Category Archives: movies

What’s it like to walk the red carpet?

oscars-red-carpetHe has strolled down many red carpets in his celebrated career. At the Writers Guild Awards, the Tony Awards, the Emmy Awards, the Venice Film Festival, and the Oscars. He wrote the screenplay for Hacksaw Ridge, nominated Best Picture for this year’s Academy Awards.

The world will be watching the Oscar ceremony this Sunday, and gawk at the parade of celebrities as they strut the red carpet beforehand. What’s it like to march down that crimson pathway with all eyes and cameras tracking your every step? For playwright Robert Schenkkan, author of our upcoming world premiere Building the Wall, the carpet is not always magic. Particularly if you’re a writer.

venice-red-carpet-pro

Robert Schenkkan at the Venice Film Festival

“The clusterfuck of a red carpet is always where the writer is reminded of his or her place in the food chain, ” admits Schenkkan. “You are absolutely the most important person in the universe, until anybody else steps on the red carpet — then you’re just chopped liver. You can see the heads snap and the cameras snap, and whoever you’re talking to, their eyes are immediately doing the Hollywood over-your-shoulder shuffle. This is something one is used to, but it’s a humbling experience, always.”

Another other-worldly aspect of Award nights are the gifting lounges, where vendors shower talent with free offerings that vary from high-end beauty products to fine wines to elegant clothing to free travel packages at exotic resort islands. For Schenkkan, the touring of gift salons is a strange ritual unto itself.

“You have to make an appointment, and then you’re assigned a guide who walks you through this bizarre bazaar of products and services, ” he explains. “These things are really kind of entertaining in their own way. There’s a whole formality to it. But again, there’s the reminder of where you are in the food chain, particularly as a writer.”

Robert remembers one incident in particular. “Many years ago when I did this, there was a resort island package. I’m a scuba diver, so I’m always interested in that. They have to artfully, discreetly explain that while they would love to gift you with this, actually they have to reserve it for somebody more important than you. It’s a little weird.”

The ups and downs of a Hollywood screenwriter. Thankfully, unlike the film industry, playwrights in the American theatre are held in much higher esteem. And few are held higher than Robert Schenkkan. Which is one of the many reasons why we are so honored to be premiering his newest play at the Fountain Theatre.

Now, Robert, on Opening Night of Building the Wall at the Fountain, don’t expect any fancy gift lounges offering you a scuba diving vacation package on an exotic island resort. But we’re happy to offer you a free snorkel.

Unless, of course, someone more important wants it.

Building the Wall opens March 18 at the Fountain Theatre.

Quotes in this post originally appeared in Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, West.  

 

 

 

 

 

Fountain actresses are now conquering television and breaking barriers

fountain-actresses

Simone Missick, Taraji P. Henson, and Tina Lifford

They are, first and foremost, talented actresses now starring in some of the most popular shows on television. They are strong women conquering an industry dominated by men. They are women of color leading a new wave of diversity now finally being demonstrated on TV screens. And they are all members of the Fountain Family, seen in acclaimed productions on our intimate Fountain stage   

Simone Missick is now taking TV by storm co-starring as Misty Knight on the new Netflix series Marvel’s Luke Cage. She plays the first black female superhero in the history of television. The new series is now being seen in 180 countries.  There is already talk of giving Simone her own series in a Misty Knight spinoff. 

luke-cage-wp

Simone Missick as Misty Knight in ‘Marvel’s Luke Cage’

Simone’s launch to TV stardom is the stuff of local LA theatre legend. She was catapulted from acting in a play at the intimate Fountain Theatre to co-starring in a new popular television series as an iconic Marvel superhero. It’s the kind of plucking from obscurity to stardom of which most actors dream. 

CITIZEN Fountain Theatre feel most colored

Simone Missick in ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

Simone got the call to audition for the series while appearing on stage at the Fountain Theatre in our 2015 hit production of Citizen: An American Lyric. Shuttling back and forth between auditioning for the TV role and performing weekends at the Fountain, she knew it was a longshot. Suffering from a head cold, she flew to New York one final time to audition and test for the part. Sworn to secrecy by TV producers, Simone couldn’t share details with her Fountain cast about the role she was up for. But we knew it was big and important. We all waited. 

Then she got word.    

