South Side actor takes on the role of playwright Tennessee Williams
When “Talking with Tennessee” begins performances tonight, the man doing all the talking will be Martin Giles.
Presented as a companion piece to The Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s staging of Lee Hoiby and Landford Wilson’s opera “Summer and Smoke” that’s based on Tennessee Williams’ play, this one-man show will use Williams’ correspondence to shed light on the man who created now-classic such plays as “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Giles is a prominent and busy actor and a South Side resident. Since May, he has appeared in the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre’s production of “Hamlet,” Quantum Theatre’s “The Wild Duck,” and “The Metamorphosis,” one of a trio of one-act plays, produced by Dog and Pony Show.
It’s his third experience with performing solo.
In 1995, he gave a mesmerizing performance in Denis Leary’s “No Cure for Cancer” at the Upstairs Theatre and, in 2000, he played a bitter, cynical department store elf in City Theatre’s production of David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries.”
But despite his decades of area performances, this is only his second portrayal of a real person. He plans to incorporate some of the lessons he learned while playing Paul Gauguin in City Theatre’s 2002 production of “Inventing Van Gogh.”
For that role, he spent a great deal of time reading Gauguin’s journals and trying to faithfully re-create the historic person and Gauguin’s relationship with Van Gogh.
“I realized our scenes weren’t working because I was so involved with what those people were like that I wasn’t playing the scene,” he says. “You can get so immersed in these fascinating characters. But I have to make this work dramatically.”
In preparing for this performance, Giles has reread some of Williams’ plays and read his memoirs and is looking at pictures and searching for video footage to get a sense of how Williams moved.
But what Giles hopes to convey is not a documentary or an impersonation, but “a simulacrum of him. I’m trying to get at his insides rather than his outsides,” he says.
Giles became familiar with Williams’ work while playing Mitch in a production of “Streetcar Named Desire” in West Virginia. The place where he was staying came with a complete collection of all of Williams’ plays, and Giles devoured them all.
“He’s a guy you can take for granted,” Giles says. “When you end up reading his plays, you realize what an incredible writer he was. … He’s a lot more intellectual than most people give him credit for.”
The premise behind “Talking With Tennessee” is that Williams is working on his memoirs while waiting out a period of writer’s block.
“Speaking his words is like playing one of his characters. He can’t help but speak in a dramatic voice and of course he is a difficult person – vain, cantankerous – he feels like a victim so much of the time,” Giles says. “He’s a little self-aggrandizing and a little pitying. But you have to be an egomaniac to be a creator.”
What surprised Giles most was that Williams saw himself as a man who had nearly been destroyed. “He’s afraid his life and work are inconsequential and meaningless,” Giles says.
During his lifetime Williams won two Pulitzers (“A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1948 and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1955) and saw original productions of 24 of his plays on Broadway. Nevertheless, Giles says, in his letters and memoir “he’s prone to despair that he hasn’t fulfilled his potential.”
“Our job is to make the telling (into) showing, to give him a context – a time of day, a state of mind and a place to be and make what he says come out of the action. … I just listen to the voice and get all my best clues from the text and his voice, which is so profuse.”
Giles promises that “Talking with Tennessee” will not be a reading but a performance with drama and movement. But he places a heavy value on Williams’ words. “An underappreciated facet is to just sit and listen – not watch people act but just sit and listen,” he says. “That’s what they’re going to see here – no half-naked Adonises or ghosts of Blanche DuBois – just me.”
‘Talking with Tennessee’
Who: Produced by The Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.
When: Performances begin Thursday and continue at 8 p.m.Thursday and Oct. 2; 5 p.m. Saturday and Oct. 4; 6 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 5.
Admission: $20 and $35 for ‘Talking with Tennessee’ or $45 for ‘Talking with Tennessee’ and ‘Summer and Smoke.’
Where: William Snyder Mansion, 850 Ridge Ave., North Side.
Details: (412) 394-3353 or proartstickets.org