Entertainment

Festival pays tribute to Tennessee Williams

Dakin, left, with his brother Tennessee Williams in an undated photo.
Dakin, left, with his brother Tennessee Williams in an undated photo.

“Make voyages. Attempt them. There is nothing else,” Tennessee Williams wrote in his 1953 play “Camino Real.”

“He lived it,” said David Kaplan, curator and co-founder of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival for the past 11 years. “This is an American poet with roots all over the U.S. (Mississippi, St. Louis, New Orleans, Massachusetts, New York, Los Angeles, and Key West). He found himself in St. Louis.”

The words and worlds of the legendary playwright will be spotlighted in an inaugural Tennessee Williams Festival in his former home.

From May 11-15, the Tennessee Williams Festival will feature plays, film, art and photo exhibits, panel discussions, and a bus tour in St. Louis, at locations in Grand Center and Central West End.

Born Thomas Lanier Williams III in 1911 in Mississippi, he moved to St. Louis when he was 8 because his father, a traveling shoe salesman, was promoted at the International Shoe Company.

His hopeful quest to become a writer and earn a living through short stories, poetry, essays and plays all had its roots during his formative years in the river city.

Organizer Carrie Houk said they wanted the first festival to focus on

“The St. Louis Years,” his most impressionable time. The seeds were sown for the annual event when she produced “Stairs to the Roof” in fall 2014, which was drawn from his youthful experiences in St. Louis.

“The whole festival has a St. Louis connection. The adversities and joys of his coming of age in St. Louis shaped all of his work,” she said.

Williams attended Soldan and University City High Schools, and Washington University in St. Louis. He enjoyed Forest Park, the Art Museum, the Muny and movies at The Tivoli.

Houk, who once danced with him at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel during her days as an aspiring actress in New York City, said she has always had a deep attachment to Williams. He was pals with her uncles and also frequented her Aunt Zoe’s bar in Tangiers.

“I felt a deep connection through his understanding of the human condition. His understanding of the eccentrics and misfits of the world. The common need for love, understanding, compassion and kindness. No other playwright expresses these emotions more clearly and dearly than Tennessee Williams,” she said.

Houk is quick to deflect comments that Williams hated it in St. Louis.

“I honestly think he did like it here. The city should be proud of the fact that he was influenced here,” she said.

“It was his family issues, and coming here at age 8 from an idyllic Southern place to a very industrial, very polluted bustling industrial town. It wasn’t the city we know and love today. And his family life was miserable,” she said.

David Kaplan concurred. That’s where he met Houk. He directs Williams worldwide and directed “The Rooming House Plays” here.

“He was the grandson of an important minister in a smaller town in Mississippi and then moves here to the fourth largest city in the U.S.,” he said. “He made poetry out if it, out of the shoe factory, his tenement apartment, a whorehouse in East St. Louis. He was encouraged here. He wrote in a poetry club. The Mummers gave him opportunities. What he saw in the world inspired him,” he said.

Having Kaplan’s help has been a big plus, Houk said.

Kaplan came to St. Louis for the first time in March and spent 10 days here. He returned from directing “Camino Real” by the National Theater of Ghana recently for this week’s fest.

“It was an education for me, to see how living in St. Louis had influenced Williams,” he said. “The imagery and his life experiences living here and in the South are in his work.”

“The Depression had hit St. Louis hard. The vast wealth of St. Louis, that society, was closed to him. But he had ambitions and a restlessness, and had theater and music, and was adventurous enough to go,” Kaplan said.

“There has to be grit in the oyster to make a pearl, doesn’t it?” he said.

Kaplan said after reading and studying Williams in college, he gained a deeper appreciation for the playwright in 1993 while directing “Suddenly Last Summer” in Russia.

“I got it,” he said. “He talked about keeping secrets, hidden desires, the truth that is known, the importance of family. The way the Russian audience responded made me re-think his position among world writers.”

“Williams is about saving face and desire. All of his works are about loss – the summer, and beauty, and youth, and love, and glass animals. These things don’t last very long.”

He believes strongly in seeing the written words interpreted on stage. “We don’t know what plays are like until we see them perform,” he said.

“The Rooming House Plays” are four short plays, three of them set in St. Louis, which will be performed by 16 actors in rooms of a local mansion.

The plays will be staged at the historic Robert Henry Stockton House, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places. Built is 1890, it is considered Romanesque Revival, and is at 3508 Samuel Shepard Drive in Grand Center.

“It’s a big production,” Kaplan said. The setting adds a rhythm and a significance, he said.