“I got a call from Jeph Loeb who was the head of Marvel. He kind of just said, ‘Prepare for your life to change,’” says Simone. “And what does that even mean for an actor who’s been working, doing theatre and short films in LA for 10 years? You can just never anticipate when that call is going to come, what it will really be. It was amazing.”

tina-lifford

Tina Lifford

Tina Lifford was also on stage at the Fountain with Simone in the same production of Citizen: An American Lyric. She now co-stars as Violet Bordelon, an aunt to the three estranged Bordelon siblings on OWN’s acclaimed drama Queen Sugar. The new series was  created, directed and executive produced by Ava DuVernay. Oprah Winfrey also serves as executive producer.  

Queen Sugar is groundbreaking. It is produced by a black-owned network and overseen by two black women—one who owns the network (Winfrey) and the other (DuVernay) as showrunner, head writer and director. All of the directors guiding every episode in season one have been women.  

“It’s exciting that we get to represent the excellence that is living in people of color,” says Tina. “The excellence that hasn’t necessarily had a platform before, which is why Ava is championing the whole inclusive movement. She is saying, there’s all of these stories and talents in every face of talent-making to tell those stories, and we’re going to show you who they are. That’s exciting.”

queen-sugar

Taraji P. Henson was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She now stars as Cookie Lyon on the smash hit Fox series Empire, for which she won a Golden Globe Award and has twice been nominated for an Emmy. In 2016, Time magazine named Henson one of the 100 most influential people in the world on the annual Time 100 list.

taraji-empire

Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon on ‘Empire’

Taraji appeared in our Fountain west coast premiere of The Darker Face of the Earth by Rita Dove. She has maintained her connection with the Fountain Family, seeing Fountain productions and visiting with our casts and companies after performances. 

taraji-et-cast2

Taraji P. Henson and the cast of ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’

The Los Angeles Times has dubbed Diarra Kilpatrick as “a force of nature”. She is not only a dynamic actress. She is a gifted writer and ambitious creator. Her American Koko digital series, originally produced for her YouTube channel, received the Best Web Series Award at the American Black Film Festival and was lauded as a “Web Series You Should Be Watching” by Essence Magazine. ABC’s streaming service ABCd has now acquired American Koko, with Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Viola Davis producing.

“Diarra is an exceptional talent in that she cannot be put in a category,” says Davis. “She has a unique voice that transcends her generation.”

The Race

Diarra Kilpatrick “In the Red and Brown Water”

Diarra starred in the Fountain Theatre’s acclaimed and award-winning Los Angeles Premiere of Tarell McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water. Diarra played Oya, a lightning-fast runner, in the stunning and lyrical drama. Since that dazzling production, Diarra has been sprinting ever since.  She is now also developing The Climb for Amazon. She will write and star in the project.   

deidrie-game-of-silence

Deidrie Henry on ‘Game of Silence’

The list of Fountain actresses goes on. Deidrie Henry has mesmerized audiences in such Fountain productions as Yellowman and Coming Home. She co-starred as Detective Liz Winters on the NBC TV series Game of Silence and is the national TV commercial character Annie for Popeyes.  Monnae Michaell (Citizen: An American Lyric) plays Nina on the new TV series The Good Place. Tonya Pinkins (And Her Hair Went With Her) is Ethel Peabody on the television show Gotham. Tinashe Kajese will be seen in the upcoming TV movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Fountain veterans Tracie Thoms, Karen Malina White, Juanita Jennings, Adenrele Ojo are seen often on TV. 

“I’m always thrilled to see one of our actors, any actor, male or female, succeed in the film and TV industry,” says Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “But to see these extraordinary women achieve these accomplishments and create change, knowing that they come from our Fountain Family, makes me even more delighted and proud.” 

James Dean: The passing of an actor, a landmark, and time

James Dean with Silver Porsche

James Dean fills the tank one last time. Sept 30, 1955.

by Stephen Sachs

It is one of the most historic gas stations in Los Angeles. Seen by millions across the globe in an iconic photograph of a Hollywood legend. The destination for fans and followers worldwide as if on pilgrimages to a religious site. And it has now been torn down.

The gas station at the corner of Beverly Glen and Ventura Blvd in Sherman Oaks, where James Dean filled up the tank of his new Porsche 550 Spyder for the last time and then drove into immortality, has been demolished. One of the last remaining locations connected to Dean’s final day is gone.

