Wednesday, February 23, 2005
A conversation with ...
Tony Distler directs "A Streetcar Named Desire"
"A Streetcar Named Desire," Tennessee Williams' classic take on angst in the Crescent City, will be performed at Virginia Tech starting Friday. Tony Distler, former director of the Tech's School of the Arts, is directing the production. The former New Orleans resident took some time recently to talk about vision and meaning in the play.
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Has Virginia Tech produced this play before?
Tony Distler: No. Years and years ago they did a production of "The Glass Menagerie," and they did a production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Those are the other two big Williams plays. This finishes off the big three plays by Williams.
What was your involvement with Tech?
TD: My background is in theater. Matter of fact, I started theater when I was 11 as a child actor, and then I got my Equity card, professional union for actors in the . . . live theater in 1959, and I continued acting professionally between 1956 and 1962 or ’63. And then I went to graduate school and got a Ph.D., and then I started teaching at Tulane and directing — didn't do much acting anymore. And then I came up here in ’67 . . .. I've directed either here or elsewhere about somewhere around 55 or 60 theater productions over the years. The way this one came about is, the theater department decided they wanted to do "Streetcar" . . . and it appeared as if maybe they thought I was the person to do it, even though they knew I was going to retire.
Why did they ask you? Because of your interest in Tennessee Williams?
TD: Well, I like him. I think of the moderns — and by that I mean mid-20th century to the end of the century — probably Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams are America's greatest playwrights. . . . These two are really the giants. . . . I like Williams. He's very complex; he himself was a very complex individual, and a lot of what he writes about, as wih many writers, is himself. I think there's no question that Blanche DuBois — the central character in "Streetcar" — has a lot of Tennessee Williams in her.
"Streetcar" is obviously something that's been performed a lot. Do you think it's as relevant today as it used to be?
TD: I think it's always been relevant. Things that are contemporaneously relevant are ones that have strong social messages, and the message in this one really has to do with delving into people, and that, I think, is timeless. It's what Sophocles was doing in the fifth century B.C.; it's certainly what Shakespeare was doing, and Williams and Miller basically were doing it.
Miller is more of a social writer. Williams, I think is much more interested in human beings — the drives, the hidden dark areas of human beings, what human beings do to one another. . . . Williams, as a matter of fact, talks about this play, and he talks about it in terms of the moth and the flame. And the moth, which should know better, is attracted to the flame, and ultimately the flame burns up the moth. And I think, in a very parallel sense, Blanche is the moth attracted to the flame of Stanley, and ultimately of course she goes mad. She's partway there when the play opens, but she goes over the brink.
How do these issues translate to the production aspects of the play?
TD: The play — and this is true of almost all of Tennessee Williams — his plays always have tension. . . . His plays in a broader sense have tension because they are realistic, but they are also very poetic. So when I approach this play, those two things which can be in tension, I try to see if I can put them into a creative tension. So the set, for example, is basically realistic. And yet the lighting is not necessarily realistic. The sound is very nonrealistic. Many times the sound takes us inside of Blanche's head. So my approach to it was to try to keep that balance between the quote-unquote realism and the poetry, which is very much a part of the play. You can find it in his lines. You can find it in what he asks for vis-a-vis music.
Is that Williams' direction in the play?
TD: Yeah, that's Williams'. . . . He also talks about wanting abstract lighting to occur, weird shapes and forms when she [Blanche] is again sinking into the insanity. He calls for some things which we're not doing. He calls for animal noises, which I think goes too far into the poetic and pulls us too far from the realistic. He also has a whole series of nonhuman voices which he calls for, and we're not doing those either, again because I think it takes us too far into the poetic world and doesn't leave us grounded in the realistic world.
You've chosen the Squires Haymarket Theatre to do the production and not the Recital Salon.
TD: Again because I wanted a kind of realism you could not get in the studio theatre, because it's very small. We're not using the curtains in Haymarket because . . . we needed depth in the set and . . . it allows us an extra foot and a half to two feet depth that we couldn't have otherwise.
So you used to live in New Orleans?
TD: I lived there from 1960 to ’67, and the play is set actually in the same year in which it opened at Broadway: 1947. So from ’47 to 1960 when I got there, not a heck of a lot had changed. . . . When I was there, of course, the streetcar that runs on Desire Street had been replaced in 1948 by a bus, and so there was no longer a streetcar named Desire. . . . That may be one of the reasons that the theater department wanted me to direct the play, because I had lived there in a time very close to the period of the play and I knew what the feel of the town was.
One of the things that we've done with the play is to bring in a guy named Bud Brown, who's a professor of mathematics. He was born and raised in New Orleans. And I had him in for a long session with the cast, getting them to understand what the New Orleans accent is. . . . The acting is based in realism . . . so what people will see is very quote-unquote real characters onstage, acting at certain times in a situation that is unreal — i.e., is poetic — and it goes into that realm.
"A Streetcar Named Desire" will be performed Friday, Saturday, Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m., in Squires Haymarket Theatre at Virginia Tech.