In August 1959, Ted Walch ’63 arrived in Gambier with dreams of becoming an actor. Walch, who drew inspiration from his hero, James Dean, was a charismatic 17-year-old from Missouri who was confident he possessed the requisite talent for a career in Hollywood, or on Broadway.

“I was pretty sure that I was a great actor,” he said, with a smile.

Right away, Walch immersed himself in Kenyon’s drama program, led at the time by professor and playwright James E. Michael — “the most important teacher in my life and a legend at Kenyon,” Walch recalled. He promptly landed the role of Treplev in Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” directed by Michael, whose earlier students had included “Ragtime” author E.L. Doctorow ’52 H’76 and film icon Paul Newman ’49 H’61. Everything seemed to be proceeding according to plan.

Walch’s dreams were dashed, however, after the final performance of the play, when “Jim Michael said, ‘Ted, you are definitely going to have a career in the theater … but not as an actor.’”

Walch was crushed, but all was not lost.

Michael was unimpressed by Walch’s acting ability, but he had a sense of his protégé’s intrinsic understanding of theater. The upshot: Under his teacher’s guidance, Walch embarked on a four-year-long intensive master class. “I designed sets, I did props, stage management … I even designed costumes,” said Walch as he served coffee in the living room of his Studio City apartment. Framed film posters cover his walls — including several of the François Truffaut film “The 400 Blows.” The 1959 classic is close to Walch’s heart. He makes an annual summer pilgrimage to Paris where he’s conducting research for a book he’s writing about the film and the French New Wave.

There are photos of Walch with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward — they worked together at the Kenyon Festival Theater in the early ’80s and became friends. He points out the pine dining room table that was once the meat display counter at the first grocery store in Gambier. “Eventually Jim (Michael) said to me, ‘what you really are is a director,’” Walch continued. And he became the first student at Kenyon to direct a main stage play: Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending.”

Graduating in 1963, he intended to pursue directing, but, to pay the rent, he instead found himself teaching high school students, and discovered that he possessed an uncanny ability to inspire young people. Since then, over the course of a career spanning half a century, Walch has had a formidable impact on thousands of students.

Walch has taught at the Harvard-Westlake School, in Los Angeles, for the past 27 years, where he holds the Ted Walch Chair for Performing Arts and Cinema Studies. Walch doesn’t measure his accomplishments by the success of his former students, but it’s interesting that many of his students, including acting siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, have gone on to stellar careers. Actors like Jason Segel (“Knocked Up,” “This is 40”), Beanie Feldstein (“Lady Bird”) and Ben Platt (Tony winner for the Broadway hit “Dear Evan Hansen”) regard the teacher as a mentor.

Because Walch teaches at one of Los Angeles’ most well-known private high schools, it’s inevitable that many of his students have been the offspring of famous actors, composers and filmmakers. Walch has taught the children of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Randy Newman and Alejandro González Iñárritu, to name a few, which has led to some memorable moments; for example, the time Jessica Capshaw (Steven Spielberg’s step-daughter) starred in a production of “Tea and Sympathy.”

Harvard-Westlake bans videotaping during live performances, and one evening during the play, “I’m standing at the back of the theater when I notice someone seated on the aisle, surreptitiously filming on his video camera. I walk down the aisle to stop him and see it is Steven Spielberg. I say to myself, ‘I cannot tell Steven Spielberg he can’t video’ … so I didn’t,” Walch said with a laugh. “Steven is a very nice guy, by the way,” he added. “He did some workshops for me with the kids.”

 

When we first meet, Walch, now 76, is presiding over his final directorial effort at Harvard-Westlake: a production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” According to Walch, it’s “the greatest American play; looking at life and death in a beautifully matter-of-fact way.” One Tuesday afternoon in late January, I sneak into the back of Harvard-Westlake’s Rugby Theater to watch a rehearsal. George (Jack Nordstrom) and Emily, played by Charlotte Weinman (the younger sister of Kenyon’s Ben Weinman ’21 and Noah Weinman ’16), are about to exchange vows. “You’re arriving at church for a wedding. You just happen to be carrying chairs,” says Walch, watching his cast perform the pivotal marriage scene.

Later, someone stumbles over a line and everyone, including the director, erupts into uncontrollable laughter. “Mr. Walch” empathizes with his students, tolerating and even enjoying their teenage exuberance (the jostling, texting and whispering during breaks), while also commanding respect.

Walch’s “Our Town” has all the hallmarks of a professional play. Former Harvard-Westlake and Kenyon students often return to work on his productions, and for his final production, he enlisted the help of several well-known Kenyon theater alumni. Acclaimed lighting designer Will Adashek ’05 signed on for the project, as did Jim Fenhagen ’76 P’17, a 21-time Emmy-winning production designer, who Walch taught at St. Albans School in Washington.