If you’re a Dean fan, the gas station and the famous photograph snapped the final morning of his life are well known.

casa-de-petrol-1961

Casa de Petrol, 1961

Originally named “Casa de Petrol,” the gas station opened in 1948 as an adjunct to the landmark Casa de Cadillac dealership next door. At the time, the intersection on Ventura Blvd was known as “Casa Corner,” and included a Casa burger stand and a “Casa de Cascade” car wash. Only the dealership remains and is still in service.

Sixty-one years ago, on the morning of Friday, September 30, 1955, James Dean woke and had coffee. He was living in a log cabin-styled rented house on Sutton Street in Sherman Oaks a few blocks behind the La Reina Theatre, not far from the gas station. He had recently completed filming on “Giant” and was taking his new Porsche Spyder to Salinas for the car races that weekend. Mechanic Rolf Wütherich, stunt man friend Bill Hickman, and photographer Sanford Roth would go with him.

The group met that morning at Competition Motors in Hollywood, on Vine Street near Fountain Avenue, to give the Spyder one final check. Dean’s father and uncle arrived at the shop for a visit. While the Porsche was being serviced and prepped for the race, the group walked across the street to the Hollywood Ranch Market for doughnuts and coffee.

The car was ready around 1:30 p.m. Dean slung himself into the driver seat of the Spyder, now dubbed “Little Bastard.” Wütherich dropped into the passenger seat. They pulled out of Competition Motors and turned northbound up Vine Street, Hickman and Roth following behind in a Ford station wagon. To get to Route 99 (now the I-5), the group headed west down Ventura Blvd.

dean-and-wutherich-at-competition-motors-sept-30-1955

Rolf Wutherich and Dean leave Competition Motors, Sept 30, 1955.

Dean needed to fill up the gas tank for the 345-mile drive to Salinas. He pulled into the gas station on Ventura at Beverly Glen, near his house, at approximately 2 p.m. He hoisted himself out of the Porsche to gas up the tank. Wütherich hopped out, grabbed Dean’s camera and snapped a now-famous photo of Dean standing at the service island.

At approximately 2:15 p.m. Dean climbed back into the Porsche. He gunned the engine, with Wütherich beside him, and turned right on Ventura, then right on Sepulveda Blvd. on their way to Route 99 North and over the “Grapevine.” Around 5 p.m, they stopped at Blackwell’s Corner, a roadside café and gas stop in Lost Hills, to top off the tank, stretch their legs and grab a snack before heading on to Salinas. But Dean would never make it.

Dean was killed near Paso Robles at approximately 5:45 p.m, at the junction of Route 466 (now 46) and Route 41, when a 23 year-old Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, driving a black-and-white 1950 Ford Tudor, crossed into the highway intersection and slammed into Dean’s Porsche. Turnupseed and Wütherich survived the crash. Dean became a legend. He was only 24 years old.

Many years before launching the Fountain Theatre, I was an actor. I became a Dean fan as an acting student at Los Angeles City College. Like generations of young actors before me, I was galvanized by James Dean. I was riveted by his films and read many books about him, studying the brooding photographs. I was thunderstruck. Not only by his raw, hypnotic acting. By him. His charismatic look, his outsider persona, the way he embodied an ache of loneliness twisted with a tormented, artistic intensity. He was cool.

When you’re a passionate college acting student in your 20s, still figuring out who you are, Dean was the guardian angel of the troubled, misunderstood young man. Like millions of young male actors, he was “me.” Or who I wished I was. I analyzed his acting, his posture, his walk, his manner. Researching his troubled life, he seemed like a vulnerable wounded man/child, perpetually reaching for something just out of grasp. The way he died sealed it. So young, so talented, so cool, enigmatic and beautiful. The low-slung sleek silver Porsche shooting down the dry, barren highway toward the sun. The metal shards and shattered glass exploding like a bursting star.

dean-and-rolf-wutherich-in-porsche-final-drive-sept-30-1955

Dean and Wutherich, Sept 30, 1955.

After ten years, I stopped acting. I began writing and directing plays. Running theatre companies in Los Angeles. I launched the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood in 1990. Married, became a father. Moved to the San Fernando Valley. No longer a young actor. I was soon a middle-aged husband and a dad with two sons. But I was still a Dean fan.

After dropping one son off at school at Sherman Oaks Elementary on Greenleaf Street, I would sometimes drive one block over to Sutton Street and stare at Dean’s last home address. The house he rented there is gone, burned in a fire many years ago. A new modern home now hides behind a metal gate to keep onlookers out. But the tree-lined street looks much the same. It’s easy to imagine Dean stepping out that bright morning on the last day of September, on what would be his final day.

