The College of Charleston Theatre Department’s main stage production of Five by Tenn, a collection of one-act plays by Tennessee Williams, is not one to be missed. This play is unique in that it does not follow one linear story line, but rather a series of different short plots, all directed by different faculty members from the department.
These one acts are selections of rarely produced plays that Tennessee Williams, perhaps the most renowned American playwright of the 20th century, wrote over a span of nearly 40 years. Though at face value these stories don’t seem to have obvious connections, they certainly relate in reflecting biographical stories, political events, and cultural ideas prominent in Williams’ lifetime.
The show opens with the seedy Lady of Larkspur Lotion. The play, written in 1941 certainly reflects Williams’ recognizable style of southern drama telling the story of two struggling tenants of a sleazy boardinghouse in the New Orleans French Quarter. Director Joy Vandervort-Cobb comments in the director’s notes that this story is one in which “Williams draws heavily and quite candidly, from his own early experience as a young bohemian in the French Quarter.”
Municipal Abattoir follows, bringing a completely different genre to the stage. Municipal, which Williams began writing in 1937, is more of a political piece reflecting the prominent presence of dictators in many Latin American countries during the time.
A rather dark piece, Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen comes next and concludes Act One. This two-man piece about the internal struggle that results from substance abuse and depression largely reflects concepts that Williams himself felt when battling with these conditions.
Act Two opens with a piece that certainly can be seen as a representation of Williams’ more classic, famous work. The Pretty Trap is an early version of The Glass Menagerie, which would go on to become a standard in the modern theatre. The Pretty Trap tells the story of an overbearing single mother who invites a guest to her dysfunctional family’s dinner in hopes to set him up with her soft-spoken daughter. The Pretty Trap ends on a lighter note than the other pieces. However the themes present in Chalky White Substance, the next piece in the show, certainly contrast greatly from those slightly more uplifting ones in The Pretty Trap.
Chalky White Substance is the perfect way to conclude Five by Tenn. Unlike anything seen before, and perhaps very untrue to Williams’ typical styles and themes, Chalky White Substance tells the story of two survivors in a post apocalyptic world. The piece was written in 1980, during the Cold War, where fear of a nuclear war was very present in society. Director Jay Ball, along with student choreographer Meg Fannin-Buckner, chose to make use of Japanese theatre that developed after its nuclear attack in staging the piece. This choice proves to be very successful in representing the post apocalyptic world that Williams intended.
I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with students Kurt Sauer (Assistant Director of Talk to Me Like Rain and Let Me Listen) and Meg Fannin-Buckner (Assistant Director/Choreographer of Chalky White Substance) and ask a few questions about their experience in working on Five by Tenn.
Brooks (to Meg): What were some of the challenges in staging a post-apocalyptic world?
Meg: One of the issues was probably the way that Williams wrote it. He didn’t give a lot of directions, as far as stage directions go. A lot of the movement that you saw was a collaborative effort between myself and Jay (Ball) and then the actors and dancers. We just kind of had to get the feel for what the landscape would be like and go from there.
Brooks (to Meg): This story is clearly very different from the other four, why do you think it was placed with the other plays in this show and what role do you think it played in the show as a whole?
Meg: While there were five directors, Allen (Lyndrup) was kind of the overseer of all of this, and he wanted to get a good spectrum of Tennessee William’s writings throughout his lifetime. Chalky White Substance came from the end of his life and it really shows just how much of a dark person he was and how much of a internal struggle he went through in being a gay person, a gay man, in the time that he lived in and all of the pressures he had as a writer and as a person.
Brooks (to both): What was it like working on a show that had five different directors?
Meg: Well Kurt and I actually only worked with our perspective directors; it was kind of like five little units that really we threw together only four days before we opened. And it was a little difficult figuring out the pacing of the whole show and all of the transitions in between.
Kurt: I would say the only complications as far as that went were during in the set building process and working out the color scheme and stuff like that, working out times. And who was going to be able to use what. That was the only real conflict.
Meg: What set pieces you wanted to use, and what the piece before you used and what the piece after was going to use. In Chalky White Substance, we put baby powder and water all over the stage, so we had to go last. Where as Pretty Trap had a lot of props and furniture, so they used intermission to set that up. And the other three had more minimal setting.
Kurt: I know it was interesting for us, also, they made the decision to use kimonos in other pieces, and our script specifically calls for a pink kimono. We thought it was interesting that now other people are using this aspect that we thought was unique to our show. Fortunately, I don’t think that it really read, because there were shows in between, and I don’t think people (the audience) were trying to link them. I think they were more focusing on what was different about them. I think people already knew what brought them together; I mean they were all written by Williams. The similarities are obvious. What’s more interesting to us is what’s different.
