Friday, September 13, 2013

Three's a Charm

Over the years, my search for Tennessee has led me to many places I never expected to end up.  I have always seemed to come out on the other side though, learning more than I ever imagined to begin with.  One of the most recent unexpected journeys my search has led me on is that of the writer, James Franco.

In the past few years, I have come to be acquainted with the lyrical and visual artistry of James Franco.  He is an artist who has a multi-layered creative vision that allows him to pursue acting, writing, painting, directing...basically anything he puts his mind to.  For better or worse, he does not seem to care about the outcome of his personal creative endeavors.  He seems to just write, because he loves to write; paints because he loves to paint; performs because he loves to perform.

Unlike James, Tennessee seemed to write, because he felt he had to.  Yes, he loved it, but he seemed to have felt cursed at times.  He also cared very much as to what people thought of his work and allowed their opinions to be a driving force in the later years of his life.  That being said, that did not stop Tennessee from writing exactly what he wanted, no matter how taboo it may have been at that time.  Even though he cared very much about what people thought, he could not stop from writing plays that spoke of truths about human nature and what drives us at our core that nobody else wanted to talk about . 

The Glass Menagerie is the best example, in my opinion, of Tennessee using his writing to talk about the painful truth of his beloved mentally ill sister Rose, his controlling mother, and how he as a young man wanted to be the writer that his family was not willing to accept.

In November of 2011, James Franco and Laurel Nakadate, a filmmaker and photographer, collaborated together and created a mixed-media performance with The Glass Menagerie as the basis.  Three Performances in Search of Tennessee was a three-part project that took place in New York City. 

As part of this project, James went to the Elysee Hotel in NYC where Tennessee died and hosted a spiritual meditation session in which he tried to channel Tennessee’s spirit.  The other two segments of this project took place at a theater and included actresses auditioning for the role of Laura against a video projection of James playing the Gentleman Caller and male actors auditioning for the role of Tom.

This project was the first I had learned of James’ interest in Tennessee’s work.  His take on exploring Tennessee intrigued me.  Being that I was on my own journey with Tennessee I wanted to learn more about this seemingly shared passion.  I wanted to know how James felt about Tennessee and his work, and what kind of journey his search had led him on.

Following Three Performances in Search of Tennessee, I read that James was working on various Tennessee Williams projects in Detroit.  James was also in talks to star in Sweet Bird of Youth opposite Nicole Kidman, but unfortunately that never came to be.

In March 2011, I attended the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans.  It was my first time visiting New Orleans.  I took master classes with authors who I had admired, like Amy Hempel, and authors who I never heard of, but received great inspiration from like Constance Adler.  I felt like I was channeling Tennessee’s spirit over the course of those few days.  When I returned home I felt more inspired than ever.

Not long after my return, I learned that James was going to be hosting an event at The Strand bookstore in New York.  April 13, 2012 and  Friday the 13th.  The event was described as an evening with James Franco that included a performance, a Q&A session, and a book signing of his book The Dangerous Book Four Boys.  I knew I had to at least attend the event even though I knew my chances of having an opportunity to talk with him about his exploration of Tennessee’s work was slim to none. 

As I thought, I did not have the opportunity to talk with him, but it was still a memorable evening.  I did however, have the opportunity to talk briefly with Laurel Nakadate, who worked on the Tennessee project with James.  It only fueled my fire more to continue my own journey.

Fastforward to Friday, September 6, 2013.  I was scrolling through my instagram feed when I saw that James was going to be hosting a screening and book signing at Pace Gallery in New York the next day.  You had to buy a book on Friday in person to guarantee admission into the event.  There was no way that was going to happen; I live on Long Island and I had to work.  I pondered all day on Friday just taking a chance and going into the city.  When I woke up Saturday morning, the first thing I said to myself was that I was going no matter what. 

I called the gallery Saturday morning to see if they had any books available.  The woman on the phone said that she didn’t know anything and was no help in sealing my decision.  The lack of information did not phase me.  I hopped on the train and headed into the city.  On the ride in I just kept telling myself that even if I was not able to get in I would make the most of the evening and shop, have dinner, or maybe even go see a play.

I arrived at Penn Station at 4:00 p.m.  I grabbed a cab down to the gallery.  I could have easily walked, but something told me that time was of the essence.  I walked into the gallery and a woman greeted me and asked me if I wanted to buy a catalog.  I said yes and she called to another woman.  The new woman, who I will call Ameile, because that’s what it sounded like, and I can’t remember what her name really was said hello to me and asked me if I was there to buy a catalog.  All I kept thinking in my mind was that it was a like a scene from a “Seinfeld” episode.

She picked up a book and proceeded to tell me the book I was getting was their very last copy of, Moving Pictures / Moving Sculptures: The Films of James Franco.  I guess time really was of the essence.  She told me people were to be let in four or five people at a time and James would be signing the books one on one.  I instantly thought maybe I would have an opportunity to finally ask him about his Tennessee Williams projects.  I had a list of three things on my mind I wanted to share.

When it came my time to meet with James, I started our conversation by telling him I was a fellow writer, and as a writer, I truly enjoyed his book Palo Alto.  This was the first thing on my list.  I told him I enjoyed Palo Alto so much I had insisted to my dear friend, mentor, and former journalism professor she read the book.  I shared with him she loved the book so  much she had her students in her creative writing class read the book as well.  He reached his hand out to me and thanked me for telling him. 
I think everyone needs to hear sincere compliments on their talents no matter who they are.  I meant every word I said and I hope my sentiment came across as true as I felt.  This was the second thing on my list. 

After I finished sharing those stories with him, I felt a panic, and thought I was taking too much time.  I did not want to be rude to the other people who were waiting.  We said goodbye and I walked away. 

Number three, and what I had thought to be the most important thing on my list before talking with him, to talk Tennessee, was not spoke of.  In the instant I began talking to him my mind shifted and all I wanted to do was tell him how he inspired me as a writer and how I appreciated his work.

In speaking of truths, the truth is I wanted James to know how much I admired his work more than I wanted to talk about Tennessee in that moment.  I also figure, three’s a charm, so maybe someday my journey will lead me to talk Tennessee with him.  Besides, my search for Tennessee keeps taking me to great places I could have never imagined on my own.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

To Dream or Not to Dream

I am at a crossroads and my soul is torn. Should I stay or should I go? Am I living in a fantasy, or am I just like every other person in the world trying to make ends meet while trying to fulfill their dream?

Tennessee Williams' play "In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel" is finally returning to NYC for an Off-Broadway production in October for a limited engagement at New World Stages, and I am proud to say that I have an opportunity of a lifetime to be production assistant and assistant to the director on this amazing production. It is a dream come true.

I still have to ask myself though, "Will this be the moment that I finally start believing in myself?"

I wrote a children's book over 10 years ago and to this day, it still is not published. I always struggled with the fact that either I was a horrible writer, or that my manuscript had just not landed in the right hands yet. A few months back, my mentor had sent my manuscript to a former student of hers who is now a publisher of children's books and of the ever popular YA genre that is taking over mainstream. The response I received was that the story itself was charming, but my words were flat.

I felt crushed. I took that response and sat on it like a chicken waiting to hatch an egg, but not quite sure what to do. I have had many rejections in my day, but this one was a hard pill to swallow. In spite of this, I have always been able to take constructive criticism and was able to re-evaluate what I wrote over a decade ago, and tell myself that there was truth in that knowledge, but I still felt paralyzed.

Hearing that my words were flat resonated with me and triggered my mind to think of Tennessee Williams. Over many years of studying the works of Williams, I learned that he would sometimes, if not most of the time, slave over one particular word for days if not weeks. I started to think to myself that I have always known the stories that I have wanted to tell, but to relay what is in my mind to paper is an entirely different thing and I have never slaved over ONE word for days ever, let alone weeks.

It was something for me to think about. Williams is a legend in my mind that can never be duplicated, and one should not ever try, but he is an inspiration and someone who I am learning great lessons from, even though only his spirit remains.

My children's book is only one hurdle that eats away at my perseverance. I am a journalist and a former actor who began performing when I was 5 years old that is still consumed with the chase of my dream. I also live in reality. I have two children that I love more than life itself and work tirelessly every day to provide them with the best quality life that they deserve.

This is the dilemma I see many artists face. How do we continue to pursue our dreams when have no choice but to live in the reality of every day life to provide for our family? How do you keep going when so many people in your life tell you to get out of fantasy land and live in reality, when you fully realize the reality, but something so strong inside you is telling you that no matter what you cannot give up your dreams?

Maybe my children's book will never get published and maybe it will. Maybe I will never act again and maybe I will take that leap. Maybe I will work an office job, or be a waitress for the rest of my life. One thing I do know, is that as many times as an artist that I have been at this crossroads, I have never given up and I never will.  I feel truly blessed to be the person that I am.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

An Evening Celebrating 100 Years of Tennessee

(From Left to Right) Harris Yulin, Eli Wallach, Mercedes Ruehl
Courtesy: East Hampton Patch / Amy Tangel
As summer is running in full gear, I can't help but think back to last summer when I attended a magical theatrical evening celebrating 100 years of Tennessee.

I am a reporter and had the honor of covering Guild Hall's celebration of 100 years of Tennessee in East Hampton, NY last August.  "Tennessee at 100: Readings and Reminiscence Celebrating Tennessee Williams," was staged readings from Williams' essays, journal entries, short stories, and plays.

Eli Wallach, Mercedes Ruehl, Harris Yulin, Vincent Piazza, and Justine Lupe-Schomp starred in the show. When I arrived at the theatre, I wasn't sure what to expect. I was in East Hampton, at Guild Hall, at an event honoring Tennessee Williams; anybody could be there.

The week prior, I had been corresponding with the co-producer of the show, James Lawson. I asked the usher when I walked in the theatre if he knew where I could find Lawson, and he graciously went to alert him of my unimportant arrival.

Jim and I enthusiastically greeted each other, seeing it was our first time meeting in person. He quickly said to me that he was I glad I came, and thanked me for my press. He proceeded to tell me that he wished he had more time to chat and then pointed to a man behind us and said, "I have Edward Albee over there and I can't keep him waiting long, or he'll get restless." Edward Albee!

"Would you mind taking a moment to introduce me?" quickly came out of my mouth.

Without blinking, Jim walked me over. He introduced me to Albee as a writer who had been covering the event, and that he wanted me to meet him. I reached my hand out, as I couldn't think of what other social grace to do in such an unexpected situation and said, "Hello, Mr. Albee. It's an honor to meet you." As anti-climatic as this may sound, I will tell you with confidence that Albee's handshake sent electricity straight through my arm and right up to my star-struck mind.

You see, as I was shaking his hand, as stunned as I was, I still was quick enough on my toes in my mind to know that I was shaking the hand that has written some of the greatest American plays ever written. What would he be without his hand? Albee's hand, with a pen in it, or typing on a typewriter shaped his entire life, not to mention the theater world.

Albee, who was in attendance with Julian Schnabel, was gracious enough to pose for a photo for me. I was sure to take two shots, even though time was of the essence. One for the press, and one for me. Albee seemed to have fun with it too, otherwise why else would he feel the urge to give Schnabel the "bunnyears" in the middle of the shot?
Edward Albee & Julian Schnabel
Courtesy: East Hampton Patch / Amy Tangel
The performance was fabulous in my opinion. I felt like the actors made Tennessee come alive through their words. No costumes; no movement; no props; just words. Even when they read from Williams' journal entries they read in character as if they were Tennessee, mother, or Rose.

Mercedes Ruehl read with such passion and strength. She gave me chills and really stole the audience. Vincent Piazza (HBO's "Boardwalk Empire") really resembled a young Tennessee, and when he spoke he captured a drive and vigor Tennessee seemed to have for writing in his youth. Harris Yulin spoke as Tennessee in his later years, and hearing his voice made me feel the exhaustion and sadness Tennessee seemed to be feeling towards the end. Justine Lupe-Schomp captured a delicate vulnerability that made me feel Rose's pain when she spoke.

Throughout the first three quarters of the performance I kept wondering where Eli Wallach was fitting in. Just when I thought the show was about to be over, and that there had been something that prevented Wallach from performing, two chairs were placed center stage and a young man escorted Wallach out from stage left. The audience roared with applause.

Wallach took a seat in the left chair and Lupe-Schomp took a seat on the right. They performed a staged reading of a scene from Mr. Paradise. The audience was silent and motionless. My heart was pounding. Wallach's performance was stunning. He spoke with more power and conviction than any other actor I have ever seen. Passion exuded his body from a still, sitting position. He rightfully so, received a standing ovation.

The show was over and they were about to close the curtain, when Wallach asked the stagehand for a microphone. The audience fell silent again. He lifted the microphone and put his hand over his heart. He looked out and simply said, "You were a pleasure."

No wonder Tennessee Williams loved him so.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel


In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is a play by Tennessee Williams that was never thought to amount to anything by most critics, but 40 years later, theater goers are breathing new life into a story that just won't die.

The play is a love story, of sorts, between a husband and wife who have come to the end of a long, mad road that ends in death.  In true Tennessee fashion, his leading lady, Miriam, is an elegant, strong minded woman who has "Blanche" like qualities.  She is beautiful, but vain, and seems to have an inability to truly love anyone. But, just when you think there is no love in her, you see small glimpses of humanity that makes you think twice. 

For me, Tennessee always had a way, a gift you could say, of taking his characters who  have wretched qualities that would make me detest them so, but by the end of the play, I would be left feeling pity and empathy.  This is how I feel about Miriam. 

Miriam is married to Mark, a crazed painter, who seems to have gone completely mad.  They venture to Tokyo and end up in a hotel where Mark locks himself in his room to create his masterpiece. He screams at his paintings, he rolls around naked, and he even convinces himself that he has invented color.  While Miriam spends the majority of her time in the bar plotting how to rid herself from the burden of Mark's madness,  she drinks herself into her own oblivion, and unsuccessfully tries to seduce the hotel's barman into her sexual web.

This past winter, I met a man named Shashi Balooja.  Balooja is a talented actor and producer who had just performed in a reading I attended in East Hampton, NY at Guild Hall.  I heard he was working on a Tennessee Williams project and I had to talk to him after the show.  I was introduced to him through a mutual acquaintance, and he told me he was working on In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel.  Even though I had never even read the play before, I told him how much I loved Tennessee and that I would love to be part of the production somehow.

We began corresponding and I offered to come meet him in NYC to talk in person about the production.  When we met to work together for the first time, he gave me the script, we talked Tennessee, and I shared with him a PBS documentary called "Wounded Genius," a biography that documents Williams' life.

It was the first time I had ever met anyone who shared the same passion for Tennessee that I had, and it was one of the most inspiring days.  We made a plan to creatively collaborate further on the production, and a friendship was born.

I read in "Memoirs," written by Tennessee Williams himself, that around the time that he wrote In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, he was suffering himself from his own form of madness fighting depression and alcoholism.  He wrote of falling down all the time.  The character of Mark falls down all the time, and aside from his artistic madness, he is suffering from alcoholism.

"My next play in the sixties was In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel.  I was still always falling down during this time and I would always say, before falling, 'I'm about to fall down,' and almost nobody, nobody ever caught me," said Williams.

