By Phil Howard
He speaks slowly, methodically, and just quietly enough that you have to lean in to hear. His tone is soft, muted even, yet subtly manages to convey his true passion for which those closest to him know him for.
He dresses modestly in a dark, coarsely woven sweater and jeans. His soft-spoken demeanor earns your respect—not through intimidation, as a strict father might—but through the geniality his gentle mannerisms bemoan.
He chuckles slightly at the mere inclination of a humorous moment, yet an absolute laugh is a rarity.
Michael Walker is something of an enigma, and he uses that complexity to his advantage in his pastime of choice.
You see Michael has something of an affinity for the stage. He has acted at Eugene’s own Very Little Theatre for over 25 years now.
Walker’s journey to the art of acting started in 1981 when, at the age of 18, he moved to Eugene to pursue a degree in computer science. He soon found something that piqued his interest more than computers, though.
One night during his freshman year he found out about a couple students who were taking a class where they watched movies.
“I thought, ‘What?” You can go to a class and watch movies? They said, ‘Yeah, they’ve got a whole program here where you get a degree in film studies,’ so I quickly switched my tack.”
And Walker followed through on those aspirations by getting both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in film studies from the University of Oregon.
But it wasn’t until his fourth year in Eugene that Walker discovered the Very Little Theatre. It was there that he tried out for his first play, and although he didn’t get the part, he did get some valuable experience working behind the scenes.
That’s all it took to get him hooked. Now, 25 years later, Walker is the vice-president of the volunteer run VLT.
“It’s given me a huge outlet for creativity which I otherwise wouldn’t have had,” Walker says.
The VLT opened in 1928 by a group of local actors. For the last 84 years, the theater has kept its doors open on the backs of ticket sales alone. None of the actors are paid. None of the set builders and designers are paid. There are no sponsorships or advertisers. Everyone who is there is there because they love the stage.
“It’s just kind of a basic therapy I need to stay sane in my life,” Walker says of his time acting at the VLT. Early in his career after he graduated, when he also worked in the private sector, he would spend hours at the VLT lending a hand for no pay.
“At the end of the day, that doesn’t bring you much fulfillment,” Walker says of his time working outside of the theater. “I knew that [acting] would never be anything that I could do for money, but designing and building sets I can do, so that’s where my focus is at the moment.”
Now, over 20 years after graduating from the University of Oregon, Walker is starting his first term in a Master of Fine Arts program for scenic and lighting design so that he can turn that very passion into a career. Or, as he puts it:
“Maybe it’s time to grow up and follow my passion.” Walker adds, “You never stop learning.”
After earning his third degree, Walker hopes to one day pass on his knowledge of theater as a scenic design instructor at a university.
As Walker poses for a picture, his faithful dog and companion, Finn, rushes to his side, not one to shy away from attention. As he pets and settles his dog’s growing tension with kind words, a true smile crosses his face for the first time.
It’s a sincere moment from a rather reserved man. Another reason Walker prefers the theater to a regular 9-5 job? He gets to bring Finn along. Finn pants his agreement.