Magic Of The Other
Written by Alan Brainerd
Photos provided by Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
“Stellllaaaa!” Who doesn’t remember the young, brash and handsome Marlon Brando shouting passionately to the woman he loves in the movie A Streetcar Named Desire? Stretching your own vocal chords is on the roster at the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis this month during their Stella Shouting Contest for of course, Stella beer.
“Magic of The Other” is the theme for this year’s Festival. The idea of looking at familiar things in a different way that may be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable for us is the thread through this year’s line up of events.
It’s clear TWFSTL’s Executive Artistic Director, Carrie Houk, couldn’t be more pleased with the reception she and her organization received last year for their inaugural festival; there were more than 2,000 attendees.
Houk says she is, “A life long lover of Tennessee Williams’ writing, having read his works as a young girl then going forward to my career in theatre first as an actor and then producing. A great thrill was producing Stairs To The Roof many years ago after discovering this wonderful story. The Glass Menagerie sort of overshadowed it.”
Houk regards Williams as “America’s Shakespeare.” Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams III on March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi. He died at 71 in a New York City hotel room in 1983. The family moved to St. Louis when he was eight years old. His father was a traveling salesman who battled alcohol abuse, his mother was a music teacher and his sister suffered from schizophrenia. It was his mother who taught him to love all things beautiful. Williams began writing at an early age and often used the dysfunction of his own family as recurring themes in his prose. Over the years, he garnered many awards including the Rockefeller Grant that helped provide affirmation of his craft. After receiving the Grant in 1939, he caught the attention of Hollywood and was offered a contract at MGM earning $250 per week. When asked about which award meant the most to Williams, Houk said “They all meant the same to him. One was not more important than the other.”
Recognition for Williams really began when his short story Portrait of a Girl in Glass became the play The Glass Menagerie in the winter of ’44-’45, and after a successful opening on stage in Chicago, moved to The Great White Way. Williams was now well on his way to huge success. Elia Kazan who directed his plays stated; “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is his life.”
This year’s Festival includes plays, live music, movies, art, photo displays, readings, educational panel discussions and tours. Richard Corley, who ranks as one of America’s top Williams directors, will direct the 1972 play Small Craft Warnings. Corley directed this piece in Russia in the late 1990’s and has a deep affection for its message. He considers it a love song of sorts. A St. Louis cast will be performing, headlined by New York’s Jeremy Lawrence in the role of Doc; a role Williams once performed himself.
Another opportunity to experience this work in a different way is the reinterpretation by Deseo, examined from the Cuban perspective. The play is performed in Spanish with English subtitles. A true immersion experience to be sure.
Small Craft Warnings was written later in Williams’ career. During this period of his life, critics were extremely tough on the playwright and often did not critique the work as a stand-alone creation but instead would compare this piece to his earlier work. Williams struggled to make clear that his current work had a different focus from his earlier work. His later work reflected the pain and struggle of the success he had, and to some extent no longer felt. When coupled with drug and alcohol issues, trying to be creative took its toll on the writer and the critics became more critical much to Williams’ dismay.
“Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter,” is another high point that will showcase a lesser-known artistic talent of Williams. On display at the St. Louis University Museum, the viewer will experience 18 very personal paintings created by the playwright. They are on loan from the collection of his longtime friend, David Wolkowsky, from their home at the Key West Art & Historical Society and have only been displayed outside of that venue one other time. Houk believes that, “Painting was a release where he could express himself without fear of incrimination.” The paintings are portraits and local Key West genre scenes. The show will be up through July.
New to the Festival this year is the Tennessee Williams New Playwrights Initiative. Winner Jack Ciapciak will present Naming The Dog. This work has ties to Ferguson that deals with racial unrest and the task of naming a puppy.
Jeff Awada of St. Louis will direct Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?. It’s the first professional production of the show in 50 years, and it will be performed at the historic Stockton House. The storyline explores “the other” in various forms from ghosts to witches to dead husbands; a message that will get everyone thinking about his or her own humanity.
Houk rebuffs the myth that Williams was not fond of his time in St. Louis. “He really did love St. Louis. Keep in mind he was taken as a youth from an idyllic southern city to St. Louis, which was an industrial city. He loved Forest Park, The Muny, and the Jewel Box. He spent 19 years of his life in this city and they were formative years. His writing was heavily influenced by his time here. His plays are really his love letters to St. Louis.”
The Festival runs May 3-7 with some extended runs scheduled. For more information go to: TWSTL.org
Tennessee Williams painting, “The Blaze of the Moment,” courtesy of Key West Art & Historical Society
Carrie Houk, Executive Artistic Director of Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis