Giving Williams His Due


I wanted to take the time to inform you about some other little known or little performed Tennessee Williams pieces that are being produced (or recently produced) on the collegiate level.

I am an assistant professor in technology at the University of Illinois Department of Theatre-Urbana-Champaign. During our summer season, one of our productions consisted of a night of Williams' one - acts entitled Tennessee Women, which, as you can guess, focused on shows with strong female characters. The final of the three one - acts was The Gnadiges Fraulein.

To paraphrase our dramaturg, "Surreal, with abstract characters and nonsense dialogue, its fast-moving action is in the zany spirit of an animated cartoon....Written in 1965, during what he called his `stoned age' of depression, the play superficially seems Williams' disillusioned view of the theatre...Williams, in the Pagliacci tradition, often referred to himself as a clown, and, when confined to the hospital after a breakdown, painted a self portrait - as a clown."

The play told the story of a battered circus performer and her fight to survive in her final days. In an attempt to honor what Williams had written and the statement he was making, we put the characters in clown costumes and used a partial circus wagon as the primary set piece. The piece was surprisingly well received.

Perhaps more interesting (depending on who is talking or listening) is a piece we will be doing in November. Stairs to the Roof premiered in 1947 and has not been produced since. Here is a web link: Calendar&-layout=Web+Published+Detail&-response=%2fkcpa%2fdetail%2f DetailFormat.las&-recID=36223&-search. [Editor's note: Despite the long url, we were able to access this website.]

If that doesn't work, try this website:

Not only are we taking on the challenge of producing this little known work, but we are adding a bit of 21st-century technology. Without going too much in depth, the design will consist of computer-generated imagery used in a variety of forms. Primarily, we will be using our large-format, photo-quality plotter to print on translucent materials for backlighting. Currently, we are working with 3M to provide software and materials for the project. Our designers are using various graphics software packages to generate the images. The scenic construction is being designed, modeled, and rendered using AutoCAD.

At the University of Illinois, we try to expose our students to not only the latest technology, but also the traditional elements of theatre. I think Stairs to the Roof will be an excellent example of this.

When I read the August issue of Entertainment Design regarding the Williams pieces, I knew I had to respond. To see that we are unintentionally "following" the mood of our professional cousins leads me to believe we are moving in the right direction.

I am just starting my second year as a professor here and the quality of productions is astounding. Before teaching, my career was in electrical engineering. I have an MFA in design/technical production; I made the mistake of thinking my theatrical "fix" could be satisfied with community theatre while working as a project engineer in an electronics design company. I am glad I made the switch - especially since U of I has such a strong technology program, not only in design, but also in engineering and production.