Thomas Blackburne plays the writer in Vieux Carre. Photo: Julian Dolman
ALICE Bishop visited 722 Toulouse Street in New Orleans this year. Tennessee Williams had lived there as a young man when it was a boarding house and she wanted to see it. There's still a bit of fancy iron lacework, but the faded grandeur is even more faded these days at this historic site, there amid the infamous city's steamy, seamy recklessness, its hot colours, blues music, big personalities and Mardi Gras vibe.
Bishop could well imagine all that had once transpired in that French Quarter house: the hollering, the tensions, the carnality. She wanted to capture it.
Williams was born in small-town Mississippi at Columbus, and when he went to the big smoke in New Orleans during his very early career, he ended up at this house. Sexuality bubbled forth, as it will for a young person leaving home for the first time and, being an artist, he knew just how to process those deep and confronting desires, anxieties and experiences.
Tennessee Williams revisits the New Orleans of his youth in the play.
It wasn't until much later, though, that he put pen to paper. In the 1977 play Vieux Carre, Williams tells the story of three artists living at 722 Toulouse Street in the 1930s and the difficulties they have in making careers as the forces of poverty ensnare them. When Bishop came upon this full-length, two-act play - one of Williams' less-famous creations - she knew she'd have to do a site visit.
When she chooses projects, she says, she likes things that draw her emotionally. ''So when I read this play, I thought, 'I have holidays coming up, I have to go to New Orleans and find out about all this,' because it's a very specific place, and a very specific voice. I think it's really important to touch something and have a real sense of place and feeling, and the thing about New Orleans is it's just such a seductive place.''
She was particularly taken with the play when she discovered it was largely autobiographical. She loved Vieux Carre for its many enduring themes, but mainly for the way it deals with Williams' life. He is the central character, named the Writer (to be played by Thomas Blackburne in the Itch Productions performances).
Theatre of real-life stories Gaybies will featuring as part of Midsumma Festival.
''I didn't know that much about Tennessee Williams, except, obviously, the big plays, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire, and I never realised how prolific he was,'' Bishop says of the man who wrote more than 70 one-act plays, along with his three dozen or so famous, longer works. ''He wrote all his life, and re-edited constantly,'' she says.
The play's themes of identity, family, the need for human connection, the role of artists in society and the great difficulties they face spoke to this theatre director, a partner in Itch Productions. ''When people are in poverty, often they become invisible, or we choose not to see them on the street,'' says Bishop, who through her part-time work in social services feels attuned to such issues.
''I think it's very important for us to afford all people their dignity, so when you read about these characters in Vieux Carre, living in a boarding house, in poverty, in strange circumstances - maybe their fortunes have changed and they're down on their luck - it really struck a chord with me.''
Originally a film, Psycho Beach Party is being performed as a theatre piece during Midsumma.
More than that, though, was the reason she and her partners at Itch Productions decided to go to Midsumma Festival to stage Vieux Carre in the first place: in the play, the Writer is in the process of coming out as gay, living in a room next door to a man who is much further along the journey.
''Here is a sheltered young man trying to cope with his sexuality day by day, and it's set in the '30s, when it wasn't socially accepted to be openly gay,'' Bishop says.
''Tennessee approaches it quite frankly … and at the time people didn't speak very frankly about the themes of sexuality and acceptance.'' Out of this emerges the strong theme of family - how people make families with others who aren't necessarily blood relations.
Perhaps that is related to the way New Orleans functions as a welcoming melting-pot of a place. ''I met people from all over the world who have come and just been trapped there, because they love it,'' Bishop says.
''But it's a city where nearly anything goes. They've probably always had a broader, more accepting view of the world in terms of diversity. There's a very flourishing gay community there, always has been.
I was fortunate enough to have two great ambassadors of the city to take me on what they called the 'fruit loop' and introduce me to a lot of the gay life of the city.''
What she discovered during that tour was the incredible array of accents, thanks to the city's broad heritage. Her partner, from Mississippi, has helped her sort out the provenance of accents, and for the play she has had two vocal coaches tutoring the cast of 10 actors.
''With Tennessee Williams in particular, it's important to travel to his language, because it's the music of his plays.
''Which is why I went to New Orleans - to listen to the language, and experience the atmosphere of the city.''
Bishop has been thrilled to have so many actors in the play - 10 is a luxury for independent theatre - and especially pleased there are so many strong female characters in Vieux Carre.
''Five of those 10 are women - not only women, but [some] older women. He wrote all ages of women, not just your 22-year-old ingenue,'' she says.
''He wrote great, rich, extraordinarily strong female characters, so that is exceptionally exciting to go out and hire these beautiful and talented actresses that have so much to offer.''
The play deals with all sorts of relationships, sexual and otherwise. In it, Writer befriends a young woman who is in a brutal relationship with a man she considers much less than her; there are also older women who are in what Bishop describes as a ''quasi-lesbian relationship''. ''Often Tennessee talks about how the plans you make and the things you think your life is leading to are turned upside down by circumstance or other people; those themes are very strong,'' Bishop says. ''But he also talks a great deal about the need for connection in all its forms, and he's very even-handed about that.''
None of the producers involved in Vieux Carre, she says, believes there is such a thing as a ''gay'' play. ''People are just people in stories, and in this story a couple of people happen to be gay. Hopefully, one day everyone can accept that idea, and we can all just live on this planet doing what we want, and who we want to do it with.''
■ Vieux Carre is at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, from January 17 to February 3. midsumma.org.au
IT HAS been going for 25 years, so Melbourne's Midsumma Festival is not so much an answer to Sydney's Mardis Gras but an esteemed event with its own special, Melburnian identity. This year's fest will run for three weeks and highlights include:
Best of the Fest at Chapel off Chapel, which is being touted as Midsumma's must-see - a one-night-only event tracing the best things that have happened at the festival since it started. January 23.
Gaybies, at the Sumner, Southbank Theatre, a theatre of real-life stories from same-sex parents, surrogate mums, donor dads, and their beautiful babies. It's being described as ''hotly political, deeply personal, funny, charming, sad and inspiring''. January 15-19.
Psycho Beach Party, at Theatre Works, a 1980s film that quickly became a camp classic and is now a theatre piece, with a cross-gender cast and 1960s surf hits. BYO beach gear … January 11-19.
Bent Burlesque, at Red Bennies: the performers' names give it all away. Imogen Kelly presents the Bendy Burly All Stars featuring Glitter Supernova, Lillian Starr and Betty Grumble. January 16-19.
Blue And Pink Phenomenon, at The Substation, is a queer visual arts event at Newport's hot-as-hot venue focusing on ''a post-identity and also, increasingly, post-gender contemporary society''. January 17-February 24.