Listening to the darkness — WTF reimagines Streetcar Named Desire

Two people whisper in a corner, a door cracks open, whiskey is poured into a glass, street vendors call in the distance, and a man drops to his knees in the street, yelling against the pouring rain. With eyes closed, we step into the heat of an August night and the cinematic soundtrack of a mind unraveling.

This week the sounds of New Orleans invite us into the darker sides of the human psyche as Williamstown Theatre Festival presents a purely auditory experience of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire—bringing the intimacy and nuance of contemporary sound scaping to bear on this brutal classic.

Williamstown Theatre Festival will launch the play on Audible starting Thursday, December 3, and marks the beginning of the company’s winter season. Streetcar is the first of four plays that Williamstown Theatre Festival will release on Audible throughout December, followed by Photograph 51, and the world premieres of Animals and Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club.

A Streetcar Named Desire was originally intended to be part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s summer season, but the theater has adapted in light of the pandemic. Directed by Tony award nominee Robert O’Hara, the play brings together a powerhouse cast including Carla Gugino as Stella, Ariel Shafir as Stanley, and Emmy, Grammy, and six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald as Blanche DuBois.

Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald, an Emmy, Grammy, and Tony award-winner, will be starring as Blanche Dubois in Williamstown Theatre Festival's A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Allison Michael Orenstein.

Shafir, who has won the Suzi Bass, Barrymore, and Jeff awards, works in theatre, television and film, and previously starred as O’Hara’s Macbeth at the Denver Center. He is excited about the opportunity to be involved in this unique rendering of the classic play while working alongside such acclaimed actresses. McDonald has starred in many notable productions including Ragtime, Raisin in the Sun, and Twelfth Night, among others. “She’s just a Broadway legend,” said Shafir.

As someone who’s familiar with O’Hara’s approach, Shafir feels that this production will bring a new power to what is already a very dark play.

Audiences can expect an intense, visceral experience: “If you know anything about [O’Hara’s] work,” Shafir explained, “he’s a bit of a powerhouse and he goes for the jugular. He knows where all the arteries are, and he will cut you. I think one of his slogans is ‘everyone is welcome, but no one is safe.’”

The show follows the story of the DuBois sisters as Blanche, running from past traumas, comes to stay with her sister, Stella, and sister’s husband, Stanley, in New Orleans only to struggle with Stanley’s nature and her own unraveling mind. Incredibly dark, the story deals with many difficult themes including mental illness, domestic abuse, alcoholism, sexual assault, pedophilia, and homophobia. However, it is best known for the famous film version that was made in the 1940’s and Shafir feels that productions tend to deal with its difficult content in more euphemistic, candy-coated ways that shy away from the vivid and visceral style that O’Hara is known for.

“Doesn’t it cost you something to be a fly on the wall in such a dysfunctional household—the shadow side of the human psyche—and what is it about us that wants to see that?” ~ Ariel Shafir

“Usually when you see the play done, they do it like how they think they saw it in the movie,” Shafir explained. “There’s something that happens when something becomes a classic play, where everyone thinks they have to do it as close to the version of the original hit—that purist, originalist version of something until you suddenly get so far away from the script that it just becomes a replica of a replica of a replica and it can start to lose it’s meaning a little bit, like saying a word over and over again.”

Shafir feels that often with iconic plays people have a tendency to romanticize and glamorize them, referring to them as “lovely” while glossing over the brutality inherent to the piece.

“Well, doesn’t it cost you something?” Shafir asked. “Doesn’t it cost you something to be a fly on the wall in such a dysfunctional household—the shadow side of the human psyche—and what is it about us that wants to see that?”

Ariel Shafir

Ariel Shafir takes on the brutal role of Stanley in Williamstown Theatre Festival's Streetcar named Desire. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In the iconic film, there are often horrible, intense moments but they always occur just out of sight or the camera cuts away just in time, Shafir explained. These more implicit renderings help to shield the viewer from certain brutalities, but O’Hara’s version asks the listener to fully confront those moments.

Shafir points to the original film, in which it is clear that Stanley beats his wife, but those scenes are never fully presented on screen and tend to occur just off stage. Instead, what audiences see is Stanley apologizing and begging for forgiveness, which highlights his remorse and humanity.

“But for whose benefit do we show the forgiving of the abuser, but not the abuse itself,” Shafir emphasized. “In this production, Robert doesn’t spare the audience the cost of that, the cost of certain things that are in the play that normally are either removed or glossed over, or slid out of view for the benefit of protecting the viewer.”

Shafir hopes that by not shielding the audience, the show will force them to reinterrogate why they’re drawn to the play.

“You came to see A Streetcar Named Desire, right?” Shafir stressed. “You came to watch this woman lose her mind and all the things that happened to her. You came to watch her get raped and have herself be committed by her own sister. You say you love this play.”

