Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?
Memories of the 21st Annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans
Literary Festival… and of the City that George W. DUH Forgot
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day?
I know I'm not wrong
This feeling's getting’ stronger
The longer I stay away…
Okay, so you might say quoting the lyrics of a famous N’awlins song classic might be a bit dramatic for me, especially considering this spring was only the second time I’ve ever spent time in the Crescent City. But the enchanted and historic City of New Orleans has an immediate mesmerizing effect on people and has, literally, for centuries.
My first time working in N’awlins was in the spring of 2003, when our original LA-based Laurelgrove Theatre Company production of Lament for the Moths: The Lost Poetry of Tennessee Williams was chosen to open and play the 17th annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.
It was a matchless experience in so many ways, not the least of which was that I was appearing in Lament playing Tennessee Williams himself, stepping onto the historic stage of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre at 616 St. Peter Street at Chartres, a restored 18th-century building dominating one Mississippi River-adjacent corner of Jackson Square in the French Quarter—and only a few steps away from 632½ St. Peter, the very flat where Williams lived and worked while writing his great classic play A Streetcar Named Desire.
From my dressing room window at Le Petit I could look out upon the Cabildo building and into the heavily crystal-chandeliered room where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803. And as I leaned over my connecting Louisiana-style wrought iron balcony decked out in my Williams-white ice cream suit, smoking my traditional pre-show doob while getting ready to go onstage in Lament, I could face the Pontalba, built by Baroness Micaela Almonester Pontalba in 1849 for the city she loved and considered the country’s oldest “apartment” complex, where today even the old fourth-floor slave quarters are highly desirable housing.
I could also choose to gaze past the Cabildo to its illustrious neighbor, the 283-year-old St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest of its breed in North America and the place Williams attended when his early Catholicism raised its guilt-inducing hackles—and where he was eulogized after his death in 1983. More recently, the Cathedral’s familiar trio of spires might be remembered as the backdrop for our lying sack-of-President two years ago, as he spoke in front of it reassuring us all with his typically empty promises and an occasional mindless snicker that the victims of Katrina would get help and be back home as quickly as possible. Yeah. Right, Georgie.
I could also look down from my balcony onto the laconically bustling (oxymoronic anywhere else but in the deep South) Jackson Square—colorfully populated by street artists, jugglers, musicians, fortune tellers, guys painted silver, and Lucky Dog stands right out of Confederacy of Dunces—or I could glance in the opposite direction directly onto that very balcony where Williams had sat for hours, typing away furiously on his trusty Smith-Corona while listening to the ding of the Desire streetcar passing by below on the same path where today flower-festooned horses and mules pull hansom cabs filled with tourists.
The trip was a dream for me, but the most important element was the incredible Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, where for several days once each year Williams fans and scholars swarm into the Quarter to hang out together while greeted with a treasure trove of sponsored events both intellectual and corporeal, including a myriad of writer seminars, interviews with notable Williams contemporaries and former stars, and discussions of his vast body of work and that of other locally inspired authors (Faulkner lived just around the corner at the once-menacing Pirate’s Alley).
For me, the best part of this inimitable yearly Festival is the barrage of excellent theatre, mostly works by Williams, naturally, but not overlooking modern edgy N’awlins-bred theatre companies such as Stacey Arton and Maggie Eldred’s Mesa Productions, the gender-bending Running with Scissors troupe, and the astonishingly Michael Sargent-y original plays of local wonder Rob Tsarov.
You can also check out a slew of walking tours ghostly, vampiric, historic or erudite, one not to miss delivered by beloved longtime local color Inez Douglas, who not only knows stories about the Quarter going back to Napoleon but is also happy to point out to one and all the watering holes she’s been carried out of over the years. Then there’s Festival-sponsored wine tastings, satiating jaunts through Tenn’s favorite bars or restaurants, and the hilarious annual Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest, which takes place right outside Le Petit on Jackson Square the last day of the Fest (the trick to winning this event, it seems to me, is being the only mesomorphic contestant to rip his Brando-white t-shirt to shreds as he bawls out his best “STELL-AAAAAAA!”).
Next consider that the entire time I stayed in N’awlins that first time in 2003, I occupied the very room at the venerated Hotel Monteleone where Williams liked to stay when he was in town between the several homes he rented or later owned in the Quarter over the years. Then add in that I would be stopped walking from the Monteleone to Le Petit to sign autographs or pose for pictures with all those Williams aficionados in town for the Festival—generous folks who also bought me a seemingly unlimited supply (who remembers?) of Williams-inspired Zazaracs at the Palm Court or Preservation Hall.
Now top all that with the fact that I had a torrid fling with someone of smooth-toned Southern aristocracy whom I met by providence the first day I arrived in town for rehearsal, someone nobly manning a Green Peace petition drive in front of the magnificent 1910 Louisiana State Courthouse on Royal Street, our goofily romantic chance encounter feeling like something out of a creamy old George Cukor movie. Is it any wonder an avowed ego-hog such as me was hopelessly dazzled by the city? Simply, I was in pig… or was it crawfish?… heaven.
Cut to this year, 20 months after the devastation that was Hurricane Katrina, a time when the 21st Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival was facing its second year forced by the city’s disastrous economic plight to produce its usual spectacular event on a greatly reduced scale. Thanks in no small part to ardently loyal, hardworking contributors such as executive director Paul J. Willis, vice president of development Peggy Scott Laborde, vice president of programming Douglas Brantley, and board member Dr. Elizabeth Barron, the Festival has stayed steadfastly above water—no pun intended.
For information about the 22nd annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival next March, check out their website at www.tennesseewilliams.net. For information on how to help the non-profit Sweet Home New Orleans, contact them at www.sweethomeneworleans.org . For a look at the highly recommendable Lookout Inn Bed & Breakfast, contact innkeeper/interior designer/art director/rock musician/rollerderby babe Lisa Rohan at www.lookoutneworleans.com