Sunday, July 13, 2014

William Shuman: En Avant

Writing is so difficult that I often feel that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter.
-Jessamyn West

Stage 72/The Triad presents EN AVANT! An Evening with Tennessee Williams-an acclaimed play about the creative forces and demons behind the genius of playwright Tennessee Williams, written and performed by William Shuman-with performances set for August 12-September 2nd (Four consecutive Tuesday Nights, all at 7PM).

EN AVANT! An Evening WITH Tennessee Williams began as a love letter to the genius that was Tennessee Williams and evolved into a play that affectionately, but honestly chronicles the life of this admittedly "wounded" man.
EN AVANT! An Evening with Tennessee Williams was first produced in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and has been presented subsequently at several other venues in Florida.

It was presented in New York City as part of the Abingdon Theatre Company's Sunday Series and in Rosarito Del Mar in Baja California, Mexico.Over the past three plus years, actor and playwright William Shuman-working with renowned director Austin Pendleton and other extraordinary theater professionals-has created a work that is both entertaining and enlightening.
 For four performances only, audiences will come to better understand Tennessee Williams, the man and the artist. 
Theatergoers will glimpse the impact of his family, follow the development of his early works, come to know his most important lovers, and sense the immensity of his demons.

Tennessee Williams has intrigued and inspired William Shuman from the moment he opened a copy of The Glass Menagerie in preparation for his initial foray into the world of the theater.
He began to wonder what it was that made this writer so different from the other great writers he had read or seen. William looked at his photos and was instantly struck by his infectious grin and the unmistakable twinkle in his eye. On February 25th 1983, the flame of life of America’s greatest playwright flickered and died. And over  the past 31 years that light that shone so brightly has inexorably dimmed.
Tennessee Williams was American Theatre for much of the 20th century. And though many of his master works continue to be produced, the legacy of the man himself is slowly being lost.

Not if William Shuman has anything to do with it.

He will be bringing Tennessee, the man, back to New York audiences on August 12th with his one man show celebrating the man, En Avant.Being a southerner myself, I am a huge fan of Tennessee's.
I even did a term paper on him in high school.
A profound understanding of the human condition lives in the dialogue of his characters and in the verses of his poetry and it is through examining the life that produced this dialogue and these verses that we can fully appreciate the great gift that was Tennessee Williams.
In anticipation of William's upcoming show, we sat  down recently to discuss the road that has led him to this point.

William is currently starring in Martin Halpern's No Moves Back at The Spiral Theatre Studio, directed by Paula J. Riley, which closed Monday, June 30th.
William is both an actor and a playwright. William Shuman made his NY stage debut in 1977 in Charles Dyer's Rattle of a Simple Man, having first appeared on stage in Boston as the Gentleman Caller in Northeastern University's production of The Glass Menagerie.
That was William's very first introduction to Tennessee Williams.
Since then, William has dome a number of stage performances in New York including Ionesco's The Bald Soprano, Terence McNally's Witness, Charles Dizenzo's The Last Straw. William is a founding member of The Abingdon Theatre Company in NYC which produced his play, The Most Important American Playwright since Tennessee Williams and held readings of several of his plays including Retirement Tango, Taking Selma’s Car, Seat of Knowledge and the Hibaku Piano.
He also produced one performance of En Avant as part of their Sunday series.

His short play The Lift has been presented at several venues. His screenplay Practice, Practice, Practice was optioned for production several times and his episode of LA Law was misplaced by its executive producer.
 William received a BA in English and Economics from Boston University and an MBA in Marketing from the Wharton School but left the corporate world to pursue a life in the theatre.
William did not do a whole lot of acting through the '90s. He had a family to raise and support. He came back to acting in 2009.
In 2011, he played Dr. Martin Dysart in Equus. He played the Narrator in the Rocky Horror Show.

