Theatre Legend Walter Borden, 81, on Performing the One-Man Show He Began Writing Nearly 50 Years Ago
Walter Borden actually began writing his semi-autobiographical play, 'The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time,' which he's currently performing at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, in 1974. Photo: Mike Meehan
Walter Borden makes age 81 look like a pretty exciting place to be.
The renowned Nova Scotia-born actor and playwright is currently on stage at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre performing The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time. It’s a riveting, dialogue-driven, one-man show where Borden cycles through a series of characters, all semi-autobiographical, with each exploring “homosexuality from a Black man’s perspective,” to borrow from the official notes, “ultimately sharing a journey that paints a picture of survival and the resilience of the human spirit.”
The play — making its Toronto debut and running daily (save Mondays) through Oct. 15 — is the latest iteration of a work Borden began writing in 1974 and has staged multiple times since 1986. It is, Borden confirms, a deeply personal reflection of an often-challenging life that saw him go from being “the only professional Black actor east of Montreal,” to a widely celebrated cultural icon with an Order of Canada among his long list of credits.
And those credits keep coming. This week, Nimbus Publishing issues the play in book form, in a new and fully revised edition. (It had been previously published as Tightrope Time: Ain’t Nuttin’ More Than Some Itty Bitty Madness Between Twilight & Dawn, the earlier title of Borden’s play.) And while Borden’s resume also lists multiple television and film roles, it is as a stage actor — notably as part of Halifax’s Neptune Theatre company — where he’s created his most indelible mark.
The affable Borden spoke with Zoomer from Toronto about Tightrope Time, which next year fêtes its 50th anniversary, as well as about Black and Indigenous representation on stage — Borden is part Métis — and what he hopes audiences will take away from his latest dazzling performance.
KIM HUGHES: This is a 90-minute, one-man show with no intermission, which clearly requires substantial stamina. What do you do in the way of preparation?
WALTER BORDEN: I don’t really think that much about it. It’s sort of like going to the gym and working out and knowing where the heavy and difficult points are where I need to push the engine and where I need to pull back. That becomes part of my day. I don’t really do anything physically to gear up for it. It’s more mental now.
KH: What does a mental exercise look like? Meditation maybe? Purposefully running through your monologues?
WB: Oh yes. I am always running through those monologues. Even when I don’t want to. I’ll find myself walking along the street and I’ll notice that people are looking at me in a strange way and I’ll realize I’m saying a monologue and being one of the characters and I’ll say to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, what do people think that I am?’ (Laughs).
KH: In the program notes, your director Peter Hinton-Davis says you’ve been collaborating for four years on the text for this iteration of the performance. What were some of the key updates from previous stagings?
WB: When Peter came onboard with me, we refashioned the play. We had to take two-and-a-half hours down to 90 minutes, so some characters had to go. But by cutting monologues and shifting characters around, we found out what the centre of the play really was which of course is, ‘Follow me.’ And we meet these characters at what we call the ‘Carnival Crossroads.’ Once Peter gelled it into five movements, it was so simple to do. Up to that point I did find great difficulty in getting from one character to another because they weren’t in the order they are in now.
KH: This is an autobiographical piece that locates you at specific moments in time. But you are still existing now and trying to express yourself without the benefit of hindsight. How do you distill yourself today as things are happening?
WB: Great question, complicated answer. I want to be objectively subjective and subjectively objective. By that I mean, being objective is the driving engine. But because it’s coming from an individual who is always viewing it subjectively, the subjectivity has to be superseded by objectivity. In the other, where I am objectively subjective, subjective is the driving energy, but can I be objective within my subjectivity? It’s a delicate dance. Only by doing that can I pay homage to something I truly believe that Maya Angelou once said, which was, ‘We are more alike than we are unalike.’
KH: Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Tightrope Time. Any special plans or is this really The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time, as it’s billed.
WB: Other places have been inquiring about it. It all depends on what my stamina is! The anniversary actually marks when I sat down and started to write it, which was August 4, 1974. With the book version, I gave my editor the last word changes just two weeks ago before it went to print. It’s been quite a journey.
KH: You have done trailblazing work as a Black and Métis writer-performer. Can you talk about the evolution of representation you have seen in the performing arts over the years and what still needs to happen?
WB: There has been a huge change. I remember a point in time when I was the only professional Black actor east of Montreal. I was on the only Black actor onstage at the Neptune Theatre. I’ve always considered myself being in the trenches rather than sitting in the back. While I was busy in social-political activism, it was running parallel with what I was doing in my artistic life. The goal was to get others on that stage. I had to divide my time between forging my own career while getting the next generation prepared to do what I was doing … but with less angst. And I did that. People across the country started seeing what was being done at Neptune Theatre, and it was noted. Now when I look and see the number of young Black and Indigenous performers, it’s incredible for me because I can see how things have changed attitudinally, which is the sign of real change. I am seeing that, and that excites me.
KH: You’ve won many prestigious awards — the Order of Canada, Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award. Are any especially meaningful?
WB: The Order of Canada and the Order of Nova Scotia. The last recognition I got was an honorary associateship with the Canadian Association for Theatre Research [“a non-profit organization founded in 1976 to support and encourage research in theatre and performance studies in Canada, with a special interest in Canadian work,” according to its website]. That was very important to me because that organization has been going for a very long time in the game of following changes that have been made and need to be made in theatre. To be accepted in that was wonderful.
KH: What do you hope people take away from your performance in Tightrope Time?
WB: Just that, even if it’s one topic only, that people suddenly want to explore it a little more. Which means that they have intertwined themselves with something that is making them think. There is so much to take in [with this play] that if they just take that one thing away, they’ll probably want to explore something more.
The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time, written and performed by Walter Borden, plays at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto through Oct. 15. More information on the play, performances and tickets can be found here.