BWW Interviews: Abrahamse and Meyer's Marcel Meyer Gets ONE ARM Around Tennessee Williams
Previews for Abrahamse & Meyer's production of ONE ARM started last night at the Artscape Arena, with company founders Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer returning to the work of Tennessee Williams in their latest collaboration. Amidst the busy lead up to this brand new adaptation of one of the famed playwright and author's short stories, I was able to interview Meyer about the company and its special connection to the Williams' work. As well as his involvement as one of the producers of ONE ARM, Meyer also worked with Abrahamse on the adaptation of the piece, performs the role of Oliver Winemiller in the play and has designed the costumes that will be seen onstage in the two-and-a-half week long run of the production.
David Fick: A theatre season doesn't pass without an Abrahamse & Meyer production appearing, and you and Fred have tackled Shakespeare, American classics, new plays, theatre for young audiences and even a couple of original musicals. Tell me a bit about how and why you started Abrahamse & Meyer Productions.
Marcel Meyer: Fred and I worked together for the first time in 2004/5 on the Maynardville production of Shakespeare's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. We would often talk about how sad it was that with the demise of the arts councils and independent theatres like The Space, that the chance to do great classic plays and interesting, challenging musicals was few and far between. We also came to the conclusion that one can't spend your life talking about these wonderful plays and musicals, hoping some management would one day mount them again. We had to just make that commitment and become the management doing the kind of work both of us would be excited to see on local stages. Since we founded the company in 2006, Abrahamse & Meyer Productions has created employment for hundreds of actors, musicians and technicians, collectively garnering 29 Fleur du Cap Theatre Award nominations and 7 wins. We've also been lucky enough to present our work across South Africa, and internationally in Europe and the USA.
DF: As a company, what you envisage your place in the South African theatre spectrum to be?
MM: One of our main objectives as a company is to keep the classics alive - whether it's Shakespeare or modern classics like Noël Coward's PRIVATE LIVES or Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS, or the Tennessee Williams plays, or children's classics like PETER PAN or ALICE IN WONDERLAND. As an independent company, we have to create work that is financially viable while still being artistically fulfilling for us as a creative team, and this often allows us to think "out of the box" when selecting our productions - like doing the whole RICHARD III with only three actors while still giving our audience the sense of a full classical theatre production. Bringing a new young audience to the classics is also very important to us, and that's why we always try and present our productions to new, young, audiences - who, time and time again, respond with such enthusiasm to plays that might have been written 400 years ago.
Tennessee Williams project Abrahamse & Meyer Productions has tackled in as many years, following productions of KINGDOM OF EARTH and THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE. What is it about this playwright and author that keeps you returning to his work?
MM: Tennessee Williams is in my opinion the greatest playwright and poet for the stage after Shakespeare. His use of language, his understanding of character and the unbelievable visual possibility of his works makes him a playwright one wants to return to time and time again. One can never do too much Shakespeare, and likewise, one can never do too much Williams. Both writers had a gift for presenting the human condition in all its complexity in a manner that is always challenging and exciting for actors to act and riveting and engaging for audiences to watch. As a company we always look for projects that will challenge us on all levels - as a design team, as a director and as actors - while at the same time giving our audiences something visceral, challenging and exciting to experience - Williams, Shakespeare, Sondheim, Coward and Eugene O'Neill fulfil that criteria and that's why we remain drawn to their work.
DF: ONE ARM is a change of pace though, as it is an adaptation of a short story rather than a new production of one of Williams' plays. There is a definite theatricality about several of his stories, so how did you come to choose "One Arm" as the basis for your play?
MM: When we first read "One Arm", the story just packed such an emotional punch. It had all the hallmarks of the classic Williams plays but the story was told in such a concise and direct manner - like an austere "tone poem". Knowing that Williams himself was excited by the dramatic potential of "One Arm", having adapted the story for the screen, we became very excited at the prospect of adapting it for the stage.
DF: "One Arm" was a long time coming for Williams. His notebooks tell us that he started work on the story in May 1942 and it was eventually published towards the end of that decade, with Williams believing at one point that he had ruined the story he was trying to tell. Why do you think it took Williams such a long time to tell this story?
