By George Basler
Tim Gleason has always had a love for the work of playwright Tennessee Williams.
“I call him the American Shakespeare for his phenomenal use of language,” said Gleason, artistic director of Binghamton’s KNOW Theatre, which recently marked its 20th anniversary of producing edgy, provocative and offbeat works.
Now Gleason’s “love” for Williams is paying off with some national recognition for the Binghamton company.
KNOW Theatre has received an invitation to perform at the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, to be held Sept. 25-28 in Provincetown, Mass. The festival, now in its ninth year, examines and celebrates Williams’ work. A total of 40,000 persons are expected in the Cape Cod community this year for eight productions and two seminars.
KNOW will remount its production of Vieux Carre, one of Williams’ lesser known plays, which was first performed at the Binghamton theater in June 2013. The play is a highly autobiographical work in which a young St. Louis writer (read Williams himself) struggles with his work, loneliness and homosexuality.
To say Gleason is thrilled about going to Provincetown is an understatement. “For me, it means a lot to take all the folks from here to something of this grandeur,” he said.
The invitation to the festival literally began over dinner.
In early 2013, Gleason met David Kaplan, curator and co-founder of the Provincetown festival, while both were attending a regional competition of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Gleason has been an adjudicator for the festival since 2002. During dinner the two men began talking about KNOW’s planned production of Vieux Carre, and Kaplan expressed an interest in seeing it, Gleason said. KNOW sent him a video clip of the show.
“That sort of piqued his interest more. He liked the way we did it in a stark way, with no sets. Still, he wasn’t quite satisfied,” Gleason said.
But Kaplan was interested enough to invite Gleason; the play’s director, Brandt Reiter, and cast members to his New York City apartment last December to do a scene from the play. A few weeks later, KNOW Theatre received word that it had been selected for the Williams festival.
The selection is a major achievement that will ideally boost KNOW Theatre’s profile in the Greater Binghamton community, Gleason said.
“They (the festival) don’t just take any Tom, Dick and Harry. I hope this convinces people we’re not fooling around. We’re serious about our work,” he said.
At the same time, Gleason knows the pressure is on. Vieux Carre will be performed at the Town Hall in Provincetown, and all 300 seats are expected to be filled each night. “We have to step up. We’re going to a place where it’s kind of expected we’re worthy to be there,” Gleason said.
Seven of the 10 festival cast members are the same ones who performed at KNOW in 2013. Three had to leave because of scheduling conflicts, and one has switched to another role. The new cast includes two Equity actors: Desiree Ledet, who has performed at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, and New York City-based actor Tommy Heleringer, who will play the character modeled on Williams himself.
A major change from KNOW’s previous production is that the Provincetown version will be performed in the round, meaning KNOW will have to reconfigure its staging.
To try out the new production and iron out any kinks, the company will perform the play for three weekends, starting Sept. 5, at its stage at 74 Carroll St., Binghamton.
The company also is in the process of raising money to cover travel costs, living expenses and pay for the actors who will perform in Provincetown. The company will receive $4,000 for the festival appearance but must raise an estimated $13,000 more to completely cover costs, Gleason said.
So far, a board member of the theater has donated $2,195 she won at a raffle, and BingSpot named KNOW Theatre as the recipient for proceeds from last weekend’s annual Martini Walk, Gleason said. The company also has solicited donations at its recent productions and will hold a Mardi Gras-style fund-raiser from 7 to 11 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 2) at Atomic Tom’s, 200 State St., Binghamton. For $35, a patron can enjoy music, comedy, genuine jambalaya and other Cajun cooking and Louisiana libations.
Gleason acknowledged that Vieux Carre was a flop when it opened on Broadway in 1977, running only five performances. The play is not a completely realized work, he said. But he feels the magic of Williams’ language is still present, and the play, which Williams began writing in 1938, gives hints of his distinctive genius.
In a review for Broome Arts Mirror, Lee Shepherd called KNOW’s original production “a courageous undertaking” that she found fascinating, because it contains the templates of characters that Williams will use in his later plays, including The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire.
Bringing a work such as Vieux Carre to the stage reflects KNOW’s mission of staging challenging, lesser-known plays, Gleason said.
And that mission is now taking the troupe to Provincetown.