Houk said everyone will see every play. “There will be live music. Henry Palkes wrote music and jazz singer Anita Jackson will be part of it. It will be very immersive,” she said.

The play roster is top-notch quality. “There is an impressive level of talent involved. Some of the best actors in St. Louis are in the plays,” she said.

The festival includes “The Glass Menagerie,” his memory play and first commercial hit, which was part of Upstream Theater’s schedule.

“His words are just perfection. Before the acts, scenes and staging, we have these words,” Houk said.

Director Philip Boehm said the timing worked out because they wanted to take on the play for some time.

“It’s iconic, and classic, and everyone knows it, but we wanted to have a different perspective. With the references of St. Louis, and the emphasis on his family, we wanted to spark a discourse,” Boehm said.

“It’s a great play that reaches so many people. We wanted to present a play that had imagination and empathy – they are closely related. It takes us back but makes us look at the present,” he said.

The Midnight Company is producing “The Two-Character Play” featuring Joe Hanrahan and Michelle Hand.

New York actor Jeremy Lawrence is presenting “What’s Next on the Agenda, Mr. Williams?” The playwright in his own words, in a one-man show adapted by Lawrence.

St. Louis native and Broadway star Ken Page will be part of readings in “I Didn’t Go to the Moon. I Went Much Farther.”

Landon Tate Boyd, a local crooner, will be part of “A Perfect Analysis Given By a Parrot” that will be staged in Curtain Call Lounge, directed by screenwriter Brian Hohlfeld. It’s set in Memphis, and two women looking for love wander into a dive bar.

“It’s a barrel of fun,” she said. “We wanted the programming to be diverse.”

“I really wanted an educational component. The Williams scholars are coming here. The devotees really stick together,” she said.

Besides gleaning ideas and contacts at the Provincetown festival, she also traveled to the one annually staged in New Orleans.

Kaplan said the Provincetown organizers had always wondered why St. Louis did not have their own festival.

“Eight years ago, I said wait, someone will come to us. Carrie gets the point,” he said.

“Curating and producing the festival have been the fun part, and to see my dream get the support to bring it to fruition, it is wonderful,” she said.

Hard work, fantastic enthusiasm and support from the community have helped make the four-day festival a reality.

“It’s happening. It’s going to be good. It all came together,” she said. “Everything is open to the public.”

“So many people have helped make the magic happen. The logistics alone!” she said, with special mention to stage manager Michael Perkins.

She praised arts philanthropists Ken and Nancy Kranzberg for their support, and Mary Strauss for her involvement for helping to land the Al Hirschfeld exhibit, contribute vintage costumes and help with numerous details. The Curtain Call Lounge at the Fox Theatre and the Kranzberg Arts Center at the corner of Grand and Olive are venues.

Break out the white T-shirts, an outdoor “Stella!” Shouting Contest is a free event at 2 p.m. Sunday in Strauss Park, across from the Fox Theatre. Advance registration is required, and contestants must be 21 to enter, as Stella Artois is part of the prizes.

Those interested in recreating the famous scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire” must email tinarenard56@gmail.com to be placed on the list. Local actress Em Piro will play Stella opposite the contestants.

Williams died Feb 25, 1983, in New York City, at age 71, and his buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, along with other family members.

His brother, Dakin Williams, lived in Collinsville for many years until moving to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows apartments for his final days. He died in 2008.

The Olympia Dukakis event, set for Thursday has been cancelled due to illness. She was going to discuss her performing Williams and the depths of his words.

In its place will be another performance of “A Perfect Analysis Given By a Parrot” at 8 p.m. but at the Curtain Call Lounge.

“It was important for us to start out strong, and it’s important that his legacy is not lost,” Houk said. “This is a big step forward. It’s my gift to my home.”

About Tennessee Williams

  • Full name: Thomas Lanier Williams III
  • Nickname: Tennessee
  • Born: March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Miss.
  • Died: Feb. 25, 1983 in New York City
  • Parents: Edwina Dakin and Cornelius Coffin Williams
  • Siblings: Rose (1909-1996); Walter Dakin (1919-2008), who lived in Collinsville.
  • The St. Louis Years: Moved here at age 8
  • Attended Soldan and University City High Schools
  • College: University of Missouri-Columbia, Washington University in St. Louis, and B.A. from University of Iowa in 1938.
  • Buried in family burial plot in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis
  • Lived in: Provincetown, Mass.; New Orleans; New York City; Key West, Fla.
  • Pulitzer Prizes for Drama: "A Streetcar Named Desire" 1948; "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" 1955
  • Tony Award Best Play: "A Streetcar Named Desire" 1948
  • Major Works:

"The Glass Menagerie" 1944

"A Streetcar Named Desire" 1947

"Summer and Smoke" 1948

"The Rose Tattoo" 1951

"Camino Real" 1953

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" 1955

"Orpheus Descending" 1957

"Suddenly, Last Summer" 1958

"Sweet Bird of Youth" 1959

"Period of Adjustment" 1960

"The Night of the Iguana" 1961

"The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" 1963

Screenplays, short stories, essays, one-act plays and a memoir.