Many years have passed. My sons and I have gotten older. The gas station where James Dean fueled up for his final ride became a flower shop in the 1980’s. But they kept the original building intact. The service bays, filling pump islands, classic awning — all still there. Over the years, running errands with my wife and kids — chatting over play dates and summer camps and which detergent to buy at the grocery store — we would happen to drive by the old gas station in our family car. Silently, secretly, I’d shoot a glance at the empty service bay island and see Dean and the Porsche, filling up one last time.

Then, last week, came a shocking surprise. After dropping off my older son for an appointment, I drove by the old gas station. I couldn’t see it. It was hidden, encased by heavy green construction fencing and iron scaffolding. Tractors, haulers and earth movers standing ready.

james-dean-gas-station-030

I frantically parked my blue Honda on Moorpark Street and dashed to the site. Found a gate in the fence and pushed in. The old gas station stood in front of me like a haunted abandoned relic surrounded by dirt, a large pile of rubble nearby. Two construction workers, wearing hardhats and work gloves, stood near their equipment. I rushed quickly to them.

“Do you mind if I have a look?” I asked. “I won’t get in the way. You see, this is kind of an important place -“

“James Dean.” The husky guy on the left, construction manager Doug Thane, smiled. I was clearly not the first fan to appear at the site since demolition began. There had been others.

construction-workmen-curtis-listerman-and-douglas-thane

Listerman and Curtis

“I didn’t know anything about it, ” admitted Thane. “And then people started showing up. Taking pictures. Wanting things. Some lady took a piece of pipe.”

Thane’s wiry co-worker, Curtis Listerman, squinted into the midday sun. “James Dean was cool, man,” he nodded, running his hand over his balding head. “I look just like him.”

“What’s this place going to be after they tear it down?” I wanted to know. “What will go up in its place?”

“I don’t know,” Thane shrugged. He then pointed across the street. “I think a strip mall. Like that.”

“Folks are saying they should make it a museum or something to James Dean,” chuckled Listerman, wiping the dust from his mouth.

Another construction worker, Dave Wiesing, stepped up. Wiesing was a bit older. He confessed he was also a Dean fan. He knew what the fuss was about. Several times, he and his wife had taken part in the annual James Dean Final Drive, a yearly event on September 30th that draws hundreds of people from all over the world to trace Dean’s route from the site of Competition Motors in Hollywood to the fatal intersection in Cholame.

“Is it okay if I have a look around?” I asked. “Before it’s all gone?”

As construction manager, it was Thane’s call. He peered at me and grinned. “Go ahead.”

The small glass-paned office was long empty with graffiti sprayed across its walls. On the front door of the old office, someone had spray-painted the letter “J” and a heart. A message to Dean and the world.

I walked over to the service island and stood in the exact spot where Dean fueled up his Porsche nearly sixty-one years ago. Much was still there, as it was. The metal columns supporting the tin decorative awning, the cement pedestal that held the three red Mobil gas pumps. The pumps themselves were long gone but the footprints were still visible in the cement.

Standing there was like stepping into the famous photo snapped by Wütherich that fateful day so long ago. Everything looked liked it did. Except now a yellow tractor was parked where Dean’s Spyder once stood.

james-dean-gas-station-tracker-in-same-spot-as-deans-porsche

“You want to take something?” Thane offered cheerfully.

“Can I? Really?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “What do you want?”

I glanced around. There was nothing in the huge pile of rubble that seemed connected to Dean in any way. And what was still there from the photograph — the columns, awning — were impractical to take. Then it hit me.

“Do you have a sledge hammer?” I asked Thane. He nodded. I beckoned. “Follow me.”

I lead Thane and his sledge hammer over to the service island cement pedestal where Dean had fueled his car. The cement was still untouched. Unharmed. Intact. As it was when Dean was here.

“That,” I pointed. “I want a piece of that.” I chose the exact spot of the cement service island pedestal where the Porsche had been parked decades ago, where Dean stood. “There. Right there.”

Thane hoisted the hammer. Raised it above his head. And with a loud grunt and a glisten in the sun, the sledge hammer swung down and — for the first time in sixty-one years — broke off a large chunk of history.

