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“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire
Written by Tennessee Williams

New York actress Tory Flack in front of the house Grant Wood used for his painting "American Gothic." Eldon, Iowa (2009)

New York actress Tory Flack in front of the house Grant Wood used for his painting “American Gothic.” Eldon, Iowa (2009)

Yesterday we went global big, today we’re going local small. Well, at least small scale in the big city. In one of the many posts I did on playwright Tennessee Williams this month I mentioned that his worked continues to gain in popularity since his death in 1983. So I wanted to tell you about an opportunity you have to support Bedlam Ensemble in their Kickstarter campaign for The Tennessee Williams Project.

They have three days remaining to raise an additional $1,000 to meet their goal and I’d love to have a few Screenwriting from Iowa angels help push them toward their goal of presenting “A unique twist on the one-act plays of Tennessee Williams” directed by Daniella Caggiano.

Bedlam Ensemble didn’t contact me, but I do have a connection with them. About five years ago I worked with one of the Bedlam actors, Tory Flack. First on a video project I produced for an economic development group and then on a short film I wrote and directed. Tory graduated with a theater degree from the University of Iowa—the same college where Tennessee Williams himself earned his college degree.

I took the above photo of Tory in front of the house in Eldon, Iowa Grant Wood used in his painting “American Gothic”—one of the most recognizable paintings in the history of art. It was zero degrees when I took that photo. Consider giving to The Tennessee Williams Project just because Tory not only gave her lines when it was zero degrees—but could smile as well. Here’s an updated photo of Tory by Chicago photographer Johnny Knight. (Throw Johnny a little kindness if you need some photography work done in Chicago, and consider Tory for that film you’re casting.)

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Tory’s a very talented actress and I’m glad she’s found her way to New York where her acting gigs include the Brooklyn Shakespeare Festival. So while I’m not familiar with the Bedlam Ensemble, my hunch is Tory has connected with some like-minded actors. I saw the Bedlam Kickstarter campaign on a  Facebook post last night. Bedlam Ensemble is in its fourth season and according to their Kickstarter page:

“We chose to present the one act plays of Tennessee Williams because of their beautifully poetic language, striking characters, and the great potential for ensemble work. However, these wonderful plays are not in the public canon, which means we have to pay for the right to perform them. Your support will help us pay for those rights, as well as the cost of renting The Gene Frankel Theatre—an appropriate venue since Gene Frankel in fact knew Tennessee Williams. We also need to cover the expense of putting together the lights, costumes,set, and sound design that bring the world of the play to life; and the funds for advertising our show to the world so we can get the word out and have the best possible audience.”

Lastly, I heard an interview with Tennessee Williams last week (probably from the ’60s or ’70s) where he talked about the importance of smaller regional theaters around the country as being very important for the development of writers. So seek out and support groups like Bedlam Ensemble. And if you have some plays, contact Bedlam’s literary manager Daniella Caggiano (dcaggiano@gm.slc.edu) about submitting your script.

P.S. Performance is scehduled for January 15th-26th 2014 at the Gene Frankel Theatre in NYC.

Related posts:
Postcard #65 (Tennessee Williams) Tennessee is buried in St. Louis.
Postcard #66 (Sewanee) Where Williams’ willed his literary works.
The Catastrophe of Success (Part 1)
The Catastrophe of Success (Part 2)
Don’t Quit Your Day Jon (2.0) One of the great characters in theater came from a job Williams hated.
Postcard #64 (Columbus, MS) Where Tennessee Williams was born.

Scott W. Smith

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“Security is kind of a death, I think, and it can come in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills or anywhere at all that is removed from the conditions that made you an artist, if that’s what you are or were or intend to be. Ask anyone who has experienced the kind of success I am talking about—What good is it? Perhaps to get an honest answer you will have to give him a shot of truth serum but the word he will finally groan is unprintable in genteel publications.”
Tennessee Williams
The Catastrophe of Success

Between 1944 and 1961 Tennessee Williams had a run of plays on Broadway that included The Glass Menagerie,  A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Night of the Iguana. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award and many of his plays were made into films.

But the Williams’ plays first produced from 1962 though his death in 1983 are little remembered or performed today. The limited runs and poor reviews of plays from his last two decades weighed heavy on Williams.