By breaking from the more gentle, traditional renderings Shafir hopes this production will breathe new life into a powerful depiction of humanity and brutality.

He feels that ultimately there is something important to be gained from looking closely at humanity’s darker sides. “One of the things that makes Tennessee Williams such a brilliant writer, and what’s so interesting about theater and the arts, is that it brings light into dark places,” Shafir reflected.

By showing us the inner workings of other people’s vulnerabilities and traumas, Shafir believes that theater has the power to broaden our sense of empathy and understanding.

“But you also can’t deny it it’s pound of flesh,” he laughed. “It’s gonna cost you something, so if everyone’s got some skin in the game, then I think there’s more to gain.”

“I think the idea was to make it cinematic, like a movie in your head . . . hearing something like Tennessee Williams in your eardrums, all close . . . it can almost be more intimate.” ~ Ariel Shafir

Shafir feels that because this show is only audio, it has the potential to be even more intimate than a staged production. Because listeners are not watching the action take place in front of them, they have the ability to become more fully immersed in the action, which will sound as if it is taking place all around them. Because of the quality of the sound design technology, Shafir explained, listeners will be able to hear where in the house the characters are, distinguishing between the different rooms or the street outside.

“Once you orient yourself,” he said, “it starts to feel like maybe you’re in the house.”

Thanks to the sophistication of the recording technology and sound designer Lindsay Jones, this show goes far beyond the traditional radio play, Shafir said.

“I think the idea was to make it cinematic, like a movie in your head so you can hear musical scoring, you can hear little sound effects like someone pouring a bottle of whiskey, you can hear a door crack,” he explained. “We’re so visually-oriented as a society that we’re so used to seeing, we’re so clever and sophisticated visually, but almost now hearing something that is being designed—and I’m not just talking about a podcast or a song—hearing something like Tennessee Williams in your eardrums, all close, and the way the sound designer has orchestrated it, it can almost be more intimate.”

Ariel Shafir

Ariel Shafir takes on the role of Stanley in Williamstown Theatre Festival's Streetcar named Desire. He has embraced the challenge of working only with sound, opening up new imaginative possibilities. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The sound design goes beyond the physical atmosphere, to actually create a psychological space and place the listener into the mind of Blanche Dubois as her mind begins to unravel. Shafir refers to this craft as soundscaping—in the same way that someone might create a personal playlist or a movie soundtrack to evoke specific emotional states, Lindsay Jones has crafted the soundtrack of a life, a sonic experience that helps place the listener in the center of Blanche’s psychological breakdown.

Of course, rehearsing and recording this show has been a unique experience for the actors. Each actor was locked away in their closets at home with state-of-the-art recording equipment, working alongside the disembodied voices of their fellow actors.

Sitting in his closet without props, set, or costumes, Shafir did his best to recreate the sensory atmosphere of the scene for himself—burning tobacco on a plate, turning up the heat and splashing water on his face, taking a sip of whisky or chewing on a piece of jerky—anything to help evoke a poker night in New Orleans.

“Whatever’s going to spur the imagination,” he explained. “I think it takes you back to when you’re a kid and you’re just playing make believe. You know, it doesn’t take much. A blanket can suddenly be a cape and the second you have the sensation of a cape you can suddenly be superman.”

Although the process has been challenging in many ways, and the actors have had to forego any non-verbal communication, Shafir has also found it surprisingly liberating. During rehearsal, the actors intentionally turned off their zoom screens so that they only had one another’s voices to respond to. “There’s a certain inhibition and a certain freedom in knowing that no one’s watching you,” Shafir explained. He said he’s leaned into the freedom of not being constrained by visual parameters.

The cast of Streetcar rehearsed and recorded entirely online. From top left clockwise: Ariel Shafir, Carla Gugino, Director Robert O'Hara, and Audra McDonald. Photo courtesy of WTF.

“I found that it was a much more intuitive way of working, because otherwise what am I reacting to?” Shafir said. “I’m reacting to a floating head in a screen who’s sitting in their closet and I have to overcome the banal reality, trying to make this work whereas if I just turn it off and just hear the voice, I can transport myself much better and I don’t have to override this visual signal that’s telling me it’s all pretend. Anything that suspends disbelief is helpful, and I thought why not? Why not put the actors in the same boat as the audience? I want to be in that boat.”

Shafir truly feels that this auditory experience has the potential to be more immersive and intense than a visual piece. “I wonder if the sound scape version of Tennessee Williams might allow the audience to go there in a way that they wouldn’t if they didn’t have to fill in the visual with their own imagination,” Shafir reflected. “Now they have to imagine everything and I wonder if, in a way, that makes it more brutal and more intimate.”

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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