Tennessee Williams' 'Stairs to the Roof' To Take the Stage For the First Time in 67 Years

By Alex Wilking
In Culture

The name Tennessee Williams holds special meaning to the community of St. Louis: A master playwright of the 20th century, he spent formative years here that strongly influenced the more than 70 plays he wrote during the course of his lifetime. Although his major plays—”The Glass Menagerie” (1944), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947) and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955)—continue to draw audiences to critical acclaim, one of his apprentice plays, “Stairs to the Roof,” has gone largely unnoticed.

But from Nov. 7-23, this drama will take the stage for the first time since 1947. Its opening night is also the opening night of its venue, the newly remodeled Boo Cat Club (812 Union Blvd.). As a sneak peek of what’s to come, ALIVE asked “Stairs to the Roof” artistic director Carrie Houk about her experiences reviving this performance and what it sets the stage for in the coming months.

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“Stairs to the Roof” image courtesy of the Boo Cat Club

ALIVE: When did you first experience Williams’ works?

Houk: I have been reading plays since I was a child, and Williams has been my favorite since then. My uncles were both acquainted with him and his circle. I always have connected with the lyricism of his language and, at times, have strongly identified with some of his characters. I was lucky enough to have had dinner at his table as a young actress in NYC at the Sherry Netherland Hotel. I was able to speak with him at length about St. Louis and actually had a dance with him!

ALIVE: Why choose “Stairs to the Roof” out of all of Williams’ other plays?

Houk: I fell in love with the play about two years ago. I loved the language, the theme of finding your individuality, the hopefulness of the play. Although the play was written in the ’40s, I think the themes are especially timely today.

ALIVE: How did this show and its performers come together?

Carrie Houk: I did two table readings with local actors, and after hearing the play, Jill McGuire, head of the Regional Arts Commission, suggested that I apply for the RAC Innovation Grant. My grant was based upon the thought that I would involve different St. Louis arts organizations and produce it in a space that has a connection with Williams. I got Circus Flora, Jazz St. Louis and St. Louis Ballet Company involved. My director came into town in May to cast some of the best actors in St. Louis. This summer, we were able to assemble musicians from Jazz U and Jazz Allstars from Jazz St. Louis, two lovely dancers from St. Louis Ballet and an aerialist with the guidance of Circus Flora. Henry Palkes wrote some fantastic original music for the score.

ALIVE: What’s it like bringing life back into the Boo Cat Club with this show?

Houk: Very exciting because Williams did early work on the very stage where we will be performing. The building is historically important, and I love the fact that my mom said she went there many times as a girl to see shows. At 93, she still remembers the tile roof!

ALIVE: It’s been years since this play was last performed. What challenges went into adapting it?

Houk: The cast is enormous and we have made it even more enormous by adding ballet dancers and a circus performer. We have original music, which means there have been numerous recording sessions. The easy part is bringing Williams’ wonderful dialogue and story to life.

ALIVE: What do you hope viewers will take away from your adaptation?

Houk: The importance of living your life, keeping your dreams alive, not settling and, most of all, not losing your individuality—finding your own stairs to the roof!

ALIVE: Share a bit with readers about the big Tennessee Williams festival you’re planning for next year.

Houk: We are planning a Taste of Future Fest in March with a production of Williams’ St. Louis one-acts. We hope to do them on-site in a local hotel, apartment building and bar. Next September, we will bring another Abrahamse/Meyer production to St. Louis from the Provincetown Fest. In May 2016, we will launch the inaugural St. Louis Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, a four-day festival that will include theatre, musical events, visual arts and an educational component.

ALIVE: What impact would you say Williams has had on the STL theater scene?

Houk: I don’t think Williams’ work has been explored as thoroughly as it could be here. Williams wrote 70 plays, many of them amazing gems. I would love to bring the more unknown work as well as the classics to the city that informed Williams’ work so greatly.

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