“Stella!!” the first performer yelled.
“Stella!!!” he repeated more dramatically.
“STELLAAAAAA!!!!!!,” he shouted yet again, desperately, and he crouched down on the makeshift stage on Jackson Square in New Orleans and ripped open his shirt.
The next contestant also ripped open his shirt, as did contestant four (dousing himself first with water), contestant 18 (a young woman), and contestant 20 (an older man.) But there was a surprising variety in the shouting at this last of some 50 events at more than a dozen locations that made up the 29th annual Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival in March. Beneath a balcony graced with the city’s characteristic wrought iron railing, a parade of Stella-yellers beseeched their estranged wife (actually festival board president Janet Daley Duval), who was dressed in a black negligee and wielded a microphone to encourage or mock a busker painted all in gold; an entire family who screamed after inhaling from helium-filled balloons; a middle aged man delivering a monologue full of shrugs and Yiddishisms; a woman who flailed on the ground as if having an epileptic fit.
The judges — including Williams veteran performer Keir Dullea (who played Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof on Broadway) and his wife the actress Mia Dillon – disappeared off the balcony to deliberate. They returned with the winner: Daphne Britton, who had grabbed the sides of her face with both hands and squeezed as if truly upset, and then, her hands functioning as a megaphone, let out a shout that parted the ions in the air.
“I’m a big Tennessee Williams fan,” said Britton, who majored in English literature as an undergraduate and is now a graduate student in education. But this was the only one of the festival events in which she participated – or has ever participated in. “I don’t have the time; I have homework. I don’t get out much.”
If the Stella shouting match, which became an annual event in 1996, has not quite reached the status of the running of the bulls in Pamplona among lovers of American literary lore, it’s part of a phenomenon that not even all Williams fans know about – the proliferation of annual Tennessee Williams festivals. There are a total of five in the South and the Northeast, one about to mark a major anniversary. A sixth has scheduled its debut in the Midwest next year.
“Each serves its own purpose,” says Kenneth Holditch, who helped start three of them.
It Began in New Orleans
On a second-floor parlor of the Hotel Monteleone, an officially designated literary landmark where Williams liked to stay which is the official headquarters for the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival, Dr. Holditch was holding forth on his friendship with Tennessee Williams. “I was fortunate to get to know him in the late 1970s.
“Two environments provide inspiration for most of his best work – Mississippi and New Orleans,” said Holditch, who himself grew up in Mississippi and now lives in New Orleans. His adopted city, he pointed out, is the setting for A Streetcar Named Desire, Suddenly Last Summer, Vieux Carre “and the one-act plays.”
Dr. Holditch has written several books about Williams – with Mel Gussow, he edited the two-volume Library of America edition of Williams’s plays — and you can see his name throughout the French Quarter, at the bottom of several plaques and posters on Williams landmarks (where the celebrated writer lived, where he ate, where he drank) for which Holditch wrote the text. His lecture about Williams at the Hotel Monteleone served as an introduction to the walking tour of Williams landmarks that others in Holditch’s tour company now conduct (“I can no longer walk well enough.”)
The New Orleans Williams festival began, as he recounts it, when “a group of people decided over dinner one night that there should be a festival in New Orleans to honor something other than sports and food.” In 1986, three years after Williams’ death, the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival was officially launched, the oldest and largest of the festivals; for the 25th anniversary festival, attendance reportedly reached 10,000.
Seven years after the start of the New Orleans festival, in 1993, Panny Mayfield launched the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival, held every fall in Clarksdale, Ms. A photographer and journalist, Mayfield had written about the links between Williams and the town where he spent much of his childhood. “At that time, there were residents here who grew up with Tom Williams,” Mayfield says. “His grandfather, the Rev, Walter Dakin, was the popular rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church for 16 years. Tom, his mother and sister Rose lived in the church rectory here with his grandparents while Cornelius Williams (his father) worked as a traveling shoe salesman.” Invited to give a presentation at an International Tennessee Williams Festival in Nantes, France, Mayfield was encouraged by the scholars and directors there to start an annual festival in her town. Two years after its launch, “the U.S. Postal Service selected our festival as its site to unveil the Tennessee Williams postage stamp. The ceremony took place on the front porch of a turn-of-the-century house in Clarksdale’s historic district where Tom Williams spent his childhood.” Porches play a continuing role in the festival, which this year will be held on October 2 and 3; it will once again feature “porch plays” on four porches in the district.
Brenda Caradine, a former actress who now runs a local bed and breakfast, was the driving force behind the Tennessee Williams Tribute & Tour of Victorian Homes in Columbus, Ms., which began in 2001. “When I moved to Columbus 18 years ago to marry my husband, there was no festival,” says Caradine, who looks shocked, albeit a shock filtered through high-energy Southern charm. “Columbus was Williams’ birthplace! He was baptized in my church!”
Among the activities at the Columbus festival, to be held this year from September 6 to 15, is another Stella shouting contest.