MM: Writing was very important to Williams. He wrote almost every day of his life. Often he was writing more than one thing at a time, working on several drafts of plays, short stories and poems simultaneously. He was always revising his work. In the Williams archives there are drafts of revisions on established classics like A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE from the 1970s - more than 30 years after the play had premiered on Broadway. His characters and plots lived with him all the time and he was always looking for the best way to bring them to life for his audience. Having begun the story of "One Arm" in 1942 - it wasn't published till 1948 - the story continued to fascinate him and by the late 1960s, he had adapted the story for the screen. He continued to revise the screenplay during the 1970s. Sadly the film was never produced - but the year after his death, in 1984, New Directions published Williams' screenplay of ONE ARM.
DF: As with so many Williams pieces, the inspiration for this story came from his own life experiences. Oliver Winemiller was based on a '1-armed youth' - as Williams describes him in his notebooks - that the writer had met in New Orleans, and the minister in the story has a bad heart, which was one of the afflictions that Williams believed he had, so there is that sense of him placing himself into the story too. Now, every writer puts something of himself into his work, but why do you think those connections sometimes make for such visceral experiences in Williams' work?
MM: Williams famously said: 'People have said and said and said that my work is too personal: and I have persistently countered this charge with my assertion that all true work of an artist must be personal, whether directly or obliquely, it must and does reflect the emotional climate of its creator.' Williams had a wonderful and fascinating life that he constantly drew upon when creating his plays, short stories and poems. Openly gay during a period when most people were living in the closet, Williams always championed "the other" in his work. Like Gore Vidal explained, 'the characters that most intrigue him [Williams] are outsiders, part of that "swarm of the fugitive kind."'
DF: What challenges have you faced in adapting "One Arm" from one medium into another?
MM: We were determined to only use Williams' own words in the adaptation - so every word you hear on stage is from Williams' pen. From his earliest plays to his final 'outrages for the stage', Tennessee Williams always envisaged 'a new, plastic theatre' to 'take the place of the exhausted theatre of realistic conventions if the theatre is to resume vitality as a part of our culture.' Williams constantly pushed the boundaries of what theatre could be, not only through literary innovations but also by maximising the potential of theatre as a visual medium. We wanted our stage adaptation of ONE ARM to be in keeping with Williams' concept of a 'plastic theatre' with a non-linear structure and a strong visual presentation transforming the stage. We set out to transform the stage of the Artscape Arena into an austere erotic dreamscape where this tragic tale unfolds. With our adaptation we also choose to focus on the central relationship between the convicted one-armed hustler and a young Lutheran minister who visits him on death row. Picking up on Williams' themes of voyeurism, exhibitionism and paraphilia, our stage adaptation utilises erotic fetishism and sexual role-play as a major dramatic device in the play by having the young Lutheran minister voyeuristically act out all the various characters in mutilated boxer's life-story.
DF: What's next for Abrahamse & Meyer Productions?
MM: Immediately after ONE ARM, closes we leave for the USA to present a production of Yukio Mishima's modern Noh play, THE LADY AOI at the ninth Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival. We then stay on in the States to direct and design a new American production of Tennessee Williams' STAIRS TO THE ROOF in St. Louis. This is quite a historic occasion as it will be the inaugural production of the newly restored original theatre where Tennessee Williams worked as a young man. We feel very honoured that on the strength of our previous Williams productions in the USA we were invited to create this landmark revival of this early Williams classic in the city where Williams grew up. This production is also set to launch a new Tennessee Williams Festival in St. Louis.
And with that - and with one preview of ONE ARM under the belt - Meyer had to leap back into the fascinating world that Williams first created in his short story of the same title. ONE ARM runs at the Artscape Arena until 14 September. The production is directed by Fred Abrahamse, who has also designed the set and lighting, and also features a score composed by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. Nicholas Dallas joins Meyer on stage in the play. Tickets cost R100 for previews and R150 from opening night onwards, with two "2 for the price of 1" specials on 1 and 8 September. Bookings can be made through Computicket.