"He approaches shows the same way, regardless of the age of the actors or crew. Like the best directors in the world, he knows why he is doing the play when he starts rehearsal."

Will Adashek ’05, an acclaimed lighting designer

The idea for the “Our Town” collaboration was hatched in Gambier over dinner at the home of their mutual friend, former Kenyon admissions director, Liz Forman ’73. “Jim and Will were chatting in Liz’s kitchen about how wonderful it might be for the three of us to work together,” Walch said. “Knowing that I was going to do ‘Our Town,’ I impulsively suggested that as a possibility. There was no cajoling, no bribing. It happened naturally.”

Working with Walch on the play, Adashek’s admiration of his longtime mentor grew deeper. “He approaches shows the same way, regardless of the age of the actors or crew. Like the best directors in the world, he knows why he is doing the play when he starts rehearsal,” he said. “He has prepared extensively and he is able to communicate his vision, while still leaving room for contributions. This creates an atmosphere of confidence and trust for everyone.”

Playwright Natalie Margolin ’14, a former student of Walch’s, also joined Walch’s team as an acting coach for cast members. “Natalie is one of the best actors I have ever worked with,” Walch said. “She is also a strong writer and a deeply good person. That shows, even in her coaching.”

Something about the alchemy Walch creates in his productions lies in his engaging warmth. Born and raised in Sedalia, Missouri, “but I say ‘Missoura’,” he was the youngest of four boys. His mother, Martha Inge Walch, died of cancer when he was 4 years old. “She knew for a long period of time that she would die and she wrote us all letters,” he said. “I still have several, which I treasure.”

His father Harry (“we called him ‘Boss’”) was a traveling salesman. “We had a lot of freedom. Boss was a devoted single father; he raised the four of us. Being the youngest, I was spoiled rotten and a bit of a handful,” Walch said with a smile.

Attending public high school, Walch excelled at debate, but film was his passion. “Nothing made me happier than a double feature on Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Theater,” he said.

The Kenyon-Walch connection was ignited when Walch’s eldest brother, Stan (’56 P’88), attended Kenyon after being offered a “full ride.” Then, Walch’s second eldest brother, Chuck (’57), enrolled at Kenyon in 1954. But in what Walch described as the “central event” in his life, Chuck, a licensed pilot, died tragically on May 3, 1956, while teaching his fraternity brother, Perry Gilpatrick, to fly. “They took off from what was then the Kenyon airfield and were only 500 feet up when the engine died. … The plane went down in a cornfield. It was horrible,” said Walch, who was extremely close to his artistic brother, “a musician and a very good one. Chuck died three weeks before Stan graduated. Two weeks later, Gordon Keith Chalmers, the president of Kenyon, died,” he added. “That month was one of the worst in Kenyon’s history.”

Tony Walch, the next brother in line, understandably didn’t apply to Kenyon. Ted Walch didn’t initially consider Kenyon, either, but ended up on the Hill after receiving a surprise phone call from the director of admissions, who persuaded him to apply. “Kenyon has always been a constant in my life,” he explained, “partly because my brother died there. I loved him dearly, and he loved Kenyon.”

After Kenyon, he earned a master’s in fine arts (with a minor in non-Shakespearean Elizabethan theater) from the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. Contemporaries included Susan Sarandon, her first husband, Chris Sarandon, and the playwright Michael Cristofer, who became a good friend.

He accepted an offer to teach high-school English at the prestigious St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., “because there were no Broadway producers phoning me,” he said. Just before he was due to start work at the school, he was offered a “dream job” out of the blue at the Cleveland Play House, working with the director K. Elmo Lowe. Walch promptly informed the St. Albans headmaster, Canon Charles Martin, that he wouldn’t be joining his staff after all, and Martin responded: “In a week’s time there will be a group of boys in class … and there will be no teacher.” There was also an unveiled threat: “I have powerful friends on the board of the Cleveland Play House.”

Reluctantly, Walch stuck with the teaching job. “I think Canon Martin realized intuitively that what I really am is a teacher,” Walch said. “And this is the punchline: Two years later he told me that he knew no one on the board of the Play House.”

As it turned out, Walch spent a fulfilling 13 years teaching at the school. “What I love is seeing kids find their happiness,” he said. “But what I want most for them is that they move on and grow, way beyond anything I might have taught or given them. I have the best, happiest, most rewarding job on the planet.”