“[Tennessee Williams] feigned disinterest in reviews, but he was deeply disturbed by them. Unfavorable ones could devastate him. Favorable ones might corrupt him. The most successful serious playwright of his time, he did not write for success but, as one friend said, as a ‘biological necessity.’”
Mel Gussow
NY Times 1983, Tennessee Williams Is Dead

Some have claimed that critics lead to the destructive path Williams took, and others argue that his drinking/alcoholism, cigarettes, and drug use led to the decline of his writing. Still others point to Tennessee mourning the death in 1963 of his one-time gay partner of 14 years leading to his debilitating depression.

But whatever the reason his popularity declined and  in 1969 his brother intervened and had Tennessee committed into a psychiatric hospital for a few months. Though it strained their relationship, it probably saved Tennessee’s life. Tennessee continued to write the rest of his life, but other than his play Small Craft Warning in 1972 he struggled to find an audience. In 1977 he was quoted in the NY Times saying he was, “widely regarded as the ghost of a writer.” He did experience an upsurge toward the end of his life as is major plays were performed in revival and as a new and young audience discovered his work. (And that continues to this day.)

Like the cause of his decline, Tennessee’s death involves a little speculation; the NY Times first said officials claimed the 71-year-old playwright died of natural causes, the original medical examiner’s report said Williams’ choked to death on a medicine bottle cap, others say the drug and alcohol that Williams consumed over his later decades was a form of suicide, and his brother claimed that Tennessee was killed by someone because he wouldn’t change his will.

Whatever the reason, Williams was found dead on February 25, 1983.

But if you step back from his life and career, and just look at the 10 or 15 year period where he wrote some of the most amazing plays in the history of American theater you have to marvel at the output. Fueled by family demons, a poet’s heart, and strong coffee, Williams and his passion to write came along at just the right time to shine. Just as attendance in American movies was declining and television was still in its infancy, American theater was serious business.  (Remember Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman premiered on Broadway in 1949 and ran for 742 performances.)

So let’s go back to November 30, 1947 and look at  The Catastrophe of Success. The essay Williams wrote toward the start of his career after The Glass Menagerie shot him into the spotlight, but just four days before A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway. This is how he concluded his essay:

“Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction, that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive—that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims. William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. ‘In the time of your life—live!’ That time is short and doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”
Tennessee Williams

Related posts:
“The Catastrophe of Success” (Part 2)
Tennessee Williams’ Start
Writing Quote #45 (Tennessee Williams)

Scott W. Smith

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“With fourteen plays and a novella adapted for the screen, no other dramatist has equaled Tennessee Williams’ record for having plays produced in Hollywood.”
Naomi Greenberg-Slovin
How Hollywood Got Shocked by Tennessee Williams

“I am widely regarded as the ghost of a writer, a ghost still visible, excessively solid of flesh and perhaps too ambulatory, but a writer remembered mostly for works which were staged between 1944 and 1961.”
Tennessee Williams
The New York Times, 
May 8, 1977

When the playwright Tennessee Williams found Broadway success with the The Glass Menagerie in 1944 and  A Streetcar Named Desire three years later he found himself at the pinnacle of success that few writers experience. Wouldn’t you love to go back to 1947 just for a moment and ask Mr. Williams what it was like to go through more a decade as a struggling writer to the top of the mountain? Well thanks to the Internet and Williams being a wordsmith we can discover what was going through his mind.

Four days before the opening of A Streetcar Named Desire (a play for which he would later be awarded the Pulitzer Prize) an essay he wrote was published in the New York Times called A Streetcar Named Success.  He would later retitle the essay A Catastrophe of Success and have it published at the end of the New Direction version of The Glass Menagerie.

I first read that essay as part of an acting workshop in my early twenties which I think is an ideal time to encounter Williams’ thoughts. I hope you do take the world by storm with your writings. And if you do, at least Williams will have given you a warning.

“I was snatched out of virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence, and from the precarious tenancy of furnished rooms about the country I was removed to a suite in a first-class Manhattan hotel. My experience was not unique. Success has often come that abruptly into the lives of Americans. The Cinderella story is our favorite national myth, the cornerstone of the film industry if not the Democracy itself. I have seen it enacted on the screen so often that I was now inclined to yawn at it, not with disbelief but with an attitude of Who Cares!”
Tennessee Williams

Williams did not become a writer to become rich and famous, but that’s what happened. He appeared to be uncomfortable with the trappings. Of the way people treated him, and how he treated people.

