The artistic director of the Tennessee Williams Festival is excited for St. Louis audiences to experience “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“The only thing missing is the sweat.” — Carrie Houk
By Lynn Venhaus
At the opening night of “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway on Dec. 3, 1947, the audience was electrified by 23-year-old newcomer Marlon Brando, booming “Stella!” across the stage for the first time. They were shocked by the play’s sexuality and brutality. After Tennessee Williams’ play ended, the audience sat for a moment in stunned silence, then erupted into a round of applause that lasted 30 minutes.
Jessica Tandy went on to win a Tony for her performance as Blanche DuBois and Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, with charismatic Brando an overnight sensation as Stanley Kowalski.
The third annual Tennessee Williams Festival in St. Louis will include a main stage performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire” from May 10 to 19, a one-man show, two panel discussions, a staged reading and a Stella Shouting Contest. A New Orleans-style parade around the Grandel Theatre will kick off the fest’s theme, “The French Quarter Years.”
Artistic Director Carrie Houk said the timing was right for “Streetcar.”
“I thought that it was time for us to do one of Williams’ bigger, more iconic plays. In the first two years of the fest, we have produced or presented lesser-known works. Our audience seems to have a thirst for them and we have enjoyed much critical success with them. I wanted to be ready as a company before we tackled one of the “Big Five,” she said.
“‘Streetcar’ is one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved plays in the history of American theater and we’re excited to be able to showcase it in the newly renovated Grandel Theatre,” she said.
Houk founded the festival in 2016, after producing “Stairs to the Roof,” a rarely seen full-length play influenced by Williams’ tenure at the International Shoe Factory, in fall 2014.
“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.
Williams’ work reflects the nearly 20 years his family lived in St. Louis, she said. His creations range from the famed classics, such as “The Glass Menagerie,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Suddenly Last Summer,” “Camino Real,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” to adaptations for film and opera, and dozens of newly discovered plays and writings that have been continuously documented, performed and studied around the world.
“I think it’s important for generations to come, to know how much our city meant to Tennessee Williams and how much of it is reflected in his work. He’s an important part of our cultural landscape, both here in St. Louis and beyond,” she said.
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.
The adversities and joys of his coming of age in St. Louis shaped his work. Williams attended Soldan and University City High Schools, and Washington University. He enjoyed Forest Park, the Art Museum, the Muny and movies at The Tivoli.
Williams died Feb 25, 1983, in New York City, at age 71, and is buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, along with other family members.
The first festival focused on “The St. Louis Years,” his most impressionable time. Last year, “The Magic of Others” was the theme, celebrating those who don’t fit into traditional roles.
In St. Louis, he turned to writing, as his parents’ troubled marriage and his miserable home life wore on him. In high school, he started getting attention for writing, and while studying journalism at the University of Missouri, he wrote his first known play. However, his father forced him to leave college and work at the shoe factory. Being unfulfilled weighed on him, he suffered a nervous breakdown, but writing was a salvation. He returned to college, graduating with an English degree from the University of Iowa in 1938.
A year later, Williams moved to New Orleans at age 28, and found his muse, the heartbeat of his work, in his new location. He changed his name to Tennessee, a college nickname and the state his father was from, and this shift in identity helped him reinvent himself.
“The French Quarter is the place where he found his spiritual home and where he blossomed as an artist. He called the Quarter ‘the last frontier of Bohemia,’” Houk said.
Houk wants people to feel how potent Williams’ play is today, 70 years later.
Lana Dvorak, Nick Narcisi, Sophia Brown, Spencer Sickmann in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” ProPhotoSTL
Regarded as one of the finest plays of the 20th century and Williams’ greatest, “Streetcar,” which debuted in 1947, is the story of a troubled former schoolteacher, Blanche DuBois, after she leaves a small town in Mississippi and moves in with her sister Stella and her husband Stanley in New Orleans. With her flirtatious Southern-belle attitude, Blanche upends the precarious relationship between her sister and brother-in-law, leading to even greater conflict during her brief stay.
“Director Tim Ocel has created this beautiful atmosphere in the stage of the Grandel with his spot-on direction, an exemplary cast, a team of amazing designers (James Wolk, Michele Siler, Sean Savoie and Amanda Werre), plus gorgeous New Orleans jazzy blues original score composed by Henry Palkes. The only thing missing is the sweat!” she said.
Palkes, a local pianist and composer, has presented concerts throughout the U.S., most notably at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. He has been the affiliate keyboard artist for the St. Louis Symphony since 1992, and is currently performing with the first national tour of “An American in Paris.”
Houk is impressed with the cast. Nick Narcisi is Stanley, Sophia Brown is Blanch, Spencer Sickmann is Mitch and Lana Dvorak is Stella. Supporting players include Isaiah DiLorenzo, Jacob Flekier, Amy Loui, Jesse Munoz, Isabel Pastrana, David Wassilak and Maggie Wininger.
“I love the energy and the lust for life that the cast brings to the piece. Their chemistry as a troupe is palpable and it adds an incredible charge to the production,” she said.
Ocel and Houk decided that they wanted the actors to be close to the age that Williams indicated in the script.
“Too often we see them portrayed by middle-aged actors and they are supposed to be quite young. The pathos is heightened by the fact that Blanche has come to the end of the line at such a young age. She is celebrating her 30th birthday during the play,” she said.
