Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Provincetown Tennessee Williams' Theater Festival is Cultural Gem in New England

During the last week in September I took a solo adventure to visit the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in Provincetown, MA. Although this was the ninth year for this treasured four-day festival dedicated to the august and beloved American playwright, it was my first chance to attend since it came across my radar.

The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival is taking place September 22nd - 25th, 2016. Click for full details

Seaside cottage in Provincetown, MA
I’m tempted to start at the end—to share my great regret that I was only able to carve out 48 hours of the weekend to attend the festival and the heartbreak I felt leaving town only half-way through. Knowing the performances I wouldn’t have a chance to witness and the speakers I wouldn’t have the privilege to listen to, gnawed at me. Has the exuberance of certain Williams’ characters rubbed off of me after the weekend?  Perhaps, but the festival is that worthy of praise.

A visit to captivatingly lovely Provincetown is a gift unto itself, particularly in the mellower spring or fall where it works its magic as a place both restorative in pace yet cosmopolitan in spirit. The narrow main drag—Commercial Street—is cottage after cottage of art galleries, sweet inns, patio dining, ice cream shops, boutiques, and alley shacks featuring the quintessential lobster roll—hot or cold. 

Tennessee Williams himself is simply one of many literary giants and artists who found creative voice and personal refuge in this tiny resort town so it is a natural connection to host a festival there celebrating his work and life. Not only is Provincetown the setting for some of his plays (Something Cloudy, Something Clear) but during his four summers there he also worked on several of his most well-known plays, including The Glass Menagerie, and Summer and Smoke, and it is where he is said to have written the final pages of A Streetcar Named Desire

The 2014 Provincetown Tennessee
Williams Theater Festival poster
The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival has deservedly earned great acclaim during its nine short years. While I was there every single person I met was from outside New England-- from Minnesota, San Francisco, Virginia, and a sizable contingent from Mississippi (Williams’ birthplace and childhood home, also host to a week-long Williams’ Tribute held annually in early September). A pattern emerged to me that folks from out of state understood the value of this festival and I wondered whether New Englanders realized the treasure that is being mounted in our own backyard.

The festival is impeccably organized from the website to the online material to the program booklet. And it’s a blessed thing too because with so much to see and do—nearly every show is performed multiple times across the four days—it’s challenging to plot out how to craft your time even with the wealth of informational support.

Being here for two days and nights, I simply read up on the performances and chose the ones that interested me—themes I was drawn to or ones that would be staged and performed in unconventional settings. My goal was to pack in as much as I could and my arrival and departure somewhat dictated the order of things. When I return for the full festival—oh yes, I wouldn’t dream of cutting myself short again—I would opt for one of the three festival “tracks”: the Picnic (easy pace, 3 planned events per day), Block Party (medium pace, averaging 4 events per day) and the Jamboree (fast pace, 4-5 events per day). Keep in mind that some of these events will include non-performance gatherings such as a guest speaker, a wine tasting, a cocktail party, or a themed “mixer”. 

PTown has no shortage of quaint restaurants
Each PTWT Festival has a theme and this year’s was “Circle of Friends”.  You may be surprised to know that not all of the performances at this festival are the works of Tennessee Williams.  Williams’ circle of friends included his literary peers Carson McCullers (Member of the Wedding), William Inge (Splendor in the Grass, Picnic), Yukio Mishima (novelist and playwright)—each of these playwrights had a play being shown this year at the festival.

Williams’ scholar and festival curator David Kaplan wrote an engaging and eloquent essay revealing the devotion, complexities, professional admiration (and jealousies) between Williams and these three friends. Kaplan’s intelligent piece delivered context for the festival selections and fortunately for us, more of his insightful writing can be found through his book Tennessee Williams in Provincetown and Tenn at One Hundred: The Reputation of Tennessee Williams. 

The Crown and Anchor Box Office
Upon arrival, my first stop was the box office at the Crown and Anchor—a restaurant, social, and performance complex centrally located on Commercial Street where the large majority of festival venues were situated. The Crown and Anchor is a home base for the festival—this is where several events are hosted including the opening night party, the opening night dinner “Dinner with Friends”, the performances of I’d Wish You’d Keep Still, and the pass-holders lounge which doubles as a small gift shop for purchasing plays, books about Williams, t-shirts, art prints, and other items. 

Provincetown at Dusk - View from the patio of Local 186
My first event was the “Williams 101” presentation at the Sage House and Inn. Scholar Augustin Correro culled a remarkable amount of Williams’ history and framework into a 60-minute event. As entertaining as it was rife with information, this event functioned as a primer for understanding Williams as a man, his personal and professional successes and struggles, and the people and the history that informed the man and his work.  By laying out three dominant themes in Williams’ plays—Family, Desire, Connection—we could understand the experiences and relationships in Williams’ life that compelled him to explore these themes in writing. 