“A well of cynicism rose in me. Conversations all sounded as if they had been recorded years ago and were being played back on a turn table. Sincerity and kindliness seemed to have gone out of my friends voices. I suspected them of hypocrisy. I stopped calling them, stopped seeing them. I was impatient of what I too to be inane flattery. I got so sick of hearing people say, ‘I loved your play!’ that I could not say thank you any more.”
Tennessee Williams

I’ve read that Olympic athletes after winning a gold medal that they have trained their entire life sometimes fall into a state of depression. Jon Krakauer touches on this theme in his book Into Thin Air writing about mountain climbers after they reach Mt. Everest. Williams was famous for writing every day—sometimes in eight hour stretches. I imagine along with his new-found fame there was much mental and physical exhaustion that he was experiencing (along with a family history of depression).

His cure? After having eye surgery, he “checked out of the handsome suite at the first class hotel, packed my papers and a few incidental belongings and left for Mexico, an elemental country where you can quickly forget the false dignities and conceits imposed by success.” And in Mexico he began work on a new play called The Poker Night.

When that play was completed it was called A Streetcar Named Desire and would star a new actor named Marlon Brando in the Broadway play and the Hollywood film.  It’s hard to fathom that one writer could write The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire back to back. Much less a writer in his 30s who was relatively unknown before that.

Streetcar would put Williams even further into the spotlight and for the next 15 years he would continue to meet the high expectations of audiences and critics. But around age 50 the catastrophe of success would wraps its claws around Williams and not release him until it consumed his life. We’ll look at the final act of his life in part 2.

Scott W. Smith 

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“I wear glasses and braces. I do all my clothes shopping at Walmart and second-hand stores. I spend more time on algebra than I do on my hair.”
15 year old Maya Van Wagenen

glamour-guide-for-teens

Yeah, teenager Maya Van Wagenen may still live with her parents in rural Georgia, but she doesn’t need to shop at second-hand stores anymore. (Unless she likes the style in that early Madonna kind of way.) A few months ago she signed a two-book deal with Penguin books reportedly for around $300,000. Sure you have to pay taxes on that, but yesterday Deadline reported  that “Van Wagenen has become the youngest non-actor to ever make a feature deal at DreamWorks.”

Her first book Popular: Vintage Wisdom for Modern Geek is set to be released in April 2004. From what I could find online the story takes places in Brownsville. Texas where Van Wagenen used to live and revolves around a high school girl who decides to use a 1950′s book Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide to win friends at her school.  I had never heard of Van Wagenen or Cornell before yesterday, but I saw the movie instantly in my head. And the movie poster can pull a line directly from the book cover; “The secrets of how you can be prettier and more popular.”

So much room for satire, commentary, and insight—and potentially entertaining every step of the way. Perhaps a dash of The Breakfast Club, Easy A, and Blast from the Past. And talk about a built in audience—what percentage of high school girls today do you think want to be popular, pretty, and smart?

My guess is we’ll all be learning more about both Van Wegenen and Cornell in the near future.  Couldn’t find much out about Van Wagenen, but she won 1st place in flash fiction for a story called The Princess on Route 4B that was a competition connected with Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia.

From what I could gather online, Cornell was a junior model in the ’40s and had her first book published in 1951 offering advice on everything from boys and dress to hair and diet.

“If you don’t know what foods are fattening, ask your chubby friends, because they will know.”
Betty Cornell
(Found on a blog called Embarrassing Treasures)

By today’s standards I’m sure there are some things Cornell wrote more than 50 years ago that seem insensitive and politically incorrect, but I can also see why Steven Spielberg’s long time assistant, Kristie Macosko Krieger,  was attracted to and will be producing the movie. According to the Deadline report Amy B. Harris (Sex in the City) will be writing the screenplay.

Talent comes from everywhere. Congrats to Van Wagenen. And best wishes on your writing today.

P.S. How many manner, etiquette, and beauty books from the 19th and 20th century will find their way into movies in the next couple of years? What’s old is new again. (And all the better if the source material is in the public domain—anything published before 1923).