He did two roles in t. s. eliot's Murder in The Cathedral. His writing started to evolve culminating with his theatre piece celebrating Tennessee Williams. It was first produced in Ft. Lauderdale. The date was 11/11/11! Interesting side note in terms of numbers.
William made his stage debut on 7/7/77!   
Recently, William did a production of It's a Wonderful Life where he got to play Potter, the nastiest human being on the planet. That was a stretch for William because he normally plays nice guys. What truly makes William happy is knowing that he has impacted someone's day or their week. (He is not arrogant enough to say their life!). When he hears them laugh, when he can feel that they are moved from the stage, either as an actor or standing at the back of the theatre and he sees their immediate response to his words as a playwright. What he loves about theatre never changes.
That is its ability to impact people on an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual way.

What William loathes about what theatre has become is it's reliance on "celebrity". He finds the entire "cult" of celebrity to be abhorrent.
He feels that it wasn't always that way in the theatre. Of course, film and television has always been celebrity driven.
It can't help but be celebrity driven. If you know of someone or have an opinion of someone, you are more apt to respond to that person in one way or another. It seems that today's Broadway producers desire to attract a television name to their productions. The rise of the so called reality television has also impacted that. When we have people in "Louisiana" following these Duck Dynasty types and influencing our elections, that's a problem.
Why does William perform? "There is a myriad of reasons." One is to try and make a living. There is nothing wrong with that! Even more importantly is the satisfaction that William gets from the work.
It is always the work that is important. Reviews are nice. Standing ovations are nice. The work, in itself, is the reward. That...and a couple of bucks!
Tennessee Williams began keeping journals when he was twenty-six years old. Shortly after he started, he would end his journal entry with the French phrase, En Avant, which means forward or onward. Later in life, he also signed his letters with En Avant.
It was really his motto. He got "kicked in the balls" a lot. The reviews for Battle of Angels were such that he wanted to climb into a hole and not come out for some time. Later in life, his audience and reviewers turned on him.
He always felt the need to go forward. Not only was it Tennessee's motto, William has adopted it as his own.
William grew up in a middle class home. His dad was a physician. His mom raised four kids.William has two sisters and a brother. One brother is a world class pianist. His sister is a successful cellist. She was a physician's assistant and now a jewelry maker. He has a brother who is out in Chicago. He loves to play the trombone and loves to sing Karaoke. 
Neither of his parents could sing. In fact, his mother had "one of the worst voices on the planet." She loved to sing anyway. William won't even discuss his dad. What influenced William in terms of the arts and the creative world actually came from his father. He had an incredible sense of what is silly.
Now, William's girlfriend cannot stand his sense of humor because it is very silly and he is prone to try and make people laugh.
The family has evolved from non performer parents to children who love to get up in front of people.
If William had not pursed theatre, he thinks he would have been a fishing guide in the Bahamas or the Florida Keys.
Back to En Avant!, William last performed it in January of this year. He did three performances in Davie, Florida. Click HERE to see an interview with William.
The text of En Avant is fairly well set. He continuously makes minor adjustments.It is a very simple set design, but he makes minor adjustments and tweaks every now and then. He is constantly striving, as an actor, to make more impactful choices.
A favorite memory of the show for William took place when he did the show in Rosarito del Mar, Mexico. It was a community theatre in the truest sense of the word. They involve the community. They did five iconic scenes from Tennessee Williams' plays as the first act. The artistic director is a friend of Williams and also a wonderful actor/director by the name of Craig Schaefer. At the top of Act Two, he said, "Now, that you have sampled these plays, meet the author."
After each of the performances, William held a symposium taking questions from the audience as Williams talking about the process. He has done that a few times. He will not be doing that at The Triad.