No matter what you think you already know (or don’t) about Tennessee Williams, Williams 101 is a must-attend event during your visit. It is a valuable way to get grounded in the festival and to grease the proverbial wheels turning in your head for the plays that await you. While watching the performances, I returned time and again to the things I learned at this presentation and I was very glad I was able to start off the festival having seen it. In fact, I bought a ticket to see the Williams 101 presentation a second time the following day and although the presentation was the same, the guest speaker after the event was different and it was still a wonderful way to revisit the information.

Photo courtesy of the TW Tribute
That evening, I attended the “Dinner with Friends” event kicking off the opening night of the festival. Hosted at the Crown and Anchor, this was an absolutely delightful way to connect with other festival-goers and to hear about others’ history and appreciation of the PTWT Festival.
Although the festival is well-attended by theater scholars and theater lovers, it is also attended by many people who simply found themselves here through a roundabout connection. One couple learned of the festival through an online forum wholly unrelated to theater (dogs, actually) and through their budding friendship with this festival staff member they first attended the fest for the five years ago and returned every year since.

Another woman was a high school teacher who knew the festival founder and comes out annually. The “Dinner with Friends” was attended by a number of people visiting from Mississippi including Brenda Caradine who produces the Tennessee Williams Tribute in Columbus, MS. It was a genuine pleasure to chat with Ms. Caradine and to learn more about the wonderful work she’s done to strengthen the connection between Tennessee Williams’ history and his birthplace while preserving his artistic legacy. 

The Town Hall hosted Vieux Carre
The dinner had a Mississippi-inspired menu of braised beef, chicken paillard, roast pork tenderloin, tomato and watermelon salad, broccoli rabe, roasted potatoes, cheddar and herb biscuits all served family style. The dessert was, naturally, peach cobbler. The food was absolutely delectable and there was more food than a person could possibly eat by a factor of ten.  With many of the festival coordinators and supporters attending the dinner it was a fantastic way to meet other people with a deep connection to the festival. It was a memorable dinner—two hours flying by—and something I wouldn’t hesitate to sign up for again when I return.

The centerpieces of the festival are, of course, the plays. On my first evening I attended Vieux Carre staged in the round at the lovingly restored Provincetown Town Hall.  Williams began writing this play in 1938 while living in New Orleans (before he’d gained any professional recognition) yet he did not complete it until nearly 40 years later. Produced in 1977 on Broadway, just years before his death, this semi-autobiographical play shows us a retrospective glimpse of the younger Williams in the character of the Writer.   

One of several Boatslip settings for "In the Summer House" 
On Friday, I returned for an encore of the Williams 101 presentation as I had found it such a wealth of information and, as I suspected, it was incredibly useful to hear everything again—reinforcing certain themes, understanding additional details.

From the 101, I rushed to The Boatslip Resort to see the play In the Summer House. Written by Williams’ friend Jane Bowles and produced in 1953, In the Summer House was widely known to be one of Williams’ favorite plays which made it intriguing to see it and to ponder the themes and aspects he admired so.

Another setting from" In the Summer House" with a view
The PTWT Festival produced In the Summer House last year but they performed only the second act; this year they delivered the show in its entirety. The audience began this show in a windowed tent—a view of the water on our right, the resort’s bar/dance lounge on our left, the large pool and deck behind us. At the end of one scene the action of the show transferred to the lounge area and the audience stood and moved to the new locale to continue the show. Other action took place around—and yes, in—the pool whereby the actors would perform short scenes in the water or on rafts. The unique setting (and the adaptive property at the resort) provided a truly unusual, yet suitably contextual environment for the staging of the show. 

Creve Coeur was cleverly staged in a Bradford St. residence 
The final show on my docket was the Williams’ 1976 play A Lovely Sunday for Creve Couer which was presented inside a Provincetown home on Bradford Street.
The open layout of the home, with its central living room, small kitchenette, side rooms, and staircase all served the play’s needs and the audience’s immersion into the story.  The audience was arranged on two sides of the action so although there were moments with limited sightlines it was never distracting or prolonged. The staging of the play took full advantage of the flexibility of being in a home including frying chicken during the first act. 

The Creve Coeur venue enabled actors to cook during the show
It was really satisfying to see how grounded the show’s unfolding action could feel being presented in this authentic setting—nothing felt forced or “gimmicky” about the choice to stage it in a home versus a conventional theater space (such as at the Town Hall). It was a memorable show and one of the dozens reasons that the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival delivers a singular theater-going experience. 

My festival wrapped up sitting in at the Beatnik Jam held at the Gifford House parlor and lounge. The casual setting—the audience perched on sofa arms, seated on stairs, standing around the perimeter—was a nice way to close my time. Various people, including actors I’d seen in shows earlier that day, read snippets of wisdom or observation from the likes of Capote, Vidal, and Purdy.

