Richard Corley, Director of Tennessee Williams’ Play, ‘Small Craft Warnings’ In St. Louis
Playwright Tennessee Williams lived in St. Louis for much of his early life, and the city inspired the setting for one of his greatest works, “The Glass Menagerie.” It is also where he is buried, in the Calvary Cemetery.
Though a largely unsung creation of Williams’ later career, the play “Small Craft Warnings” is what theater director Richard Corley calls “a quintessential Williams play.” Based in Chicago, Corley directed the production of “Small Craft Warnings” that will be performed at the annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, an event celebrating the life and work of the acclaimed playwright. “I think Williams was certainly the great American poet of the Other. He deeply captured the loneliness of being someone who is different. That came from his life as a gay man, but also his life as an artist and a Southerner,” says Corley.
Keep reading to hear more about Corley’s thoughts on one of Williams’ deeply insightful, funny and moving pieces.
What is the premise of this story, and what do you love about it?
The first time I directed this play was about 20 years ago. Williams wrote it in 1970, towards the end of his life. It’s about a group of people in a bar on the Southern California coast, between L.A. and San Diego. They all come together over one night, and their lives are shared. They’re like a family. The main character, Leona, is a quintessential Tennessee Williams character. She’s a hairdresser who is celebrating a memorial for her brother, a gay man who died some years earlier. She comes to this bar to sing the song of her brother, but the other characters didn’t know him, or feel the same way. So there’s her struggle to express who he was to these other folks in the bar. It’s kind of a poem about human dignity and frailty—people’s longings, their desires, and trying to assuage the pain of their existence by connecting to another person.
What is a “quintessential” Tennessee Williams character?
That becomes clear in many of the female characters in his plays, from Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” to Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” to Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie.” These women are tremendously full of life: its joys, frustrations and the desire to connect to other people. The female characters in his plays are often the ones who get hurt, because they wear their heart on their sleeves. What he’s saying with that is that we live in a brutal world—and that brutality, of the world and society, doesn’t often have the ability to empathize or care for those of us who are different. The ones who are a little mad, and a little damaged. The ones who are a bit twisted, lonely and don’t fit into that brutal world. It oftentimes shunts those people aside.
Many aspects of Williams’ life show his inspiration for portraying that sense of being the Other in his work. And that’s one of his major themes: What does it mean to be different? That creates the foundation for a quintessential Williams play, which turns into people needing to reach out and touch each other in a meaningful way. That’s what they’re trying to do.
Why was he drawn to female characters in order to hold all of that?
I think what he responded to with the women in his plays is their courage to say what they mean, and mean what they say. He found them able to express their feelings and inner lives in a way that men often don’t. He also showed the experience of women as beings who were often punished for being vulnerable, for their openness to life, love and their desires. It allowed him to create these incredible female characters.
How does Leona, the main female character in “Small Craft Warnings,” encapsulate those themes?
Leona is a hairdresser who lives in a trailer—or a “home on wheels,” as she calls it. She is really someone who carries in her heart the memory of her brother, and her sensitivity. She is also constantly on the hunt for someone to share her life with, and frequently ends up with men who use her. In this play, she’s dealing with this man, Bill, who has lived with her and been her sexual partner, but also stolen from her. She has an incredibly generous spirit.
The driving force of the play is that she’s constantly trying to either help or change other people—that’s the case with almost every character. There’s an alcoholic in the play who’s a doctor, and she steals his bag of equipment so he can’t hurt anyone. There’s a woman who makes destructive choices in her life, and Leona tries to mentor her. She’s trying to provide them with a moral compass that she hopes will be helpful, but people who think of themselves in that way can often be overbearing and difficult, as we all know. She’s not angelic. But she does believe in the goodness in people.
Williams doesn’t try to moralize any of the characters. He has a tremendous capacity for seeing people without judgment. Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, whom Williams idolized, once said, “The task of a writer is not to solve the problem, but to state the problem correctly.” Williams saw his job as exploring and digging deeply into humanity without judgment, and without a desire to tie it up neatly or make a statement.
What is special about this production of “Small Craft Warnings,” and why should audiences come see it?
One of the really special things about this play is that when you see it, you’re seeing people opening up their lives. The characters are speaking to their audiences in a way that is truly naked. There’s an extraordinary ability to witness the inner workings of people that you don’t see with other plays. Audiences are going to enthralled and entertained. They’ll also laugh a lot—there’s a lot of humor in this play. I mean, it’s about this one wild night at a bar, and people spilling their guts.
Tell me a bit about your creative journey. How did you begin directing plays?
I’ve been a director for most of my life. I started in high school, which honestly began because no one else around me really wanted to do it. I really enjoyed being in charge of the whole thing and seeing each piece from every perspective. I’ve been directing ever since then. I also attended the drama program at North Carolina School of the Arts, and studied acting. Then I moved to New York and started directing productions there. Currently I’m based in Chicago, where I teach and direct, but I also direct productions like this one, all over the country. Theater is my life. I feel incredibly lucky to get to do this.
How have you sustained a life in creativity as your full-time pursuit?
You’re never able to sit back and know work is coming your way. You’re always hustling and looking for the next thing, to cobble something together that is meaningful to you. For me, that’s been a combination of teaching and directing, but everybody does it a bit differently. And you have to be prepared to travel at any time, to go where the work is. That’s always been true for me.
What led you from acting to directing, and how do you work with actors to bring the vision to life?
I really love collaborating with actors—I’m known as an actor’s director. I do have a strong vision, but I also like to see what the actors bring. Directing is a psychological process. You’re listening to people and helping them shape their performances, but you’re trying to work on everything from a psychological perspective, instead of something external. That’s how you get to the inner truth, and your goal is to help the actors get that across. It’s a true collaboration. This is an extraordinary group of St. Louis actors. They’re really special, and I feel so lucky to have all these folks in the room to work with.
I was always much more interested in directing that acting, but I felt it was important that I know the process. I should be able to talk about the process with actors from the inside out, rather than describing what I wanted. I’m really glad that I did that. I also have a daughter who is an actor and lives in New York. I’m able to talk to her about the work, and about acting from a knowledgeable perspective. I used to run a theater company in Madison, Wisconsin, and she acted in one of my plays. She has done a couple of films and is primarily working on theater right now—she’s currently an understudy for a play in Lincoln Center.
Acting and directing are incredibly difficult, but also incredibly joyful. I get tremendous joy and energy out of the work I do.
For more information about the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis and to purchase tickets to see “Small Craft Warnings,” visit https://www.twstl.org.
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