Before he began writing and acting in theatre, Keith-James Walker used to traverse the streets of Dublin somewhat aimlessly. He found himself alone and would ramble around at night, going for a pint here and there.
That was until he stumbled across an Introduction to Drama class at the Gaiety School of Acting. There’s been much water under the bridge since then – although not enough in career progress Keith-James might contest – but in a recent run of his own production Walkinstown, the Dromin man was back wandering around the streets of Dublin. So to speak.
During a two week run at the capital’s Smock Alley Theatre, the 29-year-old took to the stage as Mark, one of two Dubliners embarking on separate but converging paths towards the object of their respective attentions – Joanne.
Speaking to the Dundalk Democrat, Walker tells us about his third production, describing it as a surreal comedy, a parody of the quintessential Dublin monologue. Along the way, the two characters embark upon all sorts of people and occurrences.
Originally conceived and written as a short 20-minute parody three years ago, the newest incarnation of Walkinstown has more of a narrative. It’s longer too – clocking in at over an hour.
Mark and Darren (played by Kieran Roche) are on an Odyssey around Dublin city. In keeping with Walker’s humour, the promotional material described Walkinstown as a ‘Theatrical Odyssey. Probably.’
“I wanted the promotion to be very indicative of what the play actually is. It is a parody, it’s a ridiculous journey.”
A former Coláiste Rís student, Walker left a carpentry apprenticeship behind for a life striving to be a creative force in the arts world.
For Walkinstown, he assumed the part of actor, writer and producer. Big budgets aren’t vogue in small theatre so that came more from necessity than anything else. He believes that worked out for the best, meaning total creative control over everything.
“I wanted to do it my way. It’s a lot of work and I know it’s easy to say now, but looking back, I’m glad it turned out that way,” he says.
Why shouldn’t he want to have creative control? His second production, under the auspices of his company Monkey Backstage, was 2014’s How To Build Your Robot. Having run at the Dublin Fringe Festival, it was nominated for a prestigious Bewley’s Little Gem Award.
“Theatre for so many people is distant and unobtainable. That’s what I really wanted to do with Walkinstown. It was a show that people could come in and enjoy, but we retained as many theatrical elements as we could.
“Because it’s called Walkinstown, we had people coming in just because it was called that. I found that quite funny. The show literally has no references to Walkinstown whatsoever. It was just a joke initially.
“We had a group of women who came on one of the nights. They were all in their 70s and they had their annual theatre visit where they all get together once a year to come and see a show. They loved it.
“What they loved about it was that it crossed many generations in terms of its references and comedy and so forth. So, that was really nice,” Walker continued.
“I think that’s necessary. Perhaps people might create work too selfishly – putting it out to satisfy their own needs and motivations as opposed to considering what their audiences might like to see and enjoy.”
“That’s not to say to do a Michael Bay – putting explosions in every movie just to satisfy people.”
If it’s too early to say comedy is Walker’s stock in trade, it’s certainly what he’s good at. Last summer, he spent time in Chicago working with Improv Olympic, the comedy theatre and training centre which counts Tina Fay, Chris Farley, Bill Hader and Mike Myers among its alumni.
Clearly, Saturday Night Live is an inspiration. As is The Simpsons (“a huge influence”) and Mr Show with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (“I absolutely adore that”).
Keith-James was 23 years old when he was living in Dublin, focusing on the theoretical aspects of a carpentry apprenticeship. Acting, writing and comedy had never before been on the agenda. Until he decided to give the Gaiety School’s drama class a try.
“It was basic stuff, but I really liked it,” he recalls. “I auditioned for the full-time course having never had any acting experience at all, ever.
He says his audition was “terrible” and “shocking” but he got in. People on his course were from all walks of life. Some were solicitors looking to gain public speaking confidence ahead of courtroom appearances.
Years later and while a breakthrough and constant roles are hard to come by, the Louth man hasn’t lost any of the drive to succeed.
“I haven’t had much success but it has kind of forced me to be creative and begin my own journey with what I create. Financially, I don’t know if there’s a future in it. But I feel I owe it to myself to pursue it.
“Given the success of Walkinstown and the show before it, it’s given me a lot of confidence to go on. Confidence is something – certainly with writing – that I’ve really struggled with.
“I feel like I have a lot of ideas in my head, like an untethered balloon – all floating around for the past few years. But I really feel like I have a rocket strapped to my back. now. I really want to push on. It’s all about getting quality shows out there. I feel like my brain has clicked into gear.”
Which is good news, as the Dublin Fringe Festival is coming around again in September. Walker is preparing to enter a new show for that, while Walkinstown is set to return for a run in August.
For someone who never intended to be an actor and by his own admission never caught the bug, Keith-James isn’t doing badly at all.
“I didn’t have this sudden urge to be an actor. I drifted into more than anything else. I consider myself to be somebody who wanted to create work – wanted to make people laugh.”