Not long after the play opened, to might I add, horrible and unmerciful reviews, Tennessee's brother, Dakin, had him institutionalized for a period of time.

Tennessee seemed to always put traits of himself into his characters that were identifiable to others, so beautiful, but a dangerous vulnerability.  Whether his problem of falling down and alcoholism is reflected in Mark cannot be said for sure, but it is too strong of a connection to ignore. 

Was Mark the painter really crazy, or was he just a sensitive man in severe emotional pain that nobody understood, or cared to understand?

Balooja, along with choreographer and creative director Maria Torres, in connection with Amas Musical Theatre, have obtained the rights to produce In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel in NYC.  Balooja and Torres are dedicated, passionate, and committed to seeing this play come to light in the fashion it deserves to be shown and tell the story how it deserves to be told.  They are currently in pre-production.

Photo Credit: Media at Large

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Two Cents

A man walked up to me and asked me for two cents. He looked like he was about late 20's, early 30's, tall and thin, with dark hair. He wore a marines hat, a black t-shirt, and black pants.

I was standing outside The Historic New Orleans Collection waiting for my next class to start. I was in New Orleans to attend the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, and was taking a series of Master Classes. Now, normally, I would just ignore someone asking me for money on the street (even though I like to think I'm a kind and giving person), but I couldn't ignore him. I came out of myself.

I said, "Two cents?" He said, "Yes, two cents." I asked, "Literally, two cents?" He said yes, again. He said if I gave him two cents, and other people gave him two cents, maybe he would end up with a dollar. He told me he was homeless, hadn't eaten all day, and just wanted a cup of coffee.

"What's your name?" I asked. "My name's Todd. What's yours?" he said. "My name is Amy. Nice to meet you," I said.

I asked him if he lived in New Orleans. "Yes, Mam, " he said, "But, I'm hoping to go home on Monday." Todd explained that he was a marine from Florida who served two years overseas, and when he returned home, he followed the love of a girl that left him homeless, loveless, and lost. He told me he made bad choices and wished he never left home, but that he now knew what he had to do.

For some reason, I needed to hear his story. There was a loneliness in him that was a transparent honesty. I told myself, whatever the case may be, he fought for me, my loved ones, and my country. I at least owed him two seconds of my time.

As we stood on the street, I mentally battled with my heart and mind over what was the right thing to do.  Todd then looked at me and said something that hit me like a lightening bolt; quickly giving me my answer.

He told me that even though he felt like he lost everything, one thing he never lost through it all was God. God. I fell further out of myself. I had recently been working on my relationship with God, and low and behold, there he was, possibly standing right in front of me in the form of a stranger. I knew I had to give him more than two cents.

I gave him a dollar and said that I wished I could give him more, but that was all the cash I had on me. That was a lie. I wanted to help him, but I was scared of the moment I was having. I just couldn't let him walk away though with only a dollar. My heart was telling me to do more, but my mind was telling me that I still had to be cautious.

I offered to buy him a cup of coffee with my debit card. We walked down to Antoine's on Royal Street. I asked him if he would like something to eat. He seemed scared, or shocked, and hesitated to say yes, even though I knew he wanted to. I was impressed by his manners, but I insisted, and he eventually ordered an eclair.

Todd told me he had owned a tarot table and had been reading cards to make money, but someone stole his kit the night before. Todd said that in spite of what he was going through, he still hadn't lost faith in humanity. He said that he still thought God was good, and that having fought two years of war, you have to know God in order to survive.

He told me he was near death many times, and had hearing loss in his left ear from grenades and explosions, and that he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

All I could think was, what a shame it is, that these men are giving their lives to keep us safe, and how was it that so many of our veterans coming home end up like this? This is not the first time I had seen, or heard of a modern day veteran ending up on the street, and it's not always because of what people usually think (it seems many people are quick to stereotype people who end up homeless because of drug addiction, but that is not always the case).

