Director's cut

As a promising young theater director hoping to work in New York, Ted Walch '63 didn't exactly embrace teaching as a career. It wasn't sexy or glamorous, and he did it simply to pay the bills. But over time, his views changed.

"Flying around in a Lear jet with Paul Newman is exciting and fun, but it was ultimately not completely fulfilling," Walch says. "It only dawned on me after years and years that what I really loved to do was teach."

Today, Walch heads the performing-arts department at the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School, a Los Angeles private high school where he has taught for the past twelve years. Walch estimates he has helped guide more than one hundred of his students in the direction of Gambier. "I end up recommending Kenyon to a lot of theater-oriented kids here who are also gifted academically," he says. "For certain students, I know Kenyon is the perfect place."

And the pipeline flows both ways. Two recent Kenyon graduates who attended Harvard-Westlake-Adam Howard '97 and Dan Fishbach '98-have recently joined the Harvard-Westlake faculty.

The fact that Walch teaches high school doesn't mean he no longer schmoozes with the stars. He recently shared a limousine with former Harvard-Westlake student Jake Gyllenhaal to the premier of Moonlight Mile, the young actor's new movie. Once there, Walch chatted with Gyllenhaal's co-star Dustin Hoffman. Jake's sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal, another Walch protege, was recently featured in the New York Times for her starring role as a masochistic administrative assistant in The Secretary.

Walch is continuously astonished by the student actors he directs. "I love teaching high school students in part because they're so deliciously unformed," he says with a laugh. "As teenagers, they just think they can do anything. They haven't yet learned what they can't do."

Walch makes it clear his own education began with drama professor James E. Michael. He taught from 1947 through 1978, and Walch calls him "the grand man of theater at Kenyon." After Walch played the lead in Chekhov's The Seagull his freshman year, Michael announced that the youngster could have a career in the theater but not as an actor. "He thought I was a director," Walch says. "And, of course, he was right."

Michael encouraged Walch to study every aspect of the theater. While a student, Walch did everything from direct to design costumes. Then, Michael called on Walch to direct Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending. "I was the only student ever to direct a main-stage play," Walch says. "It was quite an honor, and the confidence he showed in me changed my life."

In memory of his mentor, who died in 1997, Walch helped create the College's James E. Michael Playwright-in-Residence position currently occupied by Wendy MacLeod, an associate professor of drama.

It wasn't the first time Walch helped create an institution at Kenyon. Following graduate work at the Yale Drama School and Catholic University, and a teaching stint at the St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., Walch returned to Gambier in 1979 to help found the Kenyon Festival Theater. It was a bold attempt to make Gambier a new venue for summer-stock theater. "I was young and crazy and my friends who worked with me were young and crazy," he remembers. It also put Walch on the aforementioned Lear jet with Paul Newman '49.

For five summers, the festival drew audiences locally and from Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati to see actors as well known as Newman and Joanne Woodward. More importantly, the effort provided professional experience for new talent. Allison Janney '82 got one of her first professional experiences with the Kenyon Festival Theater. Jane Curtin, who would become famous with the Not Ready For Prime Time Players of NBC's Saturday Night Live, also performed at the festival. (Walch recently taught Curtin's daughter at Harvard-Westlake.)

Ultimately, money problems and artistic differences wearied Walch and sunk the enterprise. "We had our successes, and mistakes were made by all of us," he says. "I think if we could have made it for another two or three years we might have turned it around and made a go of it."

Walch's deep connection to Kenyon began as a family tragedy. His oldest brother, Stanley, graduated from the College in 1956. And the middle Walch brother, Chuck, would have become a Kenyon graduate a year later. But in May of 1956, Chuck was killed in a light-plane crash just outside Gambier. He had an instructor's license and was teaching a friend how to fly. With his student at the controls, Chuck's plane crashed in a cornfield.

"I had never had any plans to attend Kenyon, but with my brother's death everything changed," Walch says. "I don't even remember applying. It was just assumed I would go to Kenyon, too."

Today, Walch still relies on the memory of Kenyon and his mentor, Jim Michael, as touchstones. "Gambier has remained a consistent thread," he says.

-Phil Brooks

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