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Interview: Jacob Storms on Playing Tennessee Williams

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Interview: Jacob Storms on Playing Tennessee Williams

by Paul Hansen 21 May, 2021

As the theater scene begins to fully re-establish itself in New York in the wake of the pandemic, it is perhaps particularly appropriate that the world premiere of Tennessee Rising: The Dawn of Tennessee Williams is being presented. The play centers on a formative period of one of the most significant American playwrights of the 20th century.  

Performed by its author Jacob Storms, Tennessee Rising is a one-man show that explores the period 1939-1945 when Williams was largely unknown and was about to emerge as a major playwright with the premiere of A Glass Menagerie. A press release describes the play as bringing “these unknown years center stage as the audience becomes friend and confidant to young Williams as he experiences the unexpected highs and devastating lows of his early career, wherein his most iconic character emerges: himself.”   

Tennessee Rising is being presented through June 27 at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre located at 338 West 23rd St. in New York. Performances will be presented in the open air for a strictly limited audience of 18 with masks and social distancing required. For more information and to reserve tickets log onto http://www.spincyclenyc.com/index.php/theater/566-tennessee-rising.

The production is directed by Alan Cumming who, of course, is a widely noted and acclaimed singer, actor and author. His many awards include an Olivier Award for his performance in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and a Tony Award for his portrayal of the Emcee in the 1998 Broadway revival of Cabaret.

Jacob Storms’ performance credits include the recurring role of Serge on the Amazon Original Series Red Oaks. He has also appeared at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Hollywood Bowl, and The Disney Concert Hall.  An earlier version of Tennessee Rising received the United Solo Award for Best One-Man Show at the 2017 United Solo Festival in New York City and headlined the 2018 Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis. The current version was scheduled to premiere in March 2020 at the Beaubourg Theatre in New Orleans but was canceled due to the pandemic.

I posed some questions to Jacob Storms about Tennessee Rising: The Dawn of Tennessee Williams.

ScreenPicks: Why did you decide to write a play about Tennessee Williams? Is there anything about his work that particularly appeals to you?

Jacob Storms:
After my first three years of living in New York, a serendipitous series of events led to me introducing a screening of Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, celebrating what would have been Elizabeth Taylor's 80th birthday back in my hometown, Portland, Oregon. I was blown away seeing Cat on the big screen in technicolor. I wanted more.

The next day, my mom gave me a gift certificate to a bookstore and when I walked in I was delighted to see Tennessee Williams' memoir on display in front. The photo of him on the cover as a young man was so different from the Tennessee Williams most people think of. When I saw him, I felt like we could have been brothers. I devoured his memoir and was really touched by his deep love for humanity and his powerful will to create art that gave voice to the voiceless.

I later learned that significant aspects of his memoir were in some ways a forgery on Tennessee's part. He had conveniently slighted some of the most momentous events of his early life and highlighted others less deserving of the ink. Because of the connection I felt to him, I knew I wanted to create something that could illuminate his lesser-known formative years and present a Tennessee Williams not yet fully formed. A diamond in the rough as opposed to the celebrated legend of American theatre he eventually became.

ScreenPicks: The play takes place during 1939-1945. For most of those years, Williams was not well known. Does an exploration of that period in Williams' life provide a perspective on his later career as a famous and renowned playwright?

Storms: The six years that Tennessee Rising explores are crucial in the future development of many of his major plays. Along the way, we get to see where he was inspired to create many of his most famous characters like Stanley Kowalski, Maggie The Cat, Big Daddy and Laura. I think most people have a certain picture of Tennessee Williams in their mind that I want to expand a little more. In Tennessee Rising, we see the genesis of how a young poet named Tom blossoms into the Tennessee we are more familiar with today. The audience becomes privy to the highs and lows of that six-year period leading up to the opening night of his first major play on Broadway, The Glass Menagerie.

ScreenPicks: Are there any special challenges and benefits to performing a one-man play? What was it like to work with Alan Cumming as the director?

Storms: I had the very fortunate experience of performing Doug Wright's solo masterpiece, I Am My Own Wife, in high school. A director at my school asked me to consider taking on this epic play when I was 16. After reading the amazing script, I took the leap into the deep end because I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime offer. We rehearsed off and on for two years and did the play my senior year. That play requires the solo actor to portray 35 different characters, and I pulled it off. Years later, when I was inspired to write Tennessee Rising, I knew I was more prepared to perform an original solo play after having performed such a complex solo play previously. I think the challenges of doing a solo play are also the benefits. You are all alone on stage which can be scary, but that danger is what makes solo plays captivating in a very unique way. There is no safety net, so if you can make it all work the payoff for the audience and the performer are equally satisfying.

Working with Alan was a dream come true. I have always been inspired by him, so to see him put the time into Tennessee Rising that he did was really affirming for me as an actor and writer, especially because Alan is not only a brilliant actor/director but also an accomplished writer himself. I had been performing an earlier version of the play for about a year before Alan came on board. Once he did, he really encouraged me to express even more of myself through the prism of Tennessee's young life. He gave me permission to go even further and make the show something very intimate and real.

ScreenPicks: Is there anything, in general, you would like to tell audiences about Tennessee Rising?

Storms: I think one of the strengths of Tennessee Rising is that the audience does not have to know anything about Tennessee Williams in order to enjoy the story. Of course, those who are familiar with some of Williams' plays will appreciate the many Easter eggs along the way. But I am most happy when audience members tell me they knew nothing about Williams' life and they were still invested in this story of his life and left inspired to go on to explore Williams’ catalogue. My goal is to send the audience on the same journey into Tennessee Williams-land that I dove into headfirst after I saw Cat On A Hot Tin Roof on the big screen years ago.

ScreenPicks: Would you like to share with us what your next projects are?

Storms: I just finished adapting the first-year Tennessee Rising explores (1939-1940) into a mini-series that would be at home on Netflix or Hulu. I also have several screenplays in the pipeline ranging from a World War 2 drama based on a largely unknown true story around the family of someone in Hitler's inner circle, a contemporary ghost story, and a page out of my own life focused on my relationship with a close friend ravaged by Alzheimer's.