Scott W. Smith 

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Saul Bellow & Unlikely Places

“When I was traveling the Midwest by car, bus and train, I regularly visited small-town libraries and found that readers in Keokuk, Iowa, or Benton Harbor, Mich., were checking out Proust and Joyce and even Svevo and Andrei Biely. D. H. Lawrence was also a favorite. And sometimes I remember that God was willing to spare Sodom for sake of the 10 of the righteous. Not that Keokuk was anything like wicked Sodom, or that Proust’s Charlus would have been tempted to settle in Benton Harbor, Mich. I seem to have had a persistent democratic desire to find evidence of high culture in the most unlikely places.”
Pulitzer Prize & Nobel Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift)
Hidden Within Technology’s Empire, a Republic of Letter
The New York Times
October 11, 1999

P.S. This blog is about a sense of place as much as it is about screenwriting. And I love stories about big success that originates from small places. There is no greater example in cinematic history of the writer/director born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada who is the only filmmaker to make a film that has made $2 billion dollars. And James Cameron’s actually done that twice, Avaitar and Titanic. As I point out in the post Filmmaking Quote #7 (James Cameron), part of his success is being raised in a town of just 2,000 people and having to ride a school bus for two hours a day to and from school. Two hours he spent reading books. For what it’s worth, Saul Bellow was also born in Canada—Lachine, Quebec.

Related Posts:

Mark Twain (His first paid job as a writer was for a newspaper in Keokuk, Iowa.)
The Juno-Iowa Connection (The University of Iowa in Iowa City—where Tennessee Williams,  Diablo Cody and many other writers attended— is an hour and a half drive directly north of Keokuk.)
Screenwriting Quote #2 (Skip Press) “If you live in Keokuk, Iowa, and write a screenplay…”
Postcard #33 (Quincy, Iowa) About half a hour directly south of Keokuk.
Screenwriting from Michigan (Yeah, Michigan has helped shape some pretty good writers.)
Kalamafrickin’zoo’s Talent Pool  (Kalamazoo is less than an hour drive from Benton Harbor, MI)

Scott W. Smith

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“Impact. Energy. Emotion.”

“Impact. Energy. Emotion. If you remember that all the time, you’re golden.”
Photographer Mike Corrado
creativeLIVE workshop Rock and Roll Photography

The only thing that sucks about creativeLIVE’s Photo Week of over 100 hours of free online creative workshops going on this week is, if you’re like me, you want to watch them all. But I just flew back home Sunday night with over 100 gig of footage from a shoot that I have to whittle down to three 30 seconds spots by next week so I dip into the workshops when I can. Sometimes it’s just 5-10 minutes of a rebroadcast that they run through the night into the next morning, like I did with the above quote from Mike Corrado,

And while Corrado’s trifecta of Impact, Energy, and emotion was in reference to concert photography, I think it translates well to the world of screenwriting and filmmaking.

Related Post:
40 Days of Emotions
Goal: Elicit Emotions (Tip #77)
Emotional Transportation Biz (Tip #68)
Emotional Roller Coasters
Emotional Climaxes
Pity, Fear, Catharsis (Tip #69)

Related link to Mike Corrado (who also happens to be  Manager of Nikon Professional Services): Concert Photography Tips 

P.S. Even if you’re not a photographer, there is a lot of creative cross-pollinating going on at creativeLIVE so check them out—it’s free when they’re live. And, of course, if you want to buy the Photo Week of 100 hours of workshops to watch them whenever you want $299 is a great deal. But most importantly, create your own work, develop personal projects, and continue to focus your vision.

Scott W. Smith

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“Do Something”

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim September 11, 2013, as Patriot Day and National Day of Service and Remembrance.
Presidential Proclamation

photo-16

While flying in the United States on any September 11 is probably the safest day to fly, I chose to fly to my next production on September 10. I took the above photo yesterday shortly taking off on a flight between Philadelphia and Minneapolis, so there was a good chance this was in the vicinity of Shanksville, PA where Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001 when passengers and crew stopped a terrorist attack on the nation’s capital.

This afternoon I stopped in the Mall of America and saw the memorial below in memory of Thomas E. Burrnett, Jr. who was n Flight 93, and remembering the 2,971 people that were killed that day in the terrorist attacks. And the last photo is what I saw in and morning and in the afternoon at an overpass near Stillwater, Minnesota.

My guess is those people standing and waving American flags were there all day. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton ordered “all United States flags and Minnesota flags be flown at half-staff at all state and federal buildings in the State of Minnesota, from sunrise until sunset, on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. as a mark of respect for the victims of this tragedy.”

photo-15flags

Scott W. Smith

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The Odd Couple vs. The Odd Couple

Today is history in the making here at Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. This is my first post from an airplane.  So with thanks to US AIr’s go-go in air internet service, here is the first post coming to you from somewhere in the clouds over  Pennsylvania, (I think that’s where I am.)

Today’s post follows my last post well because there was a reference yesterday to both Rocky and Neil Simon. (How often does that happen?)