I held the heavy piece of cement like a holy artifact. A smaller chip broke off in my hand. I examined it up close. Like it was going to tell me something. What am I going to do with it? I don’t know. But I knew I had to have it. I guess it’s kind of like the people who chisel a chip off his tombstone. They want to hold a piece of something — anything — that will make them feel that way again.

My older son is now twenty-four, the same age as Dean. And the twenty-four year old actor I once was, so long ago, is a memory. What we once were is no more.

The house Dean rented on Sutton Street is gone. Competition Motors on Vine Street is gone. The Hollywood Ranch Market is gone. Even the original highway intersection where the crash occurred in 1955 is not there. It was moved. The highway was realigned decades ago. The crash site now sits in a grass field.

But the gas station had remained. Still standing. Until now.

Instead of a Porsche Spyder, I stroll back to my Honda. I get in. Drop the heavy chunk of cement in the back. The smaller chip I gently place in the cup holder between the front seats. A piece of Jimmy beside me.

Everything changes, including ourselves. Like old buildings torn down. What remains, we hold on to. Like the chip of cement I now keep in my car.

A talisman of James Dean and the young man I once was.

I turn the ignition of my Honda. Start the car. Rev the engine, good and loud, just to show I still can. Shift the gear into drive. Point my car toward the sun. And the afternoon horizon.

james-dean-gas-station-door-with-j-heart

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre. This post originally appeared in LA Observed.  

An actress embraces ghosts in this old Southern mansion in a weekend she’ll never forget

Baby Doll house 3

The Burrus ‘Baby Doll’ House today.

In July, actress Lindsay LaVanchy was in the thick of rehearsals at the Fountain Theatre in the lead role of Baby Doll in our west coast premiere when she got a phone call from her agent. Lindsay had booked a guest starring role on the MTV series Scream. It shoots in New Orleans. She would have to leave right away for two weeks.

As the Fountain Theatre scrambled to adjust its rehearsal and production schedule, Lindsay flew to New Orleans. Once there and on the set working, another opportunity suddenly opened for her. She would have a three-day weekend over 4th of July, permitting her time to rent a car and drive the 5.5 hours to Benoit, Mississippi, and stay in the actual Southern mansion where the original 1956 Baby Doll movie was filmed, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach and Karl Malden.  

kazan directing BABY DOLL film

Eliza Kazan directing Baby Doll (1956) in the Burrus house.

The historic Burrus ‘Baby Doll’ house is now owned by Eustace Winn, who visited the Fountain earlier this month  in August and was thrilled seeing our production.

Grabbing her chance to experience a weekend stay at the Baby Doll house, Lindsay hopped in her rented car on Saturday, July 2nd, and drove from the Scream location in New Orleans to Benoit, Mississippi. There was no question in her mind that she would make the trip.     

“It’s very important to me to know the reality of a character, that soul, as fully as possible,” she says. “So when I had the opportunity, a 3 day window … I had to go.”

Why?

“I knew Baby Doll would not be as realized as she could be if I did not remind myself what it was like to be in that kind of heat, that kind of quiet, smelling those smells, watching the sun come up and go down, every moment swatting away mosquitos, the eeriness of being in a big home alone with neighbors not in earshot, uncomfortably hot nights, a sky full of stars, cotton floating in the air, the kindest people, and how badly one desires a cool drink of water – almost as much as one desires company after spending hours and hours alone in the quiet and the heat.”

It was dusk, the twilight sky getting dark, when Lindsay pulled up to the Baby Doll house in Benoit.  

LV photo of Baby Doll house July 2016

Lindsay’s photo of the Baby Doll house.

“Driving up to this great Antebellum home at dusk was mystical. Not just because of the artistic connection, but the history this home has seen was palpable. I felt like an outsider that was being called by a siren. Like every step I took could awake a ghost. That both excited and terrified me. I felt uncertain about what the two days on the property wandering around — and sleeping in the actual Baby Doll room alone in the house — would bring up for me in terms of discoveries about the character. However, I had a feeling that if I kept quiet, alert, and open I would be shown what I needed to know. And I was.” 

She admits feeling thrilled and awestruck standing in the house that was part of film history. “From an actor’s standpoint, an actor who loves Williams and Kazan and that golden age of theatre and the shocking cinema that they created … I was geeking out.”

The place resurrected not only the lives of fictional characters on film.