Walch later ran the theater program at The Branson School in Northern California. When Branson’s headmaster, Tom Hudnut, moved to Harvard-Westlake, Walch followed, joining his staff in 1991. But he never sacrificed his passion for directing — a passion that has been inextricably linked to Kenyon.


Back in the summer of ’66, Walch returned to Ohio and helped create the Gambier Summer Playhouse, a one-week theater program. A decade later there was another career turning point, when he was approached by Kenyon to oversee the opening of the Bolton Theater. It was an irresistible offer with an enticing bonus: Walch was told, “Your job will be to prepare the kids … and Paul Newman will direct the play.”

At that time, the star of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting” “was one of the most recognizable human beings on the planet,” Walch said.

For the Bolton project, Walch enlisted the help of Michael Cristofer, by then a Pulitzer Prize-winner, who contributed his new play, “C.C. Pyle and the Bunion Derby,” for the theater’s debut production.

Those were heady times for Walch. Working with Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, “was an absolute dream. Paul was the most generous, the kindest, gentlest of men. He was shy and private,” he said. But prior to the opening performance at the Bolton, in December 1978, “something God-awful happened,” Walch continued. “Paul’s son, Scott, from his first marriage, died of a drug overdose. Paul grieved privately, but he did not miss a beat. He stayed with the project.”

The opening of the Bolton was so successful that Walch left his job at St. Albans and established the Kenyon Festival Theater (KFT), the professional repertory company he ran for five years in Gambier. Jim Fenhagen worked for KFT, along with actors like Chris Cooper and Allison Janney ’82, an Oscar-winner this year for her role in “I, Tonya.”

The work was demanding and the lifestyle was exciting, “flying around in jets and riding around racetracks with Paul Newman for God’s sake,” he exclaimed, but it also marked one of the most challenging periods in his life.

“It was exhilarating, but underneath, it was hell, because I became hopelessly addicted to cocaine while I was running KFT,” he said. “I was feeding the monster of success with the drug — and I wasn’t happy. Somehow, deep inside, I knew I really should have been teaching.”

KFT closed its doors in 1984, “due to lack of financial and corporate support. … It was complicated and I take some of the responsibility,” said Walch, who checked into rehab a year later, at age 43, while he was teaching at the Branson School. “I had really been leading a double life, teaching well and with some success,” he said, but he knew he needed to get help.

After rehab, Walch attended Alcoholics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous meetings “almost every day for three years. Those meetings have proved to be money in the bank. Here I am, 33-plus years later, clean and sober and very happy,” he said. “Have there been rocky patches along the way? Of course there have. But I have tools to support students dealing with addiction because I’ve been through it myself.”

"The beauty of theater is its evanescence. It happens only when it happens."

Ted Walch '63"Act as though this is what you do for a living,” he instructs the cast at a dress rehearsal of “Our Town.”

With at least as much energy as his teenage cast, Walch leaps out of his seat and onto the stage to demonstrate exactly what he’s looking for from them. Switching focus, he races to the back of the theater for a consultation about the music. It’s the wedding scene again. Handel’s Largo starts to play. Walch turns toward the stage, circling his arms, “conducting” the cast and production team.

I return to Harvard-Westlake for the opening night of “Our Town” and watch as Walch addresses the students before they go onstage. “Play each performance as though it’s the first time you’ve said these words,” he says, and thanks his cast. “It’s been a privilege working with you,” he smiles. “Have a wonderful time.”

After the play, I watch as the teacher congratulates his cast and greets family members. There are hugs, handshakes and tears. Walch, however, remains philosophical.

“I don’t wallow in the kind of sentimental attachment to things which pass,” he shrugs. “The beauty of theater is its evanescence. It happens only when it happens. . . . I have classes to teach and people to hang out with and a life to live, so I’m not shedding any tears or having any pangs that get me nowhere. Will I miss directing? Of course I will. But I feel it’s important for new people to find their footing.”


Friends doubt that “Our Town” will in fact be Walch’s directorial swansong. Whatever the case, it is clear that he will not give up teaching at Harvard-Westlake any time soon. “I still wake up each morning eager to go to work; I have no desire whatsoever to retire,” Walch said.

When asked how he would like to be remembered, he reflected: “I think it’s important as we go through life to understand that we’re just here for a short period of time, and then, it’s all about the people who come after us. So I’d like to be remembered by being forgotten.”

Here’s my prediction: That isn’t going to happen.

Elaine Lipworth P’16,’21, of Los Angeles, writes for global publications including Marie Claire, Harpers Bazaar, YOU Magazine (The Mail On Sunday), The Guardian, The Observer, Psychologies and The Four Seasons Hotel Magazine. She hosts a podcast, “The Good Life,” through Thrive Global and does regular radio broadcasts.