First the Rocky part—About 30 minutes ago I took off from Philadelphia on my way to Minneapolis, on my way to a video shoot. Now the Neil Simon part:

Props to any writer out there who’s had their worked produced on Broadway. But did you know that Neil Simon once had three different plays on Broadway—at the same time. That’s quite a feat. The other day I was reading the screenplay for The Odd Couple and thought I’d compare that opening with the opening of the play.

The Odd Couple screenplay opening:

EXT. THE MID FORTIES BETWEEN 6TH  AND 7TH AVENUES—IT IS HOT AND HUMID—NIGHT

It is a block filled with Chili restaurants, parking lots and third rate hotels. Into view comes FELIX UNGAR, walking aimlessly along the street. He wears a tan linen suit, rumpled, his tie askew and his top button on his shirt is open. His eyes are blurry and ringed with lack of sleep. His hands are in his pockets and he walks without purpose and in no particular direction. He is oblivious to the world around him. Suddenly his eyes squint at the glare of an electric sign on top of the marquee of a small, cheap hotel. Felix stops and looks up to the top of the hotel. He turns and looks around the street… possibly a last look at the world that doesn’t even seem to need or want him. He enters the hotel.

The Odd Couple play’s opening:

ACT 1

Time: A warm summer night.

Scene: The apartment of Oscar Madison’s. This is one of those large eight-room affairs on Riverside Drive. in the upper eighties. The building is about 35 years old and still vestiges of its glorious past. High ceilings, walk-in closets and thick walls. We are in the living room with doors leading off the kitchen, bedrooms, and a bathroom, and a hallway to other bedrooms. Although the furnishings have been chosen with extreme good taste, the room itself, without the touch and care of a woman there these  past few months, is now a study in slovenliness. Dirty dishes, discarded clothes, old newspapers, empty bottles, glasses filled and unfilled, open and unopened laundry packages, mail and disarrayed furniture abound. The only cheerful note left in this room is its twelfth floor window. Three months ago, this was a lovely apartment.

RiISE: The room is filled with smoke. A poker game is in progress. There are six chairs around the table but only four men are sitting. They are simply, MURRAY, ROY, SPEED, and VINNIE…..

Which do you think is the more effective open? The play doesn’t start with Felix—or even Oscar. The movie opens with a man at the end of his rope. I’m siding with the movie open.  Looking back, I wonder which one Neil Simon prefers.

P.S. When I get some time I’ll look up how the TV show opens. (Simon wrote the screenplay, but if I recall correctly had little or nothing to do with the TV version other than letting them use his play.)

Related Posts:

Neil Simon on Conflict
Neil Simon on Critics
Descriptive Writing (Frank Darabont)
Descriptive Writing (Stephen King)
Descriptive Writing- Pt 5, Setting (tip #26)
Can Screenwriting Be Taught (2.0) Touches on where Neil Simon learned to write. (He didn’t go to college.)

Scott W. Smith

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“Rocky’s this story of the underdog. The person who always wanted something and was never quite able to achieve that.”
Theater director Alex Timbers

It just so happens that my last post mentioned Sylvester Stallone and his screenplay for Rocky. Then yesterday I saw a full-page ad in the New York Times for the Broadway version of Rocky. I didn’t even know that was in the works.  And it’s a musical. Really. Rocky’s come a long way from the tough streets of Philadelphia.

 “I’m aware that ‘Rocky’ might be perceived as an odd choice for a musical, and there will be some raised eyebrows, but I think what people see will not be what they are expecting.”
Producer Bill Taylor

Turns out the stage version debuted in Hamburg, Germany at the end of last year. The Broadway show begins previews in February 2014 at the Winter Garden Theatre.  I’m a Rocky fan so if I’m in New York during its run I imagine I’ll check it out.  (But the real question is can On the Waterfront—The Musical be far behind?)

P.S. And Rocky isn’t the only movie to be turned into a Broadway musical. Big Fish just began its run at the Neil Simon Theater.

Related Posts:
Writing “Rocky”
Why Do We Love Underdog Stories?
Screenwriting Quote #100 (Budd Schulberg)
The Source of “On the Waterfront”
Screenwriting Quote#70 (James Dickey) The original source for the musical Big Fish was the novel of the same name written by  Daniel Wallace, but the character of the father always stuck me of having a lot of similarities to the real life of writer James Dickey. I just learned today that Wallace wrote an essay called Dueling Banjos—and Dickey, of course,  wrote Deliverance…interesting.

Scott W. Smith

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