No one will be yelling “STELLLLLAAAA!!!” at the balconies of the Pontalba apartments in Jackson Square this year for the 2021 Tennessee Williams and New Orleans Literary Festival (TWFestNOLA), but the screams and festival will be returning virtually with the encouragement of longtime patrons and participants.
The 2020 festival was canceled on March 12, 2020, one day after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. “
The safety of the community is the top priority,” read a statement at the time from the festival organizers. TWFestNOLA Managing Director Tracy Cunningham said, “We never hesitated to make the move online. We were so disappointed that we had to cancel the 2020 Festival less than two weeks before opening night, so we were committed to creating virtual content that would continue our mission to promote the literary arts and the writers, actors, musicians and others who create that art.”
Tennessee Williams’ love affair with the Crescent City
The 35th annual festival runs virtually March 24-28, 2021. Friday will be the 110th birthday of the playwright Thomas “Tennessee” Williams, III (March 26, 1911 – February 25, 1983). First visiting New Orleans in 1938, Williams said, “I’ve been here about three hours but have already wandered about the Vieux Carre and noted many exciting possibilities. Here surely is the place that I was made for if any place on this funny old world.”
He penned perhaps his most famous work “A Streetcar Named Desire” between 1946-47, living near the Desire streetcar line which ran up and down Bourbon and Royal Streets. Though many things have changed since his time in the city, most notably that the Desire streetcar line is gone, many of his former residences and hangouts remain and can be seen on a stroll through the French Quarter.
His work often referenced elements of his own life including his homosexuality, alcoholism, and the mental instability among his family members including his schizophrenic sister Rose. Many of the characters in “The Glass Menagerie (1944)” have similarities to Williams and his mother. In the play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955),” the character Brick struggles with alcohol and argues with his wife Maggie, who implies that Brick’s male friend Skipper had at least an unconscious desire for a sexual relationship with Brick. Many of these subjects were considered disreputable in the 1940-50s, but Williams said fewer people called his work sordid late in his life in 1970-80s when there was wider acceptance of the subject matter.
What happens at TWFest?
While many TWFestNOLA events are free, some paid events will help fund the festival like “Tennessee Williams Tribute Reading: The Place That I Was Made For,” featuring stars of stage and screen like Alan Cumming, perhaps best known for the Spy Kids and X-Men films; Blair Underwood, from L.A. Law; along with Adam Dugas, Lawrence Henry Gobble, Rodney Hicks, Tomas Keith, Ann Magnuson, Amy Ryan, Mink Stole, and Jacob Storms. According to the TWFestNOLA, the tribute reading brings to life some of the sights, sounds, and poetry of New Orleans through Tennessee’s plays, letters, stories, journals, and poems.
The feedback for the virtual festival has been mostly positive. Cunningham said, “[participants] have been so supportive of our efforts and willing to work through the technology needed to bring the festival to life. It’s so gratifying to hear them express how happy they are that we are forging ahead with our online fest.”
Many events have been filmed for the festival with longtime venue partners, like the Beauregard-Keyes House, Hotel Monteleone, New Orleans Jazz Museum, and the AllWays Lounge. Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, another longtime partner of the festival, will make available two Tennessee Williams One Acts: “Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen” and “This Property Is Condemned. Click here for tickets.
For those still wishing to yell “STELLLLLAAAA!!!” from the famous scene in “Streetcar” for the annual Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest, people are encouraged to share their shout-outs on social media with #StellaShout. The festival also produced a video of worldwide screamers with “The Stella Shout Heard ‘Round the World!”
The complete schedule of events including literary discussions with authors can be downloaded at https://tennesseewilliams.net/
Cunningham talked of the learning curve with new technology for the virtual festival, saying, “the word ‘challenge’ is not strong enough to capture the struggle of learning new platforms, setting up workflows so we could work effectively from home, and just dealing with the stress of living through a pandemic. But we were committed to bringing the spirit of New Orleans to a virtual format, and as we’re approaching the end (we hope) of the pandemic, we are so proud of the content we’ve produced and so grateful to everyone who worked with us to make it happen.”