Thomas Lanier Williams III is not a name most people would be familiar with. But that’s only because most people don’t live and breathe theatre like the team at Dragonfly Theatre Company do. ‘Thomas L.’ is actually Tennessee, the iconic American playwright responsible for the Pulitzer prize-winning plays Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and A Street Car Named Desire (1948) — which famously launched the career of acting legend Marlon Brando.
Considered by many to be a titan of the medium, it’s an opinion shared by Dragonfly actor and director Ryan Burkwood. He says he can’t imagine a time when William’s plays won’t be performed, and compares him to that other great scribe with a William in his name.
“Tennessee’s work has been consistently performed since he put pen to paper, and that says something,” he explains. “When you look at Shakespeare, his plays have been performed for the last five or six hundred years, and I can see Tennessee Williams being the same.”
High praise indeed, which might explain why Dragonfly are back, putting on a theatre-dinner night featuring his work this June. The production has been dubbed An Evening with Tennessee Williams.
“The common value that you have at the core of both of [these playwrights], is that they get to the centre of something about being human,” Ryan says. “Tennessee Williams’ characters are always so real, so rounded, but the stories that he tells are never black-and-white.”
Choosing five one-act plays that ‘book-end’ Williams’ writing career, from the very beginning to his dark, dark end — Williams committed suicide in a hotel room in New York in 1983 — some of these plays have not been performed that often around the world, and definitely not in Vietnam.
“I think there’s something important in doing shows that haven’t been done before,” says Ryan, “especially if it’s by someone so important. It adds an insight and a depth to the understanding of their other work.”
In June, for example, the team will perform Williams’ examination of a scorned woman’s descent into hysteria — Interior: Panic. Written in 1945, it is said to be the precursor of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Invited to take a fly-on-the-wall look at auditions for the forthcoming show, I was curious about this actors’ world I’d flirted with in the past. Would the trained professionals laugh at my barely-there acting chops? Would I have to ‘camp it up’ in order to fit in? And should I have worn the brown tights I was forced to wear in the primary school play all those years ago, when I gave a stirring rendition of a tree?
The answer — a resounding no, not at all. This was a night for callbacks, so I wouldn’t be called upon to break a leg. Putting it all out there, though, were hopefuls Leon, Mark and JK, all from different backgrounds and all with different levels of experience. They were there to be put through their paces by the team of directors — Aaron Toronto and Ryan — during a reading of Williams’ The Chalky White Substance, which explores the themes of paranoia and betrayal in a post-apocalyptic world.
Leon Bown, an EAL Teacher at an international school here was a returnee, having already acted for Dragonfly once as Pozzo in their recent production of Waiting for Godot. He admitted that being in that has definitely bitten him with the acting bug… again. A Liverpool native, he also dispelled my disconnect between his distinctive Scouse accent and the world of acting.
“It’s funny because it isn’t actually a big leap, there’s a very good pedigree of exceptionally good actors from Liverpool and the Merseyside region,” he reasoned. “Theatre is very much something that’s in the blood of Scousers — we’re all showmen!”
Describing his experience playing Pozzo as a great opportunity to “strut around the stage shouting at people and be overbearing”, Leon hopes to be back at it again very soon.
On a Saigon mission to change stuffy misconceptions about the art form, the Dragonfly team are a bunch of passionate creatives dedicated to raising the standard of theatre in the city. Actor / producer Belinda Smith has been here since 2005, when she says she couldn’t go to see a decent film in the cinema let alone go see a piece of theatre.
“We actually want to build a theatre scene in Saigon,” she says. “There’s a big gap in the culture and if we want to move Saigon into the next millennium, theatre has to be part of that.”
Based on the growth they’ve seen in attendances at their last three shows, they strongly believe there is a hunger for it.
It all nearly ended, though, when in early 2013 Belinda and founding member Aaron had what she described as a ‘break up’ of sorts — not a romantic one, but still no more Dragonfly. It was all a bit too much, it wasn’t quite working, life was taking over.
The same applied to Ryan, who came to Vietnam fed up with the industry in his native London. He was ready to quit. A chance meeting with Aaron on the set of L’Oriana, an Italian telemovie shot last year in Vietnam, got them talking. Before long they were putting on a show, Blue / Orange, starring another of their fellow L’Oriana cast members, Peter Muruako.
Since then they’ve put on two more productions and the ambition to do more is strong.
“It’s definitely given me back my passion,” says Ryan.
Belinda agrees. “That’s what Dragonfly does!”
An Evening with Tennessee Williams will show at Cargo Bar in early June. Prior to that Dragonfly will be bringing in a performance of Gruesome Playground Injuries on Apr. 22, 23 and 25.