GRAND CENTER – The fourth annual Tennessee Williams Festival opened this weekend in the Grand Center Arts District. A celebration of playwright Tennessee Williams, who most famously wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the festival features not only three plays but also a series of discussion panels and a bus tour.
The festival itself was started by Carrie Houk, who acts as the Executive Artistic Director and has a deep admiration for Tennessee Williams’ work. She called Williams “America’s Shakespeare” when speaking about the playwright.
“Tennessee Williams’ plays are not produced often enough,” she said, citing the large casts – and consequently large budgets – as one explanation. But Houk is excited to be able to showcase Tennessee Williams’ work to the St. Louis community.
She said she is particularly invested in offering opportunities for students in St. Louis to be exposed to Williams’ work, along with presenting workshops and panels with experts on the playwright’s life and artistry. Ultimately, she hopes that the festival will become a cornerstone of the St. Louis community.
It’s fitting, since Williams spent a good portion of his childhood in St. Louis after his family moved here from Mississippi when he was eight. Many of his works reference his time in St. Louis, most famously his first national success “The Glass Menagerie,” which premiered in 1944 in New York City. Williams was one of the first inductees to receive a star along the St. Louis Walk of Fame on Delmar.
For the festival, though, it all started with just one little-known play. Houk produced Williams’ “Stairs to the Roof” and was pleased by the reception she got.
“We were very ambitious right out of the gate, and I was pleasantly surprised by the support from the community,” Houk said, adding, “Although many had never heard of the play, the three week run sold out.”
That was the encouragement Houk needed to launch the full-scale festival in 2016.
This year, the festival features two of Williams’ plays: “Night of the Iguana” and “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” at the Grandel. Bryan Batt also performed his one-man show “Dear Mr. Williams” for just two nights at the Curtain Call Lounge. And next week, it’s possible to catch the Tennessee Williams Bus Tour, which will “retrace the roots of Tennessee Williams’ formative years.”
Kari Ely, director of “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” said she was happy to direct this particular play because of its St. Louis references, from Forest Park to Enright Avenue.
“These are places that he’s drawn from, and I think he’s really drawn his characters from people that he knew when he lived on Enright Avenue,” said Ely. “I think that’s what makes writers’ work so rich, is when they drawn on the things that are in their life and the hopes and dreams that he witnessed right here.”
Houk said much the same of Williams. “…William’s characters are utterly human, complicated and yearning for love and connection,” she said. “I believe that most of us can relate to them on a deep emotional level.”
The Tennessee Williams Festival runs through May 19th. For tickets or more information, visit https://www.twstl.org/2019-festival.