Stella

Stella

“For all of the amazing women I’ve worked with in theater and for Tennessee Williams, maybe our greatest playwright.”

When you hang around New Orleans long enough, eventually you run into someone with a Tennessee Williams story. He lived there for a long time as a young man. His plays and repartee would have one believe that he lived in the quarter and was part of that milieu.  The truth is he lived out by Elysian Fields in a working-class enclave that was infinitely less glamorous and lacked the transgressive chic of the Gay Quarter culture. My friend, Henri Schindler, told me stories of Williams flirting with the waiters at Galitoire’s , while drinking the afternoons away.

He also relayed another tale of Williams, after he was famous–meaning after ‘A Streetcar named Desire’– waylaid by a group of blue-haired ladies from a book club wanting to know all about New York and Williams not quite knowing how to handle this group of curious interlopers.  For all of the drunken Williams tales, he was actually quite shy, or those who knew him have told me. He is, perhaps, our greatest playwright.  At the very least, he is probably our most internationally known.

Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, the son of an alcoholic and abusive shoe salesman and a fading southern belle-type mother.  He was closest to his sister, Rose who, sadly, suffered from schizophrenia as she grew into her teen years . It is thought that Williams ability to write women characters with great insight and empathy has its origin in his close relationships with his sister and mother. It is rare to find anyone who writes better women’s roles than Williams.

It is hard to over estimate the impact of A Streetcar named Desire.  It made a star of Marlon Brando and also holds up today as a great play. No matter where you are in the world, the sun never sets on this work of art. Some company, somewhere, is staging it. And why not? It serves up the great thematic human desires in spades; sexual tension, madness, loneliness, abandonment and animal longing.

For zctors, this play has it all. How many Blanche DuBois wander our streets to this day; the perennial ingenues still harboring illusions about their youth, beauty and desirability? I would guess many. I mean, really. . .where do you think all of that Bo-Tox is going? And how many Stanley Kowalski’s, with their working-class furies and sexual piggishness knotted like tangled kite-string? Hell, try any Lincoln Park sports bar . . .

The one who interests me the most in this most American of plays is Stella. Stella Kowalski knows her mentally-challenged, Pop-Tart of a sister and her brutal, sexually rapacious husband are headed toward one another like two locomotives, and it has always seemed to me that she practically curtsies to get out of the way as this happens; knowing that both will exact their temporary satisfaction, as well as their own damning punishments from this act.

After Stanley rapes Blanche, he is finished as a man.  Even he knows it.  Blanche is taken away to an institution and grateful for “the kindness of strangers” and Williams hints that they get not only what they deserve, but perhaps, darkly, what they actually want.

My friend, the film maker, John McNaughton, just directed a stage version of Streetcar in Pasadena and loved it.  He also told me a story of Tennessee Williams in observing previews for this play, cackling with laughter when Stella delivers the “kindness of strangers” line, a story passed down from a lot of people who knew Williams.

There are also stories of Williams, surreptitiously attending productions of Streetcar, all over the country and raising hell if they fucked with his play. He had many other successes, but Streetcar seemed to be the one he was most protective of.  The Rose Tattoo and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  were also hits. Later in life, his plays were not as well received, though recently in Chicago, Camino Real, a darkly surreal Williams play of a dead-end Spanish town, got a fitful production full of imagination and great performances at the Goodman Theater. I was bummed to have missed it, but by all accounts, it was a sexually frank, no-holds-barred imagining of a wildly misunderstood play, directed by the great Spanish director, Calixto Bielto.  The reviews were mixed, but everyone I spoke to loved it and admired the fact that it was an adult piece of theater–Tennessee Williams, very close to the milieu of his own life in New Orleans, with its people for the ‘other’ side–boxers whores, poets, strippers and stoned dreamers, those Williams counted as his own, the marginalized and the mad, all coming out to dance.

Published in: on April 25, 2012 at 6:50 pm  Comments (1)  
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Winter Night Moth

Winter Night Moth etching

It is the time of year when the moths die; when, on window sills all over the world, the first chill has laid them, on their powdery sides.  A perfect mirror of each other.

This fall I’m performing  my play, Stations Lost in Brooklyn, New York.  We’re performing it in The Boiler, a performance and exhibition space in the Williamsburg section of North Brooklyn.  It is kind of a perfect room for this show.  A one-time actual boiler where citizens of this borough worked for 100 years.  It is a grimy and hard-scrabble reminder of the hard labor done in this great city back when our country actually MADE things.

There is also an odd juxtaposition in that the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are occurring just across the East River.  I walked through the demonstration  on my first days in New York before we started our technical rehearsals.  My play is very much about the country we find ourselves in now, with its blighted economy and missed opportunity, greed, and unfocused bigotries.  As I walked through Occupy Wall Street, I was amazed that this was no ‘youth’ protest.  I saw all kinds of people; firemen, construction workers, teachers, mothers, veterans, and many, many more of the educated and unemployed new underclass created by the greed and mismanagement of our financial institutions. I feel, for maybe the first time, that I have a bit of skin in this argument.  I employ eight other artists.   I have a gallery and a printmaking shop in Chicago. My partner, Adam Seidel, and I have invested over six figures each to start a fine art company focused on  small edition etchings, as well as books and job creation.   My other partner, Stan Klein, and I have a theatrical production company and a publishing house.  After depositing 100,000 dollars in a business account we found out that even with this capitalization, we’d not be allowed to  borrow more money to expand our business and create more jobs.  In fact, this deposit did not even avail us to a line of credit.

I seem to recall the President telling the banks that in exchange for their TARP money–their bail-out–they were to lend money and stimulate the economy and, more importantly, create jobs.  These little etchings support eight people. And, truth be told?  They could support a whole hell of a lot more were we allowed to grow.

Performing this  show in Brooklyn has been a lot of fun.  Though our houses have been smaller we’ve had great audiences.  Last Saturday night while performing the first act, I noticed an elegantly dressed gentleman with white hair in the third row.  I took me a few moments to realize it was David Byrne, the true renaissance man of  New York–musician, visual artist, activist for biking and all around cultural catalyst.  It was cool to see him in the audience.

Our opening night we had the great Lou Reed, and the director of MoMA, Glenn Lowry, as well as a whole host of my fellow Brooklyn artists who’ve been amazingly supportive.

The Boiler is the performance and arts space fostered into existence by Pierogi Gallery, also of  Williamsburg.  They went through no small amount of bullshit getting this space up to code, so that we could perform this show and I appreciate it.  New York audiences are a little different than Chicago; a bit more reserved. . . quieter.  They really listen.

I’ve been staying with the painter, Greg Stone, the mordantly funny and exceptionally gifted visual artist who is the best roommate one could imagine.  He  is in possession of the dryest of wits and has a wise-ass, hard-boiled and no bullshit view of the world.  We’ve laughed our asses off.

One of the most lovely things is being in New York for autumn.  It is a season that loves this city.   Everything that seems timeless and classic about this city only seems more so, preserved in the amber of autumn light.  I went to a farmers market in McCarren Park in Brooklyn and the nip in the air, the changing colors of trees and the general goodwill were the ingredients of one of those perfect New York days that keeps people wanting to live here.

There is something to working as an actor in New York , that makes one feel more for real.  And that there is more at stake.  No matter what theater one works in, you are surrounded by the ghosts of giants.  This is one  of the places where people come to be measured against the best.

Published in: on October 26, 2011 at 10:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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