BY DONALD V. CALAMIA
One might find it unusual for a tall, lanky 20-year- old budding playwright of Russian ancestry to show an interest in a long-dead 20th-Century American author whose influential work is rarely produced today – and whose name may be barely recognized by many in his age group.
Yet once University of Michigan undergraduate student Maxim Vinogradov began digging into the fascinating and complicated life of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Tennessee Williams for his new, award-winning play that opened Aug. 26 at Ferndale’s Slipstream Theatre Initiative, the more difficult it became to decide who and what should be included in his story and what should be ignored.
However, one surprising discovery became a key focal point of Vinogradov’s “A Night of Stars with Tennessee Williams.”
“If you want to know how ignorant my generation is, I didn’t know (Williams) was gay,” the young playwright laughed. “And the fact that he had this long-time relationship with this guy – fourteen years he had with (Frank Merlo), who ultimately dies tragically.”
Vinogradov’s initial concept, he explained, was a two-person show exploring the power the playwright exhibited in convincing actors to tackle roles they didn’t want to do. “It was kind of like he was his own little lord of his dominion (who) had these people eating out of his hands…begging for a role or asking for help.”
The show’s other character was to be powerhouse actor Marlon Brando. “It was just going to be the two of them together on the night they met. Brando did the read for ‘(A) Streetcar (Named Desire),’ but he didn’t want to do it because Stanley Kowalski reminded Brando of his father who was an abusive alcoholic. They walked all night on the beach and claimed they never said anything, which is bologna, because Brando took the part.”
The wealth of information he uncovered led to other script possibilities. “How (could) Tennessee convince Elizabeth Taylor to take ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ when that’s something she was terrified of doing?” he wondered. “And, on the opposite turn, how Bette Davis desperately wanted to play Amanda Wingfield, but never got that chance.”
That led Vinogradov to ask himself: How did Williams come to possess and utilize such power? And then, how could he explore this in his new play?
The result was a script that mushroomed from two characters to more than two dozen, but subsequent rewrites whittled it down to a more manageable 10. “Imagine you start out with 30 fingers and you want to cut them down to the good ten,” he laughed. “So cutting off your fingers – you know it’s going to be better.” But not easy, as experienced playwrights will agree.
After a handful of drafts, “A Night of Stars with Tennessee Williams” has turned into a memory play in which Williams is the ringleader of his era’s celebrities. “(He) made a lot of them,” Vinogradov said, “and (he) broke a few. And there were a few that made him who he was.”
And that includes his mother – and not necessarily in a positive way, Vinogradov hinted. “(T)hrough all of this, he has to make the discovery of what aspects of his life does he need to reconcile, and what aspects of his life does he need to stop trying to bury because they’ve negatively impacted the way that he is.”
A Complicated Character
Among the script’s many creative elements is its setting: Purgatory, where Williams serves as a tour guide for his many famous friends. But unlike most nights, this one is different, said Slipstream co-founder Bailey Boudreau, who stars in the production as Williams. “Tonight, we’re going to get a resolution, and so some events happen that he’s not used to, and I think it’s the first time he gets to see Frank and gets to resolve that. And he realizes it probably wasn’t the main issue that was holding him back. So it’s a journey of his life told in segments that are really, really funny and sometimes really tragic.”
It was through Boudreau – who has served as the director of West Bloomfield High School’s Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association program for the past several years – that Vinogradov first became of aware of Williams and his work. “Funny enough, Bailey in my senior year of high school directed a MIFA show in which I played a character that was a mix of Amanda Wingfield and Blanche Dubois, and so I read ‘Streetcar’ and ‘(The) Glass Menagerie.'”
So what did he initially think of the playwright? “I thought he was very angry,” Vinogradov recalled. But once in college and the young actor-turned- author started delving into Williams’ life, he came to a more nuanced conclusion. “He was probably a very bitter man. But in his memoirs, he’s just the most fun, sassy person. He was just writing about all the things he did not control in his life. He was just writing about his own grievances with himself.”
Playing such a complicated character – especially one based on a real-life celebrity – can be a lot of fun for an actor who loves a challenging role. But it can also be a nightmare. For Boudreau, “It’s the worst. It’s the hardest role I’ve ever played. When you’re playing a human that you can see what he was like in pictures and interviews, it’s really challenging. Not because I don’t trust the play, but because I don’t think I’m the right fit for it. It’s very, very difficult.”
Playwright Vinogradov disagrees. “Bailey is bewitching.”
Overall, however, it has been a rewarding experience for the actor. “I get to play a lot of comedy and some really, really genuine drama that I don’t think you see a lot because it’s not heightened drama. It’s very genuine. It’s very relatable.”
Others in the cast include Jan Cartwright, popular Slipstream heart throb Steve Xander Carson, Tiaja Sabrie, Jackson Abohasira (who, on Aug. 28, received the 2017 Rising Star Award from EncoreMichigan.com for his impressive performance in Slipstream’s production of “P.Y.G” this past season) and Ryan Ernst. And continuing an annual tradition, completing the cast are a handful of students from West Bloomfield High School.
Playwright Maxim Vinogradov (left) and actor/artistic director Bailey Boudreau (right) in front of Ferndale’s Slipstream Theatre Initiative. Photo courtesy of D.V. Calamia
Currently in his junