In That Is All, former literary agent John Hodgman sets the end of the world at a New Orleans lit festival. If that's where it all unfurls, what a way to go. At last weekend's Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival, lovers of theater, literature, modern authors and the written word in general assembled from all around the world.
My fest week kicked off at The Historic New Orleans Collection with author Moira Crone's session on shaping speculative fiction. For her latest novel, The Not Yet, Moira was on a literary fellowship researching what would happen if New Orleans and its outlying suburbs were a chain of islands. So when the Hurricane Katrina levee failure hit, she was studying water.
Thursday night, Those Rare Electrical Things Between People featured readings of three one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. Alison Fraser and former Mad Men star Bryan Batt of New Orleans moved through Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen in grand Williams style. Actress Cristine McMurdo-Wallis was the revelation of the fest as she and NOLA's own Nell Nolan performed Something Unspoken, careening between comedy and pathos. The Huffington Post's Harry Shearer portrayed fallen hero The Palooka, written when Williams was only 28 years old. The evening was hosted by Festival Board President Janet Daley Duvall, and Aimee Hayes directed.
The next morning clouds slowly cleared as Williams' one-act Auto-Da-Fe was performed in the courtyard of the historic Hermann-Grima House. McMurdo-Wallis portrayed the overbearing mother of Ben Berry's neurotically stricken Eloi Duvenet. A butterfly insistently wound its way around the performers, jumping just out of camera range. Director Jef Hall-Flavin gave the play a modern ending with Eloi jumping from his coffin and dancing in a boa as a brass band and the flamboyantly costumed Krewe of Armeinius second lined. Jef Hall-Flavin of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival directed the production which Curator David Kaplan said was six years in the making.
Friday night featured a gathering of writers and festival supporters, and when author Susan Straight thanked columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. for speaking out for introverts regarding Yahoo!'s decision to end telecommuting, she spoke for us all.
Saturday afternoon, Writing New Orleans featured panelists Thomas Beller, Richard Campanella, Nathaniel Rich and Kim Marie Vaz. Their discussion of covering New Orleans post-Katrina while cutting through stereotypes came together like a fine gumbo (by way of an example). Throughout the festival, authors touched on Katrina almost 8 years down the road. Some moved here post-Katrina to write about the city. Some left post-Katrina and haven't moved back. Each year, in at least one panel, members of the audience talk about their manuscripts on Katrina. For disasters we're often more comfortable talking around than about, art has a way of cutting straight through.
"Katrina almost killed me," poet and activist Niyi Osundare said in the "Make This Place Your Own" poetry reading. He read from works both about his home country of Nigeria, and about his years in New Orleans. Brenda Marie Osbey, Poet Laureate of Louisiana from 2005 to 2007, offered a tribute to her friend, the recently deceased Chinua Acheb, author of Things Fall Apart. Ava Leavell Haymon read from her chilling nursery rhyme that may keep me half-awake for the rest of my life. And Brad Richard, New Orleans poet and teacher, read from works about Katrina with a line that resonated: "Stop acting like a ghost."
That night, actor Jeremy Lawrence performed his new work: There's No Way We Can't Finally Win, culled from every manner of written word from Williams. Much of it is unpublished and deals with the writer's struggles with savage reviews and complicated relationship with fame in his later years. The portrayal of Tennessee Williams rehearsing for a potential wine commercial was as dead-on as everything Lawrence does. Williams wrote that his mission was: "To record what I see as I see it and what I feel as I feel it, publicly out loud -- with absolutely no fear, no intimidation, no regard for formidable consequences."
My Sunday started with actress Judith Chapman interviewed by film historian Foster Hirsch about the one-woman show on Vivien Leigh she produced: Vivien. The interview touched on Leigh's marriage to Lawrence Olivier, and her relationship with Tennessee Williams from A Streetcar Named Desire to The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. She slipped in and out of character as Leigh, while describing the legend's life and struggles. Chapman is a star of CBS' The Young and The Restless, and her autograph line was the longest of the weekend. From a later conversation, I learned that Chapman and Lawrence may be working up a Tennessee and Vivien performance for next year's festival, so stay tuned.
Author Michael Cunningham went native, sporting a pair of Muses Krewe Mardi Gras beads from fellow Pulitzer nominating committee member Susan Larson of New Orleans during his Q and A. He discussed everything from his start in professional writing to his novel The Hours and its film adaptation. The talk then turned to television. Cunningham has written a pilot for HBO and is in a development deal with Showtime. I asked him more about this at the Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest, after things died down. Talking to a Pulitzer Prize winner about my feelings on television made me feel like Steve Carrell in Anchorman saying: "I Love Lamp," but Cunningham reiterated that he thinks television is where it's at. Cable, in particular.
After the judging, Judith and Jeremy walked back to the Hotel Monteleone arm in arm, with my husband and my arms linked on the outside as ballast during a sudden gust. It's possible that I imagined they were Tennessee and Vivien and we were all on a French Quarter spree in 1951.