At least there are no plans to do that at the time of this interview. I asked William what he considered to be the lowest point of his career.
He said there are the usual aspects that all artists face. Allan Moyle, film director, who did Times Square and Pump Up The Volume, wrote a screenplay called Love Crimes.
They did a public reading of it. Two actors were asked to go forward with the project. The first was John Malkovich. The other was William!
Allan couldn't raise the money and he sold the screenplay.
William's part was cut out.
He's not sure that he wouldn't have been hired anyway because Allan wasn't doing the hiring.
That is probably one of his biggest disappointments in terms of his career. That, and those times in which William felt he could not get hired.
The first word that pops into William's mind when I mention Tennessee Williams is poetry, the lyric beauty of his writing is uppermost in William's thought's. Running a close second is the portrait of this deeply wounded man.
However, he persevered. His last major work was produced in Chicago in 1981. It was called A House Not Meant to Stand. Tennessee had problems dealing with the cast. He left rehearsals to go to Key West and returned for the opening. He had a suite at one of the Chicago hotels. He had to vacate the suite the morning after the opening because some bigwig had it reserved. 
Director and producer Greg Moser was concerned because Tennessee had a tendency to hurt himself some evenings and not be able to get up early the next day. Greg was pleasantly surprised the next morning at 9AM when he came by Tennessee's room. Tennessee's bags were outside the room already packed.
Greg opened the door and Tennessee was sitting at the table with a portable typewriter, which he always used and would always send out for one wherever he was. He never used an electric typewriter. Greg said to him, " Tennessee, we gotta get going." Tennessee looked up and said, "Not now, baby, I'm woikin'""
Gregory Moser wrote the forward to the published edition of A House Not Meant to Stand.
Theatre is such a diverse thing. From William's recent role in No Moves Back in The Spiral Theatre Studio, which is essentially a rehearsal studio converted into a theatre that seats 85 people to a 2500 seat venue in a Broadway house.
There is such an immense spectrum. In some ways, today's theatre is doing very well. Money and/or the lack thereof is the bane of everyone's existence.
The Abingdon Theatre Company which William has great reverence for, Jan Buttram, artistic director, is a very good friend and William knows first hand how they struggle for money. 
The Abingdon Theatre does really great work. They are presenting NEW American plays constantly.William, as do I, tends to look at Broadway primarily as a tourist institution.
There are very few really good new plays being produced. William mention's Harvey Feinstein's recent new critically acclaimed and Tony nominated (but short lived) Casa Valentina as an example.
It closed after a few weeks on the boards.
William, himself, has not attempted writing a full length play since En Avant! He does keep writing, and he attempts to write ten minute plays. That tends to keep him sharp.
There is also a place for them.
It would be wonderful if this led to making a living on an ongoing basis.
William actually has several full length plays. One, he would like to do some rewrites on. He has done readings of these. They are still in the formative stage.
The most important lesson that William has learned in this business takes us right back to Tennessee's motto, Keep going. En Avant!
The phrase "Illegitimi non carborundum" may look like Latin, but it doesn't exactly translate to "Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down."
Carborundum is actually the name of an extremely hard mineral (silicon carbide) used for grinding.