Meg: And you can see the change, because they are in this semi chronological order. A couple are out of order, but I think it really shows the big change that Williams went through in his lifetime because he was under so much pressure. He was constantly being told “Oh you have to rewrite this,” or “No, will your write this kind of thing for us?” He wrote Streetcar (Named Desire) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and you know those big fluffy romantic type things. People were kind of like, “Lets get more of that,” but he wanted to do things more like Chalky White Substance and hard core broken relationship stuff.
Kurt: I think he grew as a writer and wasn’t willing to revert back to things that he considered to be more his fundamentals or things that were kind of more-
Kurt: Safe is a good word. He already knew people wanted more, but he wasn’t interested in appeasing his audience. He was interested in challenging what theatre is.
Brooks (to both): So do you think that all of the works were pieces that were more about things that Williams was more passionate about rather than about pleasing the audience?
Kurt: I think he changed a lot and he grew a lot over his career. I think it shows his growth as an artist and how his thought process changed after becoming famous.
Brooks (to Kurt): Your piece (Talk Me Like Rain and Let Me Listen) was primarily made up of monologues from the two actors that made up the cast. What do you think was the biggest challenge in staging that and keeping the audience interest (which you successfully did)?
Kurt: Yeah I mean, I think you hit the nail on the head. That was the challenge, keeping peoples interest. That was a big thing we looked at when we were doing auditions. We obviously needed two people who’s physical builds match each other and who will work together well on stage, but at the same time a lot of the weight falls onto the female role because it is such a hefty monologue and there’s a lot there. We really needed someone who could sustain that. We got really lucky with who we found. You know the biggest part was just not over doing it (and) just trying to tell her that. Because, you know especially when you (an actor) start doing a monologue you have a lot of doubts as an actor and you start thinking and become really conscientious of yourself. And it was more just getting her outside of her own head. The moments the story that we thought were most clear and the moments we most appreciated were when she was just telling us and not acting and not trying to give us something. We were able to more see it in her subtleties. I think subtleness was a big part of it.
Brooks (to Kurt): Do you think this piece is an accurate view of substance abuse as well as depression, and would you say the Williams drew content for this piece from his own life?
Kurt: Absolutely. I think you’re crazy if you think that Williams didn’t struggle with alcoholism and other substance abuse issues. He made that very apparent with all of his writing; it was a big part of New Orleans culture. Alcohol man, absolutely.
Brooks (to both): What was your favorite part in working on this show?
Meg: Well I’ve gotten to work with Jay before on lots of thing. This is the fourth thing I’ve worked on with Jay. He and I just have a lot of the same crazy thoughts. We are on the same level I think. It was just a thrill to work with him again (especially) on something we both feel passionate about and include this aspect of Japanese theatre that we both love. That might have been my favorite part. And then proving to people (that they could dance). I did have two dancers that we cast, and then one of our actors has a heavy dance background. But Robert Prevatt (who played Mark) had zero dance background, and just showing him and making him understand that he can move and he can do this stylized movement even though he’s not a dancer. Giving him the confidence was pretty cool.
Brooks: So you were primarily responsible for all of the choreography and movement in this piece?
Meg: Any movement they did and then motion behind the movement and the reason why they moved was the stuff I did.
Brooks: I actually thought the movement was really awesome.
Meg: Thank you.
Brooks: I feel like Robert was really able to catch on. He had some good dance moves going on.
Meg: He did.
Kurt: Robert did a terrific job.
Meg: It took him a while to get the confidence in himself. (He was like) “Look at me I’m not a dancer, what do you mean?”
Kurt: Well for someone who was so outside of their comfort zone, he was just so above and beyond the call of duty as far as willingness to experiment and push the envelope, which was exactly what this piece called for.
Meg: And some of the movement was born out of some improv stuff we did. So it wasn’t only me. It was a nice collaborative effort
Brooks: (to Kurt) What about you? What was your favorite part?
Kurt: On a whole, it’s hard to say because the entire process was so much fun. I could not imagine a better cast. They worked so hard every night. And Paul’s guidance- to have someone have so much fun and bring so much liveliness to the room. You just want to hang out and party him, yet we got so much done. It was great how comfortable we became with each other, our ability to give and take. Paul and myself kind of had to hold back a little bit on some of the wild ideas we came up with and let the piece speak for itself.
Don’t miss the chance to experience the magic of the legendary Tennessee Williams! Five by Tenn runs through Jan. 29th, at 7:30 with a 3:00 matinee on Sunday Jan. 29th at the Chapel Theatre.