Tennessee Williams Visits DeKalb College
In January 1978, Pulitzer Prize winning and internationally celebrated playwright Tennessee Williams was in Atlanta for the premier of his play Tiger Tail at the Alliance Theater. A student from then DeKalb Community College (currently Georgia Perimeter College) in Atlanta was seriously injured while voluntarily working on the set construction for the play. Williams graciously visited the young student and asked what he could do to raise his spirits after the accident. The student asked Williams to speak at his college, and Williams agreed.
Dr. Faye Clark, Drama and Speech Department chair at the time, recalls the day Williams visited the campus:
"We had very short notice of Tennessee Williams's appearance--maybe a day or two. There was no e-mail then, of course. In spite of that, word got around of his imminent appearance and the auditorium filled quickly on the morning of January 11, 1978. After the seats filled, more people arrived, content to stand in the back of the Fine Arts Auditorium. It was so crowded that I had to go up to the lighting booth and observe his reading from there. Williams spoke in the late morning, as I recall. It was obvious that he suffered from severe stage fright. He had instructed the lighting people to block out the audience by putting bright lights on him and having the auditorium completely dark. He did not want to see anyone in the audience, as that (obviously) would escalate his stage fright. He sat in a light green naugahyde chair from my office and did his reading.
Williams was living in Atlanta for a few weeks to oversee the production of the world premiere of his play Tiger Tail. The Drama Department faculty member, Jeanne Creech, who went to pick up Williams to drive him to the campus the morning of his DeKalb College appearance was asked by him to stop at a liquor store as he wanted
to buy a bottle of wine to have a drink before he spoke. She was a little hesitant to do this; but this was Tennessee Williams, so she did so. She and I shared an office suite. She brought Williams to the office and whispered to me that he wanted to have a glass of wine in the office before he spoke. I knew, as she did, that this was very much against the rules of "No Alcohol on Campus" but, again, this was Tennessee Williams, so I said okay. Minutes later, as Williams was drinking the wine and with the open bottle on a desk, the president of DeKalb College, Dr. Wayne Scott, entered the office. As president of the college, he wanted to meet and greet Williams before the reading. Fortunately, Dr. Scott was understanding, and he said not a word about the wine. He met Williams, offered his welcome, and left the room. We never heard a word about the "no alcohol on campus" rule from Dr. Scott. Our jobs were safe! Obviously, he recognized that this was the great Tennessee Williams and, for him, a rule could be broken.”
So Tennessee Williams sat in the cheap, green chair that day on the stage of the Fine Arts auditorium at the Clarkston campus of DeKalb College and, fortified with wine, read to a standing room crowd from his short story “The Coming of Something to the Widow Holly.”
After the reading in the Fine Arts auditorium, he entertained questions from the audience. The following is a transcript of the questions and Williams’s answers:
Q. Are you happy with the way Tiger Tail is going so far?
A. Well we have an excellent cast, and the directions are great. And I think the set is going to be very lovely. So I’m just waiting and praying—keeping my fingers crossed. I think it will go well. I hope it will go beyond this one gig, you know.
Q. What made you choose the Alliance [Theater] to put this on?
A. My agent did.
Q. Why did your agent choose the Alliance?
A. A touring company of Summer and Smoke began here in Atlanta at the Alliance. The company headed by Eva Marie Saint and Ronnie Cox. And I came to know of it through that experience and thought it was a lovely theater as I do. I think it is very beautiful.
Q. I’d like to know what advice you’d give a person playing one of your roles?
A. They are difficult roles as a rule. And I think the best acting training that we have in America. . . There are several colleges that have good drama departments, like Yale, and the University of Iowa. I went there, and there are several others. I can’t think of them right now. But if you don’t go to the colleges, go to the Actors Studio in New York and get an audition if you can. And get an audition if you can. And if they see promise in you, you know, they’ll accept. You’ll get the best training available.
Q. Who’s starring in Tiger Tale now?
A. Well, I think they’re unknowns. You wouldn’t know their names. But they’re so talented that I’m sure they’ll be well known in a few years.
Q. What propelled you to write?
A. There was nothing else I could do. I tried everything I could think of. I tried waiting tables. I remember to pay for my food at the University of Iowa, I worked at a hospital as a waiter at the doctors and nurses dining room. Well, my hours were at breakfast and I could never remember what anybody would order. They would order dry cereal and I would bring them a steaming hot bowl of oatmeal. So after a while they just had to let me go. Because all of the doctors and nurses would be sitting at the other end of the room so that I wouldn’t wait on them. So then they gave me another job just passing out trays in the cafeteria.
Q. Were any of your characters in Tiger Tail created from anyone you’ve known in your life or are they purely from your imagination?
A. Now these characters in Tiger Tail are very Southern, you know. And they’re people I’ve encountered in the South, more or less, the types I mean.
Q. Is there anyone in the play that you typecast after a person you’ve known?
A. No, I don’t do that dear. I just have to create these creatures in my imagination. I have a very active imagination.
Q. What do you consider your best work?
A. They say the majority is always wrong, and that the minority is always right. But I don’t subscribe to that view. In matters of what is my best work. I think nearly everybody thinks Streetcar is the best, and so I think probably they’re right. I’ve got to go home and do some writing.