But the three festivals in the South, says Holditch (who was an advisor for all of them) largely have developed distinct identities:
“New Orleans has expanded to cover all sorts of aspects of the city’s history and culture,” he says, as well as a scholars conference and “master classes” on writing. (Nine of the events at New Orleans this year, or less than a fifth of the four-day festival, were labeled “theater offerings,” and only three of these were full productions or staged readings of complete Williams plays.)
“Columbus tends to be more social, with parties and tours of Victorian homes,” Holditch says. “Clarksdale is more devoted to scholarship and history and the relationship between Tennessee’s work and the Delta.”
In 2006, a fourth festival was added to the mix, the Tennessee Williams Provincetown Festival. As co-founder and curator David Kaplan explains it, the town was finally going to build a new theater – the landmark Provincetown Playhouse had burned down in 1977 – and it wanted an annual festival to promote it. “Tennessee Williams was the fourth idea” for a festival, says Kaplan. If Williams was not the first choice, the playwright’s life and work held genuine interest. Kaplan, a theater director who has helmed Williams productions as far away as Russia and Hong Kong, published “Tennessee Williams in Provincetown” in 2007, which chronicles the four summers Williams spent in the resort town in the 1940s, the two plays he set there (Something Cloudy, Something Clear and The Parade), and the plays he worked on there; it includes an interview with “the woman who lent him the typewriter on which he wrote The Glass Menagerie.”
The Provincetown organizers boast that theirs is the only one of the Williams festivals that is strictly a theater festival (albeit defining theater rather broadly to include “dance, music, opera, film, and performance art.”) The four-day event, held in September, attracts some 1,800 theatergoers. This year’s 10th anniversary festival, from September 24 to 27, which they are entitling “Year Tenn: Tennessee Williams in Provincetown,” will offer ten productions, including the remounting of hits from previous years, such as a South African production of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, and a new musical from London, The Liberation of Colette Simple, based on a play Williams wrote in 1941, The Case of Crushed Petunias, that the festival presented in 2009.
For the past three years in May or June, there also has been an annual Tennessee Williams Festival in New York City. “We always felt that it was sort of a disservice to one of our great dramatists that there was no festival for Tennessee Williams in the capital of the theater world,” says Joseph W. Rodriguez, the artistic director of the six-year-old Playhouse Creatures Theater Company, the East Village-based organizers of the festival, which has drawn an audience of a couple of hundred people to stage readings of Williams one-acts, and panel discussions with directors of Williams’ work (Emily Mann, Austin Pendleton) and with playwrights who admire him (such as Stephen Adly Guirgis.)
“I still remember reading Streetcar Named Desire in high school and it was the thing that turned me onto the theater,” Rodriguez says. “There was something so visceral and lyrical about it at the same time.”
The first annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis is scheduled for April, 2016.
“I have always strongly connected to Williams writing and consider him America’s, if not the world’s, greatest playwright,” says Carrie Houk, who is organizing the St. Louis festival. A casting director and former actress, she met Williams once (“I had the pleasure of dancing with him and talking about the home town.”) “I never understood why the city which influenced so much of his work, where he spent many formative years, never had an annual festival celebrating his work.” St. Louis is, of course, the setting for his first success, The Glass Menagerie, but it was an earlier, more obscure Williams play that spurred Houk to action. Stairs to the Roof, subtitled A Prayer for the Wild of Heart That are Kept in Cages, is set largely in a shirt factory in St. Louis, and focuses on a poetry-writing factory worker who seeks to escape his dead-end job. In conjunction with her production of the play hooked to the celebration of the city’s 250th anniversary last year, Houk included both panel discussions and a bus tour of Williams landmarks in St. Louis – his various residences, the shoe factory where he worked, his grave. “I began to see the huge thirst that the city had for his work.”
Why are there so many Tennessee Williams festivals, yet no similar treatment for, say, Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller?
A couple of Williams experts hazard a guess.
Thomas Keith, a consulting editor at New Directions, Williams’s publisher, and a prolific panel organizer and moderator at several of the festivals: “With 35 full-length plays, over 75 one-act plays, as well as stories, poems, essays, screenplays, letters, journals, and novels, he left an enormous body of work for performance, exploration, and appraisal.”
John Lahr, author of the 2014 biography Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh: “I guess the reason for the festivals has to do with the voluminous amount of Williams work and its variety: You can read poems, do scenes and plays — both full and one act. Then there’s the complex life. He also, in his way, was a pathfinder in gay liberation, so he speaks to the moment as well as the past. His plays act well, which is also a reason to do them. I suppose, more than O’Neill and Miller, his work was vilified in his lifetime and the festivals are an attempt to right a great cultural wrong.”
Saving A Reputation?
“Death is the only thing that can possibly save my reputation,” the writer was saying in a seamy boarding house. A young woman had discovered his old book of poems in an antique store, placed under the short leg of a little Chinese tea-table in order to keep the table balanced. She tracked him down and now wants to resurrect his career (“I’ve written letters to influential people.”) He’ll have none of it.