I had been struggling with this epidemic for some time now, and maybe this was God's way of validating my feelings. But maybe, just maybe, it was God's way of letting Todd know that there are people in this world that appreciate and honor his soul. Even a mere stranger, who he had to humbly ask for two of her cents.

He said to me that he wished he didn't come all this way to New Orleans to find out that what he was looking for was always at home. I told him that sometimes, when you go down a lonely road that leads you far from home, it's the only way you'll find out where your home really is.

Todd asked me for just two cents, and in return he gave me a lifetime of understanding that will last forever in my heart. I wonder now, when was the last time that someone just asked him his name?

Friday, May 11, 2012

When I was 14 years old, I took my first high school drama class.  The first play my teacher had us read was The Glass Menagerie.  She said it was written by a man named Tennessee Williams, and claimed that he was one of the greatest American playwrights.  That information was either here, nor there, to me at the time.  I didn't know how much I loved to write.  I was consumed with performing,  focusing more on how my character's dialogue was going to be portrayed, and not why the words were ever even written in the first place. Even though I loved performing, and had been writing for some time creatively, I didn't know that I HAD to write. This all changed with The Glass Menagerie.

I remember reading Laura Wingfield's words and painting a mental picture of her in my mind, of what she looked like, how she dressed, and the expressions I imagined were on her face when she spoke.  That same image is still in my mind today.  It's my picture of her life, painted for me by the words Tennessee wrote.  Growing up, I felt like Laura in some ways, and I believe, that's why I was impacted so.  I felt like I was different from everyone else.  Most of my friends did not have an  artistic bone in their body.  I could never describe it back then, but I had this passion burning inside me to create.  I didn't have the confidence to admit I had to, and needed to write, until much later in life.

Tennessee's writing of The Glass Menagerie showed me that the best source for writing a good story is yourself.  Tennessee put parts of himself in almost every character he wrote.  People have said that he was too personal at times.  For me, his writing allowed me to feel like I fit in.  I saw that part of myself that I felt didn't belong, that need to write, in Tennessee.

I realized that there was someone else out their in the world who had the urges like I, to tell stories of  life, but through the words of someone else.  A character that I could create to tell whatever story of my life that I wanted to tell.  The stories were already written in my mind.  The source was already there.  I remember thinking to myself, how much I loved Tennessee's words.  His words were so real. 

When I was taught of the parallel between Laura, Tom, and Amanda to Tennessee's own relationship with his sister Rose, and his mother, is when the flame really began to burn.   I realized that Tennessee didn't go out seeking inspiration to write.  He just had to.  It was always there, whether he liked it, or not.

To those who know The Glass Menagerie, you can see the parallels to his early life and the play he wrote here: Early Tennessee

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How It All Began

My search for Tennessee began many years ago, but I never realized I was searching for him until now. The great Tennessee Williams. The greatest, (in my opinion), American playwright of all time.

Although he is no longer physically with us, his legacy and spirit lives on, and seems more alive than ever to me. It pains me to great lengths to know that a human being with such feeling, love, and humanity is now resting in a place where he did not wish to rest in peace. Who am I to say that he is not where he physically belongs, other than the fact that he said he wanted to be thrown to rest at sea, as close as possible, to the cooridinates where Hart Crane, the writer he said he felt he most related to, jumped overboard, and committed suicide.

I will never really know Tennessee,(I will omit journalistic rule here and only refer to Tennessee by first name, and not "Williams" as I feel it will deprive the story I'm trying to tell), but I feel that righfully so, a man who gave so much of himself to the world, or any person for that matter, should have their dying wishes honored.

Tennessee is buried next to his sister Rose, in St. Louis, Missouri.  If he had to choose to rest in peace anywhere other than where he wished to be, I feel in my heart, that the only other place he would choose to be is near his beloved sister Rose.

This may seem like an unlikely place to begin my story, but sometimes we must look at the end to find the beginning.

Tennessee Talks Hart Crane