The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with nearly 3,500 shows. This year, Playbill is in Edinburgh for the entire month in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!
Tennessee Williams is undoubtedly one of the world's greatest-ever playwrights, with a body of work that includes such bonafide classics as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, The Night of the Iguana, and Sweet Bird of Youth.
But Williams wasn't just a playwright. He was, in his day, a notorious personality, with a charming Southern wit that was infamous in theatrical circles. He also was an early queer icon.
And thus, it's not altogether surprising that actor Jacob Storms (Red Oaks) selected Williams as the subject of a new solo show, Tennessee Rising: The Dawn of Tennessee Williams. But Storms was inspired to look to the period in Williams' life before he was famous—his first major hit production, The Glass Menagerie, wouldn't come until 1945 when Williams was 33.
Focusing on this pre-Managerie period, Storms is able to dig into how Williams came to be (spoiler alert: Tennessee is not the name on his birth certificate) and the pieces of his life that would turn up in his writing. After all, it's been well-reported that Williams' classic play about the toxic relationship between an overbearing mother, her daughter struggling with mental illness, and the gentleman caller has some origins in the playwright's own life. But it doesn't stop there.
Storms debuted the work in 2017 and took it Off-Broadway earlier this year with Tony winner Alan Cumming at the helm. Both Storms and Cumming have now brought a 60-minute version of the piece to Cumming's native Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
We caught up with Storms to learn the inspirations behind the piece, its Fringe run, and what his Edinburgh experience has been like.
How long have you been working on Tennessee Rising?
Jacob Storms: I first conceived the play in 2012. It then took six years to write the show. I performed Tennessee Rising for the first time in 2017 at United Solo Fest, the world’s largest solo play festival in New York, where I was given the United Solo Award for Best One-Man Show.
What drew you to Tennessee Williams?
In 2012, while I was in rehearsal for a play in New York, my high school in Portland, Oregon, called me out of the blue because they wanted me to give a speech as their annual scholarship fundraiser. The show I was rehearsing allowed me to leave a for a week so I flew to Portland and gave the speech. My middle school, Da Vinci, a public arts magnet school (where I first started performing seriously) also happened to be doing a fundraiser at that time and they knew I was in town.
Their fundraiser was a screening of Tennessee Williams’ Cat On a Hot Tin Roof that was organized by one of Elizabeth Taylor’s granddaughters, who was a parent at the school at that time! She asked me to introduce the screening and sing "Happy Birthday" to Elizabeth Taylor, for what would have been her 80th birthday.
I was so inspired by the whole experience that I knew I wanted to learn more about Tennessee Williams. The next day, I walked into a bookstore and couldn’t believe Tennessee’s memoir was on display in the front of the store! The updated version had a photo of him on the cover as a young man and I was struck by our physical resemblance, which I was previously unaware of.
I bought it and read it in a day, and was even more inspired because I felt a deep connection the man that was out of this world. That is how it all began for me, which was all very unexpected!
What was the most surprising thing you learned about him while writing the play?
After I read Tennessee’s infamous memoir and started reading his letters, journals and the only authorized biography Tennessee approved before his death (Tom, which was given to me by Charles Busch), I realized there were a lot of things Tennessee glossed over in his memoir that he did not really want to talk about at that point in his life: major events and people he encountered that shaped his younger years, which deserved to be explored and brought to life.
I realized his younger period had never been been dramatized, so I decided to focus on six of his most formative years beginning in 1939, when he first ventured out into the world on his own at age 27. The play then follows him around America as World War 2 rages in the background and Tennessee struggles to establish himself as young writer over the next six years, culminating in opening night of his first hit on Broadway in 1945, The Glass Menagerie.
I felt it was not only fascinating to shed light on the obscure years of such a legendary figure, but to also offer some hope and perspective to other young performers who are trying to make their way in the world, especially when it seems like the weight of the world is working against you. Tennessee said he had to make a religion of endurance, which is something I think we can all relate to, especially those of us in the arts.
What elements of Tennessee as a person do you see most reflected in his plays?
Tennessee often spoke about his plays offering a voice to the more sensitive and overlooked people in society. He spent a lot of his younger years in professional and personal obscurity. He had the soul of a poet, so some of his most personal aspects can be seen in some of his major characters like Blanche DuBois [from A Streetcar Named Desire].
But he also famously said he is both Blanche and Stanley Kowalski. So I express that in Tennessee Rising, where the audience witness Tennessee’s extremely sensitive nature, in addition to his rage and anger at the injustices of the world and the slings and arrows he encounters in his personal life.
Why did you want to present your show at Edinburgh Fringe?
Bringing Tennessee Rising to Edinburgh Fringe has been a longtime dream! I would have loved to have done it years ago but the universe had other plans. I think U.K. audiences are always interested in Tennessee Williams, so I knew people in Edinburgh would appreciate it. My director of the original New York staging of Tennessee Rising, Alan Cumming, being Scottish (plus my great-grandmother having emigrated from Scotland almost 100 years ago) only added to my desire to bring the show to Edinburgh and pay tribute to both of them.
What's been the most difficult part of performing at Fringe?
I think the most difficult part is wanting to see every show and go to every event. So I realized how crucial it is to plan my days ahead of time to be able to see and do other things while I’m in Edinburgh, and support the other performers and artists who made the harrowing journey here!
What has been the most rewarding part of performing at Fringe?
Getting to meet the other amazing artists and performers also performing in Edinburgh Fringe has been very inspiring. Since Tennessee Rising is a solo play, it can be a bit isolating. But getting to commiserate with the other performers in the festival has been really fun and it feels like I’ve already made new lifelong friends here.
What are you hoping to get out of your Fringe experience?
My desire is to do a U.K./Euro tour, as well as bring Tennessee Rising to the attention of some other festivals and theatres in America and abroad that may not have heard of the show yet.
What other show would you recommend people go see and why?
17 Minutes by Scott Organ, presented by New York’s Barrow Group, was actually the first show I saw when I arrived and it has stayed with me! Powerful writing by Scott Organ and great performances by an amazing cast.
Tennessee Rising is running at Assembly Rooms' Front Room at Edinburgh Festival Fringe through August 27. For tickets, click here.