Directing Tennessee Williams – panel discussion

The Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company presented their 2nd Annual Tennessee Williams Festival

with a wine reception, a reading of the Williams’ one act play, Kingdom of Earth, introduced by Playhouse Creatures Artistic Director Joseph W. Rodriguez, followed by a panel discussion featuring accomplished directors known for successful interpretations of the dramatist’s work.

Tennessee Williams festival Austin Pendleton Emily Mann

Austin Pendleton, Emily Mann, Jodie Markell, Cosmin Chivu, Travis Chamberlain, Thomas Keith

The panel was moderated by Williams scholar Thomas Keith, Consulting Editor at New Directions, Williams’ original and only publisher. He had asked each of the guests to focus their comments on one specific project, in relation to the topic of directing Williams’ later, lesser-known works and, in one case, bringing a fresh approach to an early iconic play.

Drama and comedy written for the theater is as old as civilization itself, and at its heart has always been language that reveals fundamental aspects of what it means to be human and what it means to be inhuman. The greatest playwrights are poets whose words can reach across years and even centuries to present an artistic mirror that compels us humans to laugh (or weep) at ourselves, reaffirm our values, or reexamine the validity of our most cherished beliefs in what we hold to be sacred or profane. And Tennessee Williams is arguably the greatest playwright that America may ever produce. From the shortest stories to the grandest pageants, his wit and wisdom wove poetic tapestries featuring memorable characters and speaking directly to issues of class, race, sexuality, and social justice in ways that were daring for his time, but which remain just as relevant today. It is the universal aspect of his themes, usually presented in the specific environs of the American South during the middle of the twentieth century, that provide audiences so much treasure, as well as his ability to provide actors with language that appears to be rendered in our common speech, but is in fact poetry and how we only wish we spoke to one another.

Moderator Keith had asked for comments relating to issues faced when staging later Williams offerings or those known to have been “difficult.” But down the line, the panel stressed that there was nothing wrong with Williams’ later plays. Rather, they agreed, any real issues lay with critics and a public that wanted him to keep writing the traditional dramas from the early 50s, when he had evolved toward deeply personal works, expressionistic in style, and intimate in their nuanced structure and language, which could not be adequately expressed in the cavernous Broadway houses where they were first staged, often coming off as melodramas.

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