BABY DOLL mirror bed

Lindsay LaVanchy

“I also felt the ghosts of real people there, too,” said Lindsay. “My grandmother as a little girl was sent away from her family for a few years to a farm of her French-speaking older relatives and I know that had a major affect on her. So being in a place like that (the majority of the time alone) and experiencing that loneliness that causes one to spend so much time in their imagination and creating a world in your head that keeps you company was … real. And this is the reality that Tennessee knew and drew his characters from.”

Staying in the South again, even for a short time, brought home the play’s relevance for Lindsay in other ways.

“I also was in Louisiana when Alton Sterling was shot,” she says. “And then, only a few days later, I was actually in Baton Rouge. I had several shocking experiences that occurred that were so clearly derived from the sadness and frustration of that horrific event – and the centuries of horrific events.  I was saddened and ashamed and embarrassed and angry, physically and emotionally, by the lack of change between years ago and the present time.  And that immediately reminded me that stories which come from this part of our country need to be shared. These regions, the ones where Tennessee sets all of his plays, are a major artery to the heart and soul of this nation. And we only gaze toward these areas and their people when it becomes national news. It’s a forgotten world. And this is fatal to our country for many obvious reasons.”

B_D_0053

Lindsay LaVanchy and John Prosky in Baby Doll at the Fountain Theatre

As an actor, an artist, the work — and its purpose — go deeper.

“It’s not about performing,” says Lindsay. “It’s not about me, it’s not about the playhouse. This play and these characters and these issues are history. It’s an educational opportunity, a calling card that hopefully stirs up something inside at least one person each night. At least that’s what I think great artistic ventures should do: start a conversation, stir up the emotional life within, cause a quest for something bigger than oneself, be a north star to the leaders who enable change, and give a nugget of purpose and comfort to the wanderers. Whether an artist accomplishes this kind of truth-giving each night or not, we can only hope and attempt. But it’s a solid foundation to work from. “

And did the weekend at the Baby Doll house help contribute some stepping stones to build that foundation?

“I only wish I could have stayed a month,” she sighs. “It was truly a special time for me, and I cannot wait to go back.”

NEW VIDEO! Rave Reviews for ‘Baby Doll’ at Fountain Theatre

More Info/Get Tickets

Owner of famous ‘Baby Doll’ house enjoys play and company at Fountain Theatre

BABY DOLL owner group

Eustace Winn IV surrounded by Baby Doll cast

Last night was a magical evening of Southern hospitality right here in the heart of Hollywood. The Fountain Theatre and the company of Baby Doll had the pleasure of welcoming Eustace Winn IV, proprietor of the actual Baby Doll House in Benoit, Mississippi, into our home. Mr. Winn was thrilled watching our west coast premiere and enjoyed meeting the cast and sipping mint juleps with the company in our upstairs cafe after the sold out performance.

Eustace Winn is the current owner of the historic Burrus House, a stately Greek Revival style plantation home which began being built by his family in 1858. The family moved into the house in 1861, shortly before the Civil War. The house served as a hospital during the conflict. There are stories that John Wilkes Booth spent ten days in the Burrus House after shooting President Lincoln in 1865. In 1928, the last remaining Burrus family member who lived there passed away, and the house entered into decades of decline, decay, and vandalism.

Baby Doll house movie

“Baby Doll” movie (1956)

Nearly 100 years later in 1955, film location scouts were asked to find a suitable “decadent and dilapidated southern mansion” for Elia Kazan’s new movie version of the Tennessee Williams play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. When they discovered the worn down Burrus House in Benoit, Mississippi, they knew they found what they were looking for. The film was Baby Doll, starring Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach and Karl Malden. The movie was later nominated for four Academy Awards and the Burrus House became a tourist destination.

In 2005, one of the Burrus heirs, the late Dr. E. H. Winn Jr., of Greenville, established the Burrus Foundation and the house was fully restored to its former splendor. It is magnificent to see today. 

Baby Doll house

The Burrus House

BABY DOLL Eustace Winn

Eustace Winn

Eustace Winn enjoyed a marvelous evening last night at the Fountain seeing our acclaimed production of the stage adaptation of Baby Doll and socializing with the company. Mint juleps were savored and Mr. Winn passed around a hardbound copy of the script, which he had signed by actors Daniel Bess, Karen Kondazian, Lindsay LaVanchy, and John Prosky.  

There will forever be a connection between the Burrus House and Hollywood. A new chapter in that Hollywood story continued last night at the Fountain, and will be remembered by all.   

