Saturday, September 22, 2012

Interview with David Kaplan, Curator of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Fetstival

By Byrne Harrison

David Kaplan is curator and co-founder of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival and the author of the book Tennessee Williams in Provincetown. He is the editor of Tenn at One Hundred,  the centennial anthology on the subject of Tennessee Williams' reputation.

In 1993 he directed and designed the Russian premiere of Suddenly, Last Summer in Russian at the Gorky Theater of Samara. In 2003 Mr. Kaplan directed Tennessee Williams’ The Eccentricities of a Nightingale in Cantonese at the Hong Kong Repertory Theater, and in 2008 in Chicago, he staged the critically acclaimed world premiere of Williams' The Day on Which a Man Dies.

Other Williams plays he’s directed include The Dog Enchanted by the Divine View ,Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me ListenFrosted Glass CoffinsA Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot , The Traveling Companionand The Chalky White Substance.

For decades he has staged cultural collisions of classic Western texts in unexpected languages: a SufiKing Lear in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, performed in the Uzbek language; Genet’s The Maids in Ulaan Baator, Mongolia, performed in Mongolian; A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Buryatia, performed in the Buryat language. In Russia Mr. Kaplan directed the first Russian productions of Auntie Mame and Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! Also in Russia, Macbeth.

Plays directed by Mr. Kaplan have appeared in over 40 of the 50 United States. 

How did you come up with the idea for the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival?

My partner is hairdresser to the stars in Provincetown; he comes here in the summer.  I came here once after having done some Tennessee Williams research for a production of The Eccentricities of A Nightingale that I was directing in Hong Kong.  

Which sounded fascinating, by the way.

That was a really fun project.  I had done some research for the play in Texas, and because I had been in Provincetown, those things called out to me.  The next time I was in Provincetown, which was right after that job, I wanted to go see this or that that was mentioned in the letters and diary.  So I began to track down the people who were in their 80s who knew him that were still living in town.  Some would talk to me and some would not.  While I was interviewing a woman named Jeanne Bultman who had lent Williams the typewriter he wrote The Glass Menagerie on, I said, “You know, I’m thinking of writing a book.”  I said it very casually, and Jeannie said, “Well, you might as well.”  And so I said, “You know what, I might as well.”

Then I had another job that brought me back to Provincetown, only this time I was seriously researching the book.  There was a new building in town, which was the first building solely dedicated to theatre that the town had had since the last avatar of the Provincetown Playhouse burned down in 1977.  I met with the board of the foundation that ran the theatre and I said you can’t just have a building that’s in use, if this is really to serve the community you have to go out into the community and invite participation.  So the first thing that I suggested was a children’s company, and they were completely uninterested.  And then the second thing I suggested was a dance company, and they were completely uninterested in that.  And the third thing that I suggested was a Portuguese language theatre and I didn’t even get past the second sentence.  And then really, because I was working on the book, I said, well you can always start a Tennessee Williams festival.  Someone said to me, "So you want to do this next year?" And I said, no, I’m not available in a year and the level of talent that I want to ask is not available in a year. You need two years to set this up.

One of the things that I made a point of was that the people who were going to put this together with me go to the festival in New Orleans. And that we would have a contact and learn from the festivals in Clarksdale and Columbus, to learn what they had succeeded at and what they suggested, what they wish they had done less of, what they wish they had done more of, what we were in a position to do that they weren’t, and also I wanted to make it very clear from the beginning that we were not competitive that we were synergistic.

So by the time we opened, we opened with a bang.  Doing the research, I had dug up "The Parade" – a very, very charming young gay romance, no one had any idea that he was writing anything like that - and we had local people to do it.  My team from my Hong Kong production came and played in Cantonese.  I had a student, Lowell Smith, who has since passed on, that was the original Stanley in the Dance Theater of Harlem version of the Streetcar ballet.  He put together a reconstruction of that.  At the last minute we had a cancellation, but I had found a production of Streetcar the opera that had just closed in Atlanta.  I called the director up and said we had a cancellation; you’ll get a lot of publicity if you come and save the day.

So our first year we had something in Chinese, an opera, a new play that no one knew about.  And we had the local high school do a production of The Glass Menagerie.  Which I think was kind of the perfect thing, that what he had written here in a dune shack was such a classic now.

That was the first year and I knew we would have themes every year, and so the first year there was no choice, we had to be about Tennessee Williams and Provincetown.  And then the second year, I knew going into it what the second year would be.  At first we were calling it Camp Williams and then it became a broader theme which was Avant-Garde Williams.  And so every year we’ve had a theme and this year it’s Tennessee Williams and Music.

How did you decide on that as the theme for this year’s festival?

One of the things that interests me about Williams is his ironic use of production elements.  There’s a great Jean Cocteau quote in the introduction to The Eiffel Tower Wedding.  Cocteau says we all know what poetry in the theatre is, but there is another thing – poetry of the theatre, and it’s combining the elements of a theatrical performance in a poetic way.  This interests me very much in Williams in the work I’ve been directing and also in observing other people’s work.  I saw a very special way that the music was used.  It was not used like movie music - it didn’t set the emotional tone.  It set the dynamic tension.  Williams had an idea how music could be used in an ironic way, so very often there’ll be an unhappy scene on stage and the music will be very happy.  And that’s a basic experience of living in the Depression – that there was all this happy music blaring on the radio.  He grew up in that - the irony of being miserable while “We’re in the Money” is blasting away.  We forget how political he was in overt, as well as in coded ways.  He saw the music politically as well.  The music was a social commentary and that it was meant to be used as something that would alter the mood of the public, and not always as intended.