“As Isaiah DiLorenzo, who plays Steve, mentioned to me just mentioned to me, we have ‘assembled a bouquet of sweet and committed artists.’ I think St. Louis is going to like what they see,” she said.
This year’s festival marks a departure from the previous ones, taking suggestions from the local patrons regarding programming.
“In the first two years, I was modeling our format on other Williams’ festivals, with any different elements over a four-day weekend. In our third year, I am listening to my audience,” she said.
“We are not as much of a destination festival as Provincetown or New Orleans. Most of our audience is from St. Louis and I have found that they have a harder time spending an entire weekend attending many different productions, panels, exhibitions, parties, etc. This year we are focusing on one big production, running it for ten days and surrounding it with a few complimentary elements. We will continue to evolve over the next years and learn from our audience,” she said.
Some of the festival highlights she is excited about include a one-man show that they are bringing in, “Tennessee Rising,” with Jacob Storms, who devised the piece, portraying him from his entry into New Orleans as a young man and beyond.
It will take place May 11-13 at the .Zack, 3224 Locust.
“He has achieved terrific critical acclaim with the piece and we are very luck to have him as part of this year’s fest,” she said.
“I also welcome back Tom Mitchell with a wonderful staged reading of an early version of ‘Streetcar’ called ‘Interior Panic.’ I had seen it recently in New Orleans and thought it would complement our festival perfectly. It will be performed on our ‘Streetcar’ set, with a discussion following,” she said.
“Streetcar” performances are scheduled Thursday through Sunday, May 10-13; Wednesday and Thursday, May 16-17; and Saturday, May 19. The Stella Shouting Contest will follow the May 13 performance.
In addition, there will be no performance on May 18, as the Festival will join St. Louisans in celebrating the 100th anniversary of the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre.
The May 16 performance will be audio described by Mind’s Eye Radio for the visually impaired.
Two one-hour panels – “Tennessee Williams: The French Quarter Years” and “A Streetcar Named Desire”– will be presented at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Sat., May 12, respectively, on the “Streetcar” set at the Grandel. The panels will be moderated by noted Tennessee Williams scholars David Kaplan and Henry Schvey.
“Interior: Panic,” Williams’ stunning one-act precursor to “A Streetcar Named Desire,” will be performed with scripts-in-hand under the direction of Tom Mitchell, head of the Department of Theatre at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The staged reading is set for 11 a.m. on Sat., May 19, on the “Streetcar” set at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square, St. Louis.
Tickets to festival events are at MetroTix.com. Visit www.twstl.org, or call 314-517-5253, for additional event information.
Q&A with CARRIE HOUK:
Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
“I was born this way. I didn’t feel I had a choice. I have been lucky enough to make a living in the arts my entire professional life. I realize how fortunate I am. My parents surrounded us with good music at home and opportunities to attend ballet, concerts, and theatre from an early age. I began producing “carport theatre” from a very young age in Crestwood. Cannot imagine any other life, really.”
How would your friends describe you?
Insanely passionate about my work. Kind (I hope), tempestuous (in a good way!) and lover of life!
How do you like to spend your spare time?
I like to spend downtime making pasta or authentic Mexican food for my friends. Cooking is very meditative for me. Plus, it is another creative outlet. My husband and I love nothing more than having friends over for good food and many hours of fantastic conversation. I think our circle really enjoys our little soirees, incredibly satisfying for all, I believe.
What would people be surprised to find out about you?
That I am incredibly vulnerable.
Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
When my father died. I was eleven. I realized that I must do everything I can in life and not waste a minute. I have always strived to eke out as much “life” out of this life that I can.
Who do you admire most?
That’s tough! I admire so many people in my life. I am always very wowed by my family. The Houk girls (mother, sisters, daughter, niece) all have an incredible strength, imagination and perseverance that is quite stunning. We have never been afraid of hard work. I love to see this in my daughter. She is centered, determined and kind along the way. She is a strong anchor for me at times. Then, my husband David Carl Wilson. He has provided a strong shoulder of comfort, advice and smarts in this journey that we have been on in Tennessee Williams land.
What is at the top of on your bucket list?
Running a little seaside resort in an interesting part of Mexico or Italy, like Maxine in “Night of the Iguana.”
What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
Walking in Forest Park – hands down. We are lucky enough to live across the street from the park and I launch into it almost every day. A true gift that I never fail to appreciate.
Traveling to Italy and London this summer. We will be living in Vienna for two months in early fall while David is on a teaching assignment with Webster University. Grand Center Theatre Crawl, TCG conference and planning a fall Tennessee Williams project during and in between.
MORE ABOUT CARRIE:
Birthplace: St Louis
Current location: St Louis
Family: Daughter – Dakota Houk Minervini; Husband – David Carl Wilson; Mother – Billie Houk; and Sisters – Belinda Lee and Zoe Robinson.
Education: Webster University Theatre Arts Conservatory; HB Studio NYC
Day job: Founder and Artistic Director , Tennessee Williams Festival St Louis
First job: Kirkwood Cinema
First role: Candy Starr, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Repertory Theatre St Louis
Favorite roles/plays: Cherie, “Bus Stop”
Dream role/play: Maxine in “Night of the Iguana” — if I still acted.
Awards/Honors/Achievements: St Louis Visionary Award , Successful Working Artist. The Charles Guggenheim Award from Cinema St Louis
A song that makes you happy: Actually, not a song but “Gaite Parisiene” by Offenbach.