“I don’t wallow in the kind of sentimental attachment to things which pass. The beauty of theater is its evanescence. It happens only when it happens. . . . I have classes to teach and people to hang out with and a life to live, so I’m not shedding any tears or having any pangs that get me nowhere. Will I miss directing? Of course I will. But I feel it’s important for new people to find their footing.”

The Ted Walch Effect

Allison Janney ’82, Oscar winner, Best Supporting Actress, “I, Tonya” 
“As a young adult, Ted Walch opened my eyes to the possibility of a life in the theater. His compassion and commitment to the theater was infectious and proved to be a defining moment in my life. Thank you, Ted!”

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Five-time Oscar-winning film director, producer and screenwriter, “Birdman,” “The Revenant” 
“I’ve had the privilege of knowing Ted Walch for years and I have witnessed the extraordinary impact he has on his students, including my son. Just like the humanists of the Renaissance, Ted is a great mentor who has transmitted his knowledge to many generations of students. With enthusiasm, gentleness, integrity and wisdom, he has been able to maintain the flame and awe for cinema alive among his pupils, not just as a vehicle to express the most complex human experiences and stories, but also as an act of magic.”

Jason Segel, author and actor, “Knocked Up,” “This Is 40” 
“Ted Walch changed the course of my life. He taught me not only my craft, but about the value of preparation, discipline and respect for everyone around me. Most importantly though, he gave me the gift of humility. He said to me as I left school to begin acting professionally: ‘Never forget, the best actor in the world is stuck in their small town doing dinner theater because they will never have the opportunity you have been given.’ That sentiment has never left my mind throughout this crazy journey. I am lucky for this amazing career, and life, and a huge part of that is because of Ted.”

Zack Goldman ’12, runs a creative global sports agency
“Ted Walch changed my life. He is the greatest teacher I’ve ever had, the best director I’ve worked with and now one of my dearest friends. The way he interacted with students has always stuck with me; particularly how he ensured we all felt our voices were valued. I learned a lot about film in his class, but I learned way more about myself and how I want to live. That might sound saccharine to some — but they’ve probably not had a class with Ted.”

Wendy MacLeod ’81, drama professor at Kenyon College 
“Ted Walch has sent us amazing students over the years — from gifted writers like Natalie Margolin ’14 and Hannah Zipperman ’16 to talented actors like Adam Howard and Dan Fishbach ’98, to genius behind-the-scenes people like Will Adashek ’05, who returned to teach for us last year. I can work with students for years before I discover they were one of Ted’s. To which I always say: ‘Of course you are! You’re wonderful.’ The entire department is so grateful for the Ted Walch pipeline.”

Natalie Margolin ’14, actor and playwright
“Ted Walch is the reason I love acting in the way that I do. He’s the reason I went to Kenyon; Kenyon is the reason I love playwriting; playwriting is now a part of who I am and, in turn, Walch is forever intertwined in who I am.”

Haleh Kanani ’16, forensic case manager in the mental health field 
“Walch taught us to pay attention, to notice the little things — and appreciate them. Because of him, I’m a more active learner, and I’m really grateful for that. I remember his classroom as a welcoming and inclusive place. He has a rare ability to teach for everyone — nobody feels left behind or left out of the conversation. He makes things accessible. Part of that, I think, is that he genuinely loves what he’s teaching.”

Noah Weinman ’16, musician
“Mr. Walch’s class felt very adult, which was obviously appealing to a high school senior. He took our ideas seriously and treated them with respect; we didn’t shy away from difficult or controversial topics and we explored bigger questions about the purposes of narrative and art. He also encouraged independent and creative thought. At a high school that often felt rigid, this was a revelation. I imagine just about every student he had felt like his favorite.”

Beanie Feldstein, actor, “Lady Bird” and “Hello, Dolly!” 
“Mr. Walch is hands-down my favorite human being in the world. He is a combination of teacher, mentor, grand-father and friend. And he’s shaped my love of theater. When he came to see me in “Hello, Dolly!” I was nervous throughout the show because he has invested in me and supported me so much. I know how proud he is and I’m so proud of him too.”

Ben Platt, 2017 Tony award-winner, “Dear Evan Hansen” 
“Ted instilled in us that the best part of being an actor is the “process,” and that has been a great lesson for me since leaving school — knowing that I’m the happiest and the most fulfilled when we are in rehearsal and the show is still being shaped. When you are performing, there’s the instant gratification, which of course is wonderful and exciting, but nothing fills you up like being in the rehearsal room. I think to Ted that is the most joyful and inspirational part of the show; that is where he is most at home and alive — crafting the production — instead of rushing to get to the success.”

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