Willing Suspension Productions, a company
of GRS English students interested in reviving obscure but historically
important Renaissance dramas. He also joined the Bridge Theatre Company,
which is now producing Doctor Faustus.
The company saw Walker as a natural choice to direct the current production
because of his familiarity with Marlowe. The play is just one version
of a tale that has been told in many cultures: the respected German scholar
Faustus, believing that he has exhausted the traditional academic fields,
makes a pact with the devil to acquire boundless knowledge and magical
powers. He winds up wasting his talents, playing tricks on noblemen as
he travels through Europe. Ultimately, pride keeps Faustus from repenting
until it is too late, and he is condemned to hell.
"Even if the story of Faustus is not something the majority of people
have encountered," Walker says, "the notion of selling one's
soul to the devil for knowledge is well worn. It's illicit knowledge,
so it's tied in all sorts of ways to the long tradition of divine prohibition
against knowing things that should be relegated only to the divine. That's
what Faustus' chief transgression is; he wants to achieve godly power.
He gets that by abjuring God, strangely enough, but as a morality play
this doesn't work quite like those morality plays written before Marlowe's.
It's much more ambivalent about the punishment, and about the way the
protagonist uses his knowledge once he has it - a way that is rather cheap
The play was experimental for its time, composed as a series of disjointed
episodes. Frequently, when Faustus wrestles with his conscience, angels
and demons appear with him onstage - similar, Walker observes, to the
figures that pop up over the shoulders of animated cartoon characters
as they contemplate mischief. In much the same way, he says, expressionist
plays and horror films of the early 20th century used symbolic lighting
and allegorical characters to project the internal drama of the psyche.
As Walker sees it, Doctor Faustus is not a judgment or cautionary tale,
but simply a comment on the sudden social and cultural freedom that characterized
the Renaissance. On the other hand, he says, it is possible to draw analogies
to contemporary issues, such as cloning and artificial intelligence, where
humans have the power to tinker with nature in profound ways.
"I think the danger inherent in depth of understanding is part of
what we see in this story," Walker says. "And that certainly
applies now as it did in just about any other time."
Walker is a seeker of knowledge, too, but unlike Faustus, he apparently
has no demons whispering in his ear. He spent five years in the GRS doctoral
program, but the combined schedule as adjunct lecturer and scholar left
little time for theatrical pursuits. In June 2001 he went on temporary
leave from the graduate program and accepted a full-time position in the
Office of Purchasing Services, giving him, among other benefits, a more
predictable routine. He's interested in Web design, so he built a Web
site for the office, and he has also helped write and edit its publications.
Soon the department will roll out a new purchasing-card program that he
has helped to
"Surprisingly," he says, "my past directorial experience
has prepared me quite well for the job, because it involves managing lots
of details and allocating responsibility."
Walker hopes one day to finish his degree. For now theater takes up most
of his spare time, although he has many other callings, including the
visual arts, and also admits to being a bicycle fanatic; he has collected,
built, and raced bikes.
"I like to learn new things," he says, "but I also don't
tend to leave them behind once I start to learn them. It's a blessing
and a curse. After some time you start to hanker after a more momentous
accomplishment in one area, and you have to reconcile yourself to the
fact that this can take a while."
Doctor Faustus, starring Todd Hearon (GRS'02) and directed by Michael
Walker (GRS'95), opened August 23 and continues through September 6 at
the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St. in Boston's South End.
Reserve tickets by calling the BCA box office at 617-426-2787.