La Femme Theatre Productions is an all-inclusive New York theater company devoted to exploring and celebrating the female experience. The theater's executive director, Jean Lichty, founded La Femme after she saw Judy Chicago's epic installation The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum.
“I was so moved by the number of influential women she invoked, many who are not publicly recognized,” shares Lichty. “I sought to establish an all inclusive theater company that highlighted the universal female experience… I also wanted to honor American writers who write significant roles for women.”
This past March to honor of Tennessee Williams' 110th Birthday, the company presented a pre-recorded reading of his play The Night Of The Iguana, starring Phylicia Rashad, Dylan McDermott, Roberta Maxwell, Austin Pendleton and Jean Lichty. Considered one of the greatest playwrights of 20th-century, Williams wrote many masterpieces including The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Directed by Emily Mann, The Night of the Iguana, was initially streamed this past December. Both events raised money for The Actors Fund. Set in 1940 with the world on the brink of global destruction, The Night of the Iguana revolves around a mosaic of travelers in Costa Verde on the outskirts of Acapulco. “Within 24 hours of finding themselves on the cusp of personal destruction they attempt to resurrect not only themselves, but also one another, in hopes of surviving the night,” says Lichty.
Mann’s connection with the artist himself began when she was 28-years-old. “Tennessee asked me to direct what would be his last play, A House Not Meant To Stand, at the Goodman Theatre,” says Mann, who turned down the offer but began a long connection with Williams. “He had heard about me from his brother, Dakin, who had seen my production of The Glass Menagerie at the Guthrie Theater. I was the first woman to direct on their main stage, and it caused a stir.” In 2012 Mann directed A Streetcar Named Desire with Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Wood Harris.
For Lichty, presenting Williams’ work was particularly powerful, especially now. “Tennessee writes about the universal human condition. As he describes in Orpheus Descending, he talks of “solitary confinement within our own skins,”” she explains. “His plays explore how we try to venture out of that confinement to reach out to one another.” Lichty points to an interview with Williams where he said, “The only truly satisfying moments in life are those in which you are in contact. And I don't mean just physical contact, I mean in deep, a deeper contact than physical, with some other human being.”
The need for humans to feel a deep sense of connection to others resonates as deeply as when William was writing his plays. “The pandemic has made us all realize how much we need that profound contact. Williams writes about “incomplete people” on the fringes of well-accepted society,” explains Lichty. “All of us are incomplete in some way as we navigate an increasingly complex world. And Tennessee writes for the ages.”
Jeryl Brunner: How are you able to survive during this time?
Jean Lichty: During the pandemic we at La Femme have had to postpone a production and watch artists suffer materially and spiritually. But not having the overhead of mid-town office space and a large staff has allowed us to focus on our mission of staging works that explore the female experience. Virtual technology has not only allowed us to gather a bi-coastal cast for our streaming of The Night of the Iguana but also to reach out to a national audience. And our board, inspired by our outreach, has encouraged us to donate all monies raised to The Actors Fund. As a result, we at La Femme feel stronger than ever.
Jeryl Brunner: Why did you decide to present Night of the Iguana during the pandemic?
Jean Lichty: After postponing La Femme’s 2020 Off-Broadway production of The Red Devil Battery Sign, I was determined to make lemonade out of pandemic lemons. Austin Pendleton, a La Femme board member, had directed me in several productions, but we had never acted together. And I have always dreamed of acting him. We both thought that the play's exploration of panic and living in terror of the unknown was immensely germane to the circumstances of the pandemic shutdown. I also loved the idea of casting wonderful actresses in the juicy roles of Maxine Faulk [Phylicia Rashad], Judith Fellowes, [Roberta Maxwell] and Charlotte Goodall [Carmen Berkeley].
Jeryl Brunner: Emily, can you share a favorite Tennessee Williams story?
Emily Mann: When I first met him, I was in Chicago at [director and producer] Greg Mosher’s apartment. Tennessee was still hoping I was going to direct his play. He said ‘You know. I want you to do this because according to [my brother] Dakin, you understand our mother better than anyone ever has.’ We ended up drinking and talking and he ended up sobbing in my arms, telling me about his life and how much he missed his mother and his sister. It's not one of the funnier stories, but it is one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. To have Tennessee Williams sobbing in my arms, sharing his heart.
Jeryl Brunner: What do you believe Tennessee wanted audiences to take away from his work?
Emily Mann: He wanted to open up the hearts of the audience to understand the most fragile and vulnerable people in our society—to see themselves in those who are trying to beat back their demons and find a way to survive. He saw humanity across culture, across age, across race, across gender. He understood all of humanity. He understood the brutes among us. And he understood those who were the brute’s prey.
Jeryl Brunner: Did you approach the material differently than you would have if it were live?
Emily Mann: By doing this digitally, I had the wonderful opportunity to work in close-up. I was able to concentrate on the words and the heart of the performers and the play. I found a way to work with the actors to help them connect to each other, even though they were in their own boxes and not actually next to each other. It couldn't be a physical connection, but it could still be a deeply emotional and intimate connection.
Jeryl Brunner: What was that like for you?
Emily Mann: Tennessee’s plays are extraordinarily intimate, and sometimes one loses that intimacy on a big stage. As a director, I'm always working, even if I'm in 1000 seat house, or at the Guthrie, a 1400 seat house, to have the actors profoundly engaged in a way that lets the audience feel that intimacy. In a big house, the actors bring the audience to them. When you're working in close-up, the actor is still doing that, but the technique is different. Sometimes, it is just in the eyes that they pull you in. And then we had the benefit of Beowulf Boritt's beautiful backgrounds that help set place and the piece's mood while still allowing the actors to work in that very subtle way. This is a new form. Ii’s a hybrid of theater and film or television. I decided to embrace it and enjoyed it immensely.