Festival schedule

The inaugural Tennessee Williams Festival features events mainly in Grand Center and Central West End.

Its mission is to enrich the cultural life of St. Louis by producing an annual theater festival and other artistic and educational events that celebrate the art and influence of Tennessee Williams.

For more information, visit www.twfstl.org. Tickets available through Metrotix.com or 314-534-1111.

“From Streetcar to Milk Train: An Evening with Olympia Dukakis”

Thursday, May 12, 8 to 10 p.m.

The Sun Theater

3625 Grandel Square, St. Louis

“The St. Louis Rooming House Plays”

Four short plays specific to St. Louis

Friday, May 13, 8 to 10 p.m.

Saturday, May 14, 2 to 4 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m.

Sunday, May 15, 3 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m.

Stockton House

3508 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis

“The Two-Character Play”

The Midnight Company

Wednesday and Thursday, May 11 and 12, 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Friday, May 13, 8 to 10 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday, May 14 and 15, 3 to 5 p.m.

The Learning Center, formerly Wednesday Club

4504 Westminster Place, St. Louis

“The Glass Menagerie”

Upstream Theater

May 6, 7, 12, 13 and 14, 8 p.m.

Sunday, May 8, 7 p.m.

Sunday, May 15, 2 p.m.

Kranzberg Arts Center

501 N. Grand at Olive, St. Louis

“Ensemble: Williams Family Letters”

Friday, May 13, 6 to 8 p.m.

The Learning Center, formerly Wednesday Club

4504 Westminster Place

“What’s Next on the Agenda, Mr. Williams?”

Tennessee Williams in his own words, adapted and performed by Jeremy Lawrence

May 11, 7 to 8 p.m.

Curtain Call Lounge, Fox Theatre

Thursday, May 12, 7 to 9 p.m.

Friday, May 13, 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Saturday, May 14, 3 to 5 p.m.

Sunday, May 15, 6 to 7 p.m.

Kranzberg Studio

501 N. Grand at Olive, St. Louis

“A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot”

Thursday, May 12, 10 to 11 p.m.,

Friday, May 13, 6 to 7 p.m.

Saturday, May 14, 10 to 11 a.m. and 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.

Sunday, May 15, 2 to 4 p.m.

Curtain Call Lounge, Fox Theatre

Stella Shouting Contest

Sunday, May 15, 2 p.m.

Strauss Park (Across from Fox Theatre)

Free, but must be 21 to participate and register to enter.

Email tinarenard56@gmail.com

Tennessee Jam

An evening of monologues, poetry, letters, song and music

Friday, May 13, 10 p.m.

The Dark Room

615 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis

Tennessee Williams 101

Saturday, May 14, 10 to 11 a.m.

Sunday, May 15, 10 to 11 a.m.

Kranzberg Studio

501 N. Grand at Olive, St. Louis

Tennessee Williams: The St. Louis Years

Sunday, May 15, 11 a.m. to noon

Kranzberg Studio

501 N. Grand at Olive, St. Louis

Tennessee Williams Tribute Reading:

“I Didn’t Go to the Moon, I Went Much Further”

Featuring Ken Page

Saturday, May 14, 8 to 9 p.m.

The Learning Center (former Wednesday Club)

4504 Westminster Place, St. Louis

“The Glass Menagerie” and “The Two Character Play”: Same and Different

Saturday, May 14, 11 a.m. to noon

Kranzberg Studio

501 N. Grand at Olive, St. Louis

Al Hirschfeld Exhibition

Broadway Poet: Al Hirschfeld Draws Tennessee Williams

Kranzberg Studio

Ongoing

Free

Tennessee Williams Film

“A Streetcar Named Desire”

Continuous Loop starting Friday midnight

Public Media Commons

Free

Photo Exhibit by Ride Hamilton

“The Hotel Plays. French Quarter. 2015”

The Dark Room

615 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis

Free

Bus Tour

Saturday and Sunday, May 14 and 15

Leaves Kranzberg Center at noon

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