Provincetown is captivating at night
This is a festival of true distinction—appealing to adults of all ages. It’s important to know it is a worthwhile experience even if you aren’t very familiar with Tennessee Williams or don’t consider yourself a theater buff. You may be rubbing shoulders with dramaturgs, locals, and science teachers; and if you don’t know what a dramaturg is, you will still not feel out of place. Every person I met was welcoming, friendly, and eager to share their love of the festival and to hear my impressions from my inaugural visit.

This festival is an educational and enriching experience even if you are simply looking to have a unique and memorable visit to Provincetown and have an open mind to try something new. Certainly you could attend for just a day or two but, like me, you may leave feeling you’ve cheated yourself out of so much more. Circle your calendar for the end of September next year and prepare yourself for an outstanding few days.

Tips for Getting the Most from the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival:

  • Book your tickets or passes early as some venues have limited capacity and sell out sooner.
  • Tickets are required for nearly every event on the calendar so I found myself returning to the Crown and Anchor box office on several occasions. They have a large schedule posted out front to help you see every activity available to you and they are there to answer any questions you have. Although it can’t be emphasized enough that tickets should be bought in advance for the festival through their website (several shows were sold out), the inevitable spontaneous add-ons do present themselves and the box office is the best (fee-free) place to buy anything extra or to make changes to your tickets/itinerary.
  • The website is incredibly helpful for advance planning—from travel links to hotel/inn suggestions. There is plenty of information to demystify things, especially if you are coming in from out of town.
  • PTWT Festival produces a beautiful program which is an essential tool for navigating the festival. Not only does it offer venue maps, performance schedules, thoughtful essays, and features about each production in the festival, but it even goes so far as to offer a handful of restaurants that are convenient to each festival venue—critical if you’ve left yourself limited time between shows. The program is the bible to guide you in how to plan and map your time.
  • Folks who are planning a trip should consider purchasing a Festival Pass. The Flex Pass ($175) allows you to create your own experience with six tickets at your disposal along with entry to the opening and closing night parties.  The Study Pass ($125) is ideal for full-time students and includes up to 10 tickets (!). The all-access pass is called, naturally, the Carte Blanche ($600-$800) which includes a dozen tickets (may use up to 2 tickets per show), VIP seating reserved at every performance, invitations to the cocktail party, gallery wine tasting, an invite to the private donor brunch, a $300 tax deductible donation and other goodies.
  • The Williams 101 absolutely must make it on your list. Ideally, try to attend one before you kick off your lineup of performances. It will really provide wonderful context for the whole festival.
  • The Dinner with Friends event at the Crown and Anchor on opening night (Thursday) is also a real treat. Come hungry and be prepared to meet friendly, interesting people. Tickets must be bought in advance for this, with extra savings if you have a festival pass.
  • If you love to socialize, there were free “mixers” every afternoon where people could gather for apps, a drink, meet other festival goers. These are wonderfully fun, energetic gatherings.
  • Consider building in a little time for reflection. I found myself seeking quiet time to digest the performance I’d just seen and consider the work. Williams’ plays are filled with fascinating, complicated characters and the material can be heart-wrenching and certainly thought-provoking.
  • On one occasion I booked two shows back to back and had a limited amount of time to get from one venue to another. Easily walkable if I had 15 minutes, with such a narrow window, I pre-arranged a cab (Pride Taxi) to pick me up when the first show ended. This was immensely helpful and I do not recommend counting on taxis to always be hanging around. Pre-arranging was easy and Pride was very friendly, prompt, and reliable when I needed them. 
  • Don’t be intimidated. If you’ve never imagined going to a theater festival, I insist that you consider this new experience and jump in. You’ll be amazed what you come away with. 
  • Seek out the unconventional spaces and new interpretations (dances inspired by one-act plays, for example). This festival will expand your understanding of Williams and how theater can be presented.
  • Provincetown is a very charming place. If you can, leave yourself a little time for boutique shopping, gallery visits, a memorable meal, and a lazy coffee on a porch.
  • A car is not necessary at all if you are staying in Provincetown. If you are flying into Logan, it’s a snap to shuttle to the ferry which takes you right to where you need to be.
  • There are no shortages of traditional Inns and lovely Bed & Breakfasts in Provincetown. I can recommend the Carpe Diem Guesthouse highly. I knew I would be packing in so much on my short stay I knew I wouldn’t have the pleasure of enjoying the wonderful amenities that Carpe Diem offers but it’s worth a strong consideration.
  • I stayed very affordably through in a walkable 10 minutes away from Commercial Street. Even late at night, Provincetown was very safe for walking back to my apartment solo. 
  • You could stay more affordably a few towns away but the convenience of staying right in Provincetown and opting to walk everywhere is really worth the few extra dollars.

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