The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville attended the 2015 American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) Conference in New Orleans during March 25-29, which was organized by New Orleans theatre critic Alan Smason, Conference Chair extraordinaire. What made this conference extra special is that it was held at the same time as the 29th annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, a New Orleans tradition founded in 1986 to share the region’s rich cultural history.
Williams moved to New Orleans in 1939, shortly after finishing college, and it became one of his favorite cities, along with Key West and New York. On March 26, he would have celebrated his 104th birthday, and although he is gone, his plays live on and have become more valued with the passing years. Williams was a prolific writer and is known to have written something almost every day of his adult life. Every year, it seems, the literary festival celebrates the discovery of new and interesting writing by Williams, which has included letters, one-act plays, and notes about his creative life.
Our visit started with a fabulous jazz reception at historic Gallier Hall, where we were treated to expertly prepared New Orleans food and beverages, and of course, given strings of gold, green, and purple beads. We then took a trip by bus to the Rivertown Theatres for the Performing Arts, to see “When Ya Smilin’,” a warm new comedy, written and directed by local playwright Ricky Graham, about growing up in New Orleans in the ‘50s.
When Williams was in the city, he frequently visited Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, which, founded in 1916, is one of the oldest community theatres in the county. We saw a polished production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner with Friends,” by Donald Margulies in this historic setting.
The critics were captivated by two panel discussions held at the Astor Crowne Plaza, our conference hotel. “A Conversation with Bryan Batt” was an informative dialogue with this local actor, who has appeared on Broadway, in film, and in AMC’s popular “Mad Men” series for several seasons.
A second panel with New Orleans artistic directors provided enlightening insights into New Orleans theatre before and after Hurricane Katrina; an amazing recovery and revitalization has taken place in the past ten years.
We saw a stunning production of “Suddenly, Last Summer,” presented by the Southern Rep Theatre, a professional company, at the Ashe Power House Theatre; the play is set in the Garden District of New Orleans.
Williams wrote many plays based on his experiences and residents he encountered in seedy boarding houses and hotels. We saw four of these plays, a joint production by The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival and the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, at the Hermann-Grima House. The plays included “Lord Byron’s Love Letter,” “Mister Paradise,” and “Lady of Larkspur Lotion,” and the production was designed as an immersive experience for the audience, as each was set in a different room with period furnishings.
While a number of events were repeated during the festival, we attended two that were presented just once, and filled to capacity, by ATCA members, and by many fans of Williams, who came from both domestic and foreign settings.
On March 27, we experienced “Blue Devils and Better Angels,” a Tennessee Williams Tribute Reading. The readers of selections from Williams’ works included filmmaker John Waters and actor Keir Dullea and his award-winning actress wife Mia Dillon, who did a scene from “Night of the Iguana.” Playwright John Patrick Shanley, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for “Doubt,” read from the script of a new play he is developing. The well-chosen selections were presented under a tent on the grounds of the historic Ursuline Convent, thought to be the oldest building in New Orleans. A wonderful surprise at this event was running into former Jacksonville actress Bacot Wright, who was in the audience. Bacot and her husband Greg Leute live in nearby Baton Rouge. She is active on stage at LSU, while Greg teaches drama at Theatre Baton Rouge.The Monteleone Hotel (which was a favorite of Hemmingway, Faulkner, and Williams), along with The NOLA Project, an ensemble theatre company, hosted a sold-out performance of Williams’ “I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays” a lively one-act performed as reader’s theatre.
Most of our readers are familiar with Williams and his plays, as many have been done in the North Florida area. However, you may not know he was also a painter; the Ogden Museum of Southern Art has a number of his paintings on display through May 31, 2015.
It was a busy and full conference, and as always our schedule included workshops related to professional skills and controversies. “Perspectives in Criticism, the keynote address, was given by Hedy Weiss, who has been the Chicago Tribune’s theatre critic for many years.
Of course we enjoyed all the food options that were available everywhere in the French Quarter. And yes, music and lots it, not only in the many clubs in the area, but also from the talented street musicians who were everywhere. N’awlins is a fun city, and while we had our fill of gumbo, crawfish, and great southern hospitality, the highlights were the many activities related to the past and current contributions of theatre to New Orleans cultural life.