The phrase originated during World War II and is attributed to British army intelligence. It was later adopted by US Army general "Vinegar" Joe Stillwell as his war-time motto.
Illegitimi suggests illegitimate, but it really has no meaning in Latin.
I asked William what his biggest vice and greatest virtue are.
William is 71 years old. When he was 30, he never thought he would make 40!
He thinks they may be the same thing!
William believes his single-mindedness, when he sets his mind to something, he will go through hell and/or high water to make it happen. He admits that the flip side of that is he doesn't always have a sense of when it is time to abandon the ship. He says that he is a really boring person when it comes to vices. He has been in a monogamous relationship for thirty-four years. He drinks one glass of wine with dinner. He doesn't smoke.
Tennessee's greatest virtue was his elastic poetic mind and his ability to see things in many different dimensions and the beauty of his writings at the same time. One of his contemporaries, Arthur Miller, was a wonderful playwright, but did not have the poetry of Williams.
O'Neill was a little earlier but is still considered a contemporary. Although he wrote brilliantly, there is something so poignant and powerful above the lyric content of Williams' writing. He described himself as a "wounded man, badly bandaged, a monster among angels or perhaps an angel among monsters...a box of questions shaken up and scattered on the floor." He needed the booze and the barbiturates to get through the day and it destroyed him ultimately.
William is looking forward to the upcoming four performances at Stage 72 at The Triad. There is a POSSIBILITY of additional performances at Baruch College in the early autumn.
There are a couple of other theatres interested as well. There are negotiations currently in progress for a couple of theatres upstate. There is also a theatre in Florida which is looking good for next spring for a run of four or five performances.
The show itself is 70 minutes and self-contained.
It is inexpensive to produce. It is very easy to move.
It is perfect for an upscale educated audience. It would also be perfect for high end cruise lines.Because of Tennessee's iconic stature in the gay community, this should is perfect for some of the upscale gay cruises as well. That is another area that William is attempting to break in to.
I asked William if he thought he was a pretty good student. He believes so. He has a degree in economics. He has a degree in marketing. He got bored very fast with the corporate world. He would rather fend for himself as a cab driver or try and make a few bucks as an actor and a writer than to ever go back to that world. He lived for a while on "option" money. He wrote a screenplay called Practice, Practice, Practice. It was optioned on four separate occasions, each time for varying amounts of money.
It's a lovely story about a failed executive who leads a group of Bowery bums and street musicians to play Carnegie Hall.
Aging in this business for ALL is a challenge.
William says that if he had a chance he would be younger. That being said, he embraces what is.
He gets up every morning and knowing he's alive because everything hurts!
William considers himself very fortunate. He is in relative good health. He does have Type 2 Diabetes which is under control. He tries and lives a "sane" life physically. He loves the perspective that being 71 gives him.
He loves the ability of being able to look back and see things as they really are, not as the way that one hopes they will be. William tries not to be cynical, even though that can certainly seep in. William looks forward to TODAY and what it holds. He also looks forward to tomorrow but he is more interested in today.
It is no surprise that Tennessee is William's favorite playwright by a very long stretch.
Although he considers Albee a great playwright and he loves much of his work and Tony Kuchner is an amazing playwright.
If you look at the breadth of the work, Tennessee wrote more than forty full length plays, fifty one act plays, fifty three published short stories, two books of poetry, a book of essays, two novels, two original screenplays. William admits he may have missed one or two here. The fact that his works are so consistently brilliant, it didn't always work...there are some huge failures there. His work is just so stunningly beautiful. Tennessee's favorite play is also William's favorite, and it is very rarely done, Camino Real.
As a writer, William would consider Tennessee a role model, as a human being, probably not.
When it comes to role models, William immediately thinks of his dad. Beyond that, he hasn't thought about role models in a long time.
William's dad was a general practitioner. We now call them internists or primary care physicians.
At age 48, he felt that the parade was passing him by. So he took a residency in radiology and became a radiologist.
He was willing to take that risk. William also has that gene. He left a $50,000 a year advertising job to purse something that "made no sense at all' from a financial or realistic point of view. He is a much happier human being as a result of that decision. His friends are all in or from the theatre and they have so enriched his life. His closest friend for over twenty-five years was the great actor John Spencer. The man that influenced William into becoming an actor was a man by the name of Lenny Baker.
Lenny was a year younger than William. William was fifteen when they met at a Boyscout camp. Baker's career was cut short by illness. His final television performances were in 1979, and he died on April 12, 1982. The official cause of death was listed as cancer.
He had won a Tony Award for the musical, I Love My Wife. He was a wonderful actor and a good friend.
These two men were role models because of their dedication to their craft.
I asked what note William would like to end this blog on and he threw me a curve ball. He said he has such a fondness for food. That is one thing that impacts everyone's life!
In closing, please note than En Avant! IS a play, not just a biographical sketch. It has a dramatic arc. It deals fairly substantially with the family, the seminal work, the loves, and the demons of this most amazing man. For more info CLICK HERE.

Thank you William Shuman AND Tennessee Williams for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!
With grateful XOXOXs ,


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