The Tennessee Williams Songbook [with Alison Fraser] had its own trajectory.  I had had this idea for a while – to research what pop songs were in Tennessee Williams plays.  And it’s not an “oh, by the way” thing – trust me, Irene Selznick doesn’t want to pay for the rights to “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”  So for Williams to say "I want this" is a significant thing.

I went into this Songbook Project with all this material, and I had a hunch that it was about something.  But I didn’t want to pin it down until we were in the rehearsal room.  And then when Alison Fraser and I were in the rehearsal room, it just became inescapable that all the lyrics are about a woman waiting for someone who never showed up.  All of them, over and over and over again.  I remembered that Williams began writing A Streetcar Named Desire when he was in Chicago, and his initial image for the show was a woman sitting in the moonlight waiting for someone who never shows up.  That image organized the Songbook's material.  We realized that we were essentially following the trajectory of Blanche in doing this series of songs.  And may I remind you that it’s not a happy ending.

What was it that drew you to Williams?

I think that Williams is like a shaman in that he goes to a place, he sees it and he comes back and reports it.  And in the words that he uses to make the report, he evokes the same vision that he had when he was in the other place.

That’s what I consistently go back to, that the words themselves are incantations.  That they evoke a vision when they are spoken out loud.  Even in the first rehearsal when I am working on a Williams play, when those words are spoken out loud, something happens in the room.  It’s like a recipe for a vision.

How do you capture that when you do these shows in other languages?

It’s because the plays are about something. Suddenly, Last Summer is a perfect example.  At the first rehearsal for the play at a large theatre in Russia, I was interviewed and the first question was how do you think a Russian audience is going to relate to the controversial nature of the play.  I said, I’m assuming by controversial nature of the play you’re talking about homosexuality.  I could see the reporter lean forward like she smelled blood and the beads of sweat were forming on the theatre director’s forehead because I was already getting him in trouble. So I said Ibsen wrote a play about how we’re haunted by our pasts, Ghosts, and he found a really good metaphor for that in syphilis.  At the time they were confused, they thought the play was about syphilis.  But now at a distance of a hundred years we understand that that’s a metaphor, a universal metaphor.  So in Suddenly, Last Summer Williams is using homosexuality as a metaphor for the truth that everyone knows and no one wants to talk about.  I would bet a Soviet audience could relate to that.

So I think that’s why they last, and why they go from culture to culture.  One of the reasons Eccentricities of a Nightingale worked in Hong Kong is that it’s about a condition that the Chinese could relate to – public shame.  And that’s why Suddenly, Last Summer could work because it was about secrets that were uncovered.  What a great playwright does is have a vision of how human beings relate to each other.  Williams' vision was very clearly that love, like many other important things, happened fast and disappeared, and needed to be recalled in words and in memory. The fact that it didn’t last forever made it that much more imperative to talk about it and remember it.  I think that’s a universal.  I really do.

What are the plans for next year?

The theme is Tennessee Williams and Women, through a very particular lens.  It’s a concentration on avant-garde women playwrights through the ‘20s and ‘30s who were creating new ideas about women’s roles onstage and off.  So it’s Gertrude Stein, Maurine Watkins, the woman who wrote the book for Chicago - she was a crime reporter,  and Eulalie Spence who wrote comedies.

And we’re going to do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a nutjob play by Williams called The Mutilated, and in the 1930s Williams wrote 5 or 6 plays about chorus girls.  Who knew?  And what the hell does he know about chorus girls?  Nothing except what he got from Joan Blondell in the movies.  So they’re really fantasies which is very interesting, and he hadn’t hit his stride yet creatively.  So were going to do a collection of them.

You mentioned earlier is that there is a lot of community involvement in this festival. One of the things I’ve noticed with a lot of festivals is that it’s almost like the productions are parachuted in, they perform then disappear.

That is something we don’t do.  We don’t like being treated like a hot sheets motel.

The earliest that people can perform is a Thursday or Friday, but we want people here for the whole week.  That’s so they can see each other’s work and hang out together and come up with ideas for further collaborations.  A really good way to piss me off if you come as an artist is not to see other people’s work.

And you’d be missing such a great opportunity

It’s a resource. Olympia Dukakis, who believe me knows a thing or two about craft, went to see other people’s work.  Betty Buckley went to see stuff because she was curious.

What we are about ultimately is to change the way that Williams is spoken about and thought about in the world.  We gather here and we do our thing collectively and hopefully it spills out when people go home or work with each other in other ways. That really has happened, it’s not just a pious wish.  Many of the plays that we have done here first have been published, have entered the repertory, and have been performed in other places.  We have had a number of people who met here and have gone on to collaborate - choreographers, directors, actors, playwrights.  And that makes us very happy.

For more information about the Provincetown Tennessee Williams festival, visit their website.

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