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Emily Mann explores passion and race in ‘Baby Doll’ adaptation at Fountain Theatre

BABY DOLL 1

Daniel Bess and Lindsay LaVanchy in ‘Baby Doll” at Fountain Theatre (photo by Ed Krieger)

by Brent Johnson

It was one of the most polarizing films of its time.

In 1956, the black comedy “Baby Doll” — a tale of feuding cotton gin owners and a teenage virgin bride in the Mississippi Delta — drew controversy for its sexualized themes and images.  The Roman Catholic National Legion of Decency even launched a campaign to get it banned.

At the same time, the film — written by iconic playwright Tennessee Williams and directed by the legendary Elia Kazan — drew critical acclaim, garnering four Academy Award nominations.

Now, nearly six decades after its release, the movie has come to life as something else: a new play.

Emily Mann_Fountain Theater Headshot

Emily Mann

“I’m a great lover of Tennessee Williams,” explains playwright and adaptor Emily Mann, artistic director of McCarter Theatre Center at Princeton, NJ. “I’ve directed a number of his plays. I knew him, actually. And I always felt that this particular film didn’t quite come off or have its due. I felt there was a play trapped inside this movie.”

Mann adapted the film with French playwright Pierre Laville, whose own adaptation premiered in France in 2009. The new Mann/Laville adaptation debuted at the McCarter last year. The Fountain Theatre production is the West Coast premiere. 

“I read his adaptation and said, ‘Yeah, it’s really interesting, but I don’t think it’s quite right for America yet,’” Mann says. “There were some things that felt rather dated. So, I went back to the original screenplay that (Williams) had written for Kazan and found some other material and started to work on it and fell in love with it and just discovered a play. It’s like finding a new Tennessee Williams play.”

Mann — a two-time Tony Award nominee — says she was drawn to the themes Williams was exploring in the film: “race and caste and color in the South.” And not just between black and white residents, but also between whites and foreigners like Vacarro. They are themes, she says, that continue to rear their heads today — especially in the wake of the church shooting in Charleston, S.C., last year.

“If you look at what’s going on with the shooting in South Carolina and you see that kid, we have the grown-up version of that in this play in the character of Baby Doll’s husband,” Mann says. “He’s a born and bred ‘peckerwood,’ as he calls himself.

“So, you have all of these themes in play — the desire and the passion and the humor and the South,” she continues. “All of the legacy of slavery and reconstruction and Jim Crow, all the way up to what now resonates in a very present tense, that we see why we are dealing with what we’re dealing with, because we see what people came up and out of.”

Mann says the story is less risqué now, but it does include one of the most erotic scenes she’s ever staged:  when Baby Doll begins to awaken sexually. However, when it was released, it was the film’s sexuality that drew the most attention — especially the image of Carroll Baker as Baby Doll, dressed in a nightgown and sucking her thumb while lying in a crib. (The movie has been credited with naming and popularizing the babydoll nightgown.)

BABY DOLL image final

Lindsay LaVanchy as Baby Doll at the Fountain Theatre

“That’s pretty risqué no matter how you do it,” Mann explains. “It takes your breath away to see a young girl feel herself aroused to a level where she can barely stand up. It’s not pornographic. It’s just watching a man genuinely know how to touch a woman and get her to places she’s never been and she’s never felt before in her life. It’s transporting. “

Technically, Mann wrote none of the play herself. She pieced the stage version together from Williams’ finished screenplay, his early drafts and other pieces that the playwright had written using these characters — including the one-act play “27 Wagons Full Of Cotton.”

“He was always trying to figure out how to begin and how to end it,” Mann says “Which characters were in, which characters were out. Whether it was a girl’s awakening, or whether it was a rape … I was able to see all of his drafts and see what he might want to construct now. I laced it with those things.”

Tennessee Williams was a man she was happy to call a friend.

“Oh, he was such a darling man,” she remembers. “Funny, irreverent, emotional. He was just like his plays. He called me ‘Miss Emily.’ We just had a lovely relationship. We just got on like a house on fire. He was just an amazing spirit.

“I just wish he were here to see this.”

Brent Johnson is a writer from East Brunswick, N.J. He’s currently a reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark and the co-founder and co-editor of entertainment website Pop-Break.com. This post originally appeared on JerseyArts.com.

Baby Doll at the Fountain Theatre Now Playing! MORE INFO/GET TICKETS