Interview with A Streetcar Named Hot Tin Menagerie

ITS talks to the creative team (Cale Bain, Maddie Parker and Anna Renzenbrink) behind the improvised Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Hot Tin Menagerie in the lead up to it’s return season at the Sydney Fringe 2019.

Who’s idea was A Streetcar Named Hot Tin Menagerie?  How was the show dreamed up?

Maddie: Streetcar was the brainchild of ITS faculty and Ensemble member Anna Renzenbrink, and then Artistic Director Cale Bain (although the name was entirely Cale’s doing).

Cale: From memory, I’d wanted to do this show for a while and hadn’t had the time but when Anna came to town, with her experience in narrative and genre, it seemed like a no-brainer. I asked, she was keen and Maddie jumped on board as producer, then they made the magic happen!

Anna: Performing improvised plays in the style of a specific playwright is a well-established tradition in other cities, especially in LA and Austin. Why not in Sydney!

Maddie: I’d say because long-form narrative genre improv can be improv at its most impressive, and is something lots of us had previous experience with, but wasn’t something ITS had done much of as a company. We picked Tennessee Williams because his work is so well-known and recognisable, which gives us really broad scope to play within his style.

What made you want to be faithful to Tennesseee’s style rather than doing a straight-up parody?

Maddie: Parody can often be shallow and relies on clichés and gags, but the style of Tennessee Williams is so rich, so it’s much more exciting and interesting as performers to really delve into the style and play faithfully within it. His plays explore really universal human themes, which allows us to do the same and to find moments of real emotion in each show. It means we can do this show over and over and never run out of ideas or material.

Anna: We chose Tennessee Williams because the Southern drawl, clever language and the tortured characters are very recognisable thanks to film adaptations of his plays. There’s room to honour the themes of the stories and add in the mischief and humour that naturally comes with making scripts up on the spot. Tennessee Williams was more appealing and forgiving than improvised Ibsen or Chekhov!

Cale: With Tennessee there’s the opportunity to go in depth with characters that can swing between vulnerable and dangerous, loving and kooky in through completely human stories. There’s simplicities in movement and setting that make Tennessee Williams plays very accessible to players and audiences alike and that never undermines the weight of the tragedy and comedy.

It’s our shared intention both to honour Tennessee Williams, not to spoof or parody. Like Anna said, it’s going to have humour by virtue of it being improv, by virtue of the fact that no one knows what’s coming and that anticipation for the unexpected can’t help but be released in laughter despite the fact that there’s also maybe heartbreak or treachery or debauchery. There’s just so much in Tennessee Williams’ work that is eternal and there are such great characters to play with.

What goes in to creating a show such as this?

Maddie: A lot of rehearsal, which surprises a lot of people! But it takes a huge amount of work and commitment to be able to create a whole play from scratch on stage each night. The first part of every rehearsal is just familiarising ourselves with the hallmarks of the genre; because Tennessee’s work is so well-known, we have to get it right. A lot of rehearsal time goes into the language, just practising speaking like a Tennessee Williams character – while we can’t just learn lines, we need to be really comfortable with the dialect.

Then we rehearse the show format over and over to get the dramaturgical element right. Because we’re crafting the story on the fly, we need to be good at shaping the narrative arc as we go: bringing together disparate characters to weave together into a coherent storyline, maintaining the tension, and pacing the show to wrap it all up within 50 minutes. It’s a delicate balancing act!

It’s also important that we work together as an ensemble as much as possible in the lead up to the show, because the show can incorporate onstage intimacy and stage violence, so it’s important that we are all comfortable and trust each other enough to let these moments arise naturally.

What have been the reactions from audiences attending the show?

Maddie: Overwhelmingly positive! Many people have been surprised by how moving and emotional the show is, because they expect improv to always be comedic – they’ve never seen theatrical or dramatic improv before, and because we manage to tell a coherent story, they can’t believe it’s not rehearsed!

You can see A Streetcar Named Hot Tin Menagerie on  the 26th – 29th September at 8pm (6:30pm on the 29th) at Fringe HQ – New Blood Theatre, 24 Bayswater Rd, Potts Point. Tix via the Sydney Fringe website.

The 2019 cast includes Alex Smith, Anna Renzenbrink, Charlotte Salusinszky, Ciaran Magee, Edan B Lacey, Jack Gorman, Kate Coates, Maddie Parker, Orya Heather, Owen Vandenberg, Scott Sheridan and Steve Kimmens.