Williams wrote this short played entitled Mister Paradise sometime after he first visited New Orleans in 1938; it was not unearthed until 2003. It was one of at least a dozen short plays of his that take place in boarding houses or hotels, four of which were performed at the New Orleans festival this year grouped together as The Hotel Plays. In another one of the four, The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, written in 1941, another bedraggled writer lashes out at his landlady in order to defend the honor of another boardinghouse resident, a woman who says she is a rubber plantation heiress but, as the landlady points out mockingly, is actually a prostitute. The landlady ridicules the writer as well, for claiming to be the author of a 780-page manuscript. In a tired voice, he replies with a long monologue:
“Suppose there is no 780 -page masterpiece in existence….Suppose I wanted to be a great artist but lacked the force and the power!…Suppose that I ornament, illuminate— glorify…with…impending Broadway productions….What satisfaction can it give you, good woman , to tear it to pieces, to crush it— call it a lie?”
There were layers of insight and irony in the production of The Hotel Plays, in the Hermann-Grima House, a mansion built in 1831 that is now a museum, around the corner from Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. The audience members lined up to receive their tickets, which were room keys to what had been turned into a pretend hotel, each play performed in a different room.
Although the casts were from New Orleans – the same local actor, Robert Mitchell, portrayed both failed writers – The Hotel Plays were a production of the Provincetown festival, which has presented various selections of these plays over the years.
“From the very beginning, I thought it important to have synergy with the other festivals,” David Kaplan says. Collaborating on plays in which the playwright is concerned with a writer’s reputation seems especially apt. “The festivals all have a mission of reconsidering his reputation,” Kaplan says.
Has it worked? What effect have the Williams festivals had?
Kaplan divides Williams’ career into three periods – “the 19-year sojourn into respectable commercial theater,” as Kaplan puts it, and Williams work before and after his Broadway successes. “We have championed Williams’ entire body of work, but with particular emphasis on his later and more experimental writing,” says Jef Hall-Flavin , executive director of the Provincetown festival, which has premiered ten of Williams’s previously unproduced plays.
“All you heard was that these plays were un-performable, that they didn’t work,” says Kaplan, who believes the main reason for the dismissive attitude “was homophobia plain and simple.” If the times in general have made audiences more receptive to these dramas, “we showed that these plays work as plays.”
In New Orleans, there is a more active theater scene now than there was before the festival existed, but talk to artistic directors in the city, and some will attribute it to the rebuilding that has occurred after Hurricane Katrina.
“The Williams festival has not had an effect on theater in New Orleans so much as the theatrical community has had an effect on the Williams festival,” says Jim Fitzmorris,a teacher, critic and director. “It’s turned from a literary festival into a genuine, bona fide theatrical event in the last few years, because of the pressure from the new theatre companies.”
Even that is not necessarily a plus for the theatrical landscape of the city. “When a big event like the festival happens, it pushes everything else to the side,” says Gary Rucker, the artistic director of Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts. “We have to schedule our shows at a different time of year.”
Celebrating Tennessee Williams
The “birthday bash,” on the day that Tennessee Williams would have turned 104, began at the Queen Anne Ballroom of the Hotel Monteleone with something less than reverence. An almost life-sized cardboard cutout of the playwright was propped up in the corner, adorned with Hawaiian leis. The evening of scenes began with a performance of a spot-on parody of Williams by Christopher Durang, For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls. But then Keir Dullea and Mia Dillon portrayed Big Daddy and Big Momma in a scene from Cat on A Hot Tin Roof; there were two scenes from The Glass Menagerie; one from Vieux Carre, and one from Sweet Bird of Youth, which is set in St. Cloud, Florida – the only one of the plays from the evening which is not set somewhere that plays host to an annual Tennessee Williams festival.
In the audience were prime movers from all of the festivals. One of the actors on stage (for the Sweet Bird of Youth scene), Aimée Hayes, is artistic director of Southern Rep, a New Orleans theater that has participated in the festival for the past six years, this year with a full production of Suddenly, Last Summer, starring Brenda Currin. Hayes thinks the New Orleans festival “does an amazing job of highlighting recent scholarship, activating conversations, and drawing parallels between Tenn’s work and current writers and playwrights.”Hayes, who herself played Blanche DuBois in the company’s 2012 Streetcar, sees New Orleans as an exact fit for such a festival: “In a town like New Orleans on the brink of sinking (literally) into the drink and a long history of carpe diem hedonism, Williams’s do-or-die stories resonate deeply as credo and anthem.”
But she also understands why the idea has spread: “Nobody quite gets to the guts of living more than Williams. He always seems to be daring us to live on just a little intuition, lots of desire and the pursuit of beauty. Who cares if death, destruction and utter ruin hound us at every turn? At least we’re really living…”
Like the other Williams festival aficionados, Hayes welcomes the trend. “How many Shakespeare fests do we have? The Tenn fests are adjusting the ratio. Maybe we need more.”
This article appeared in slightly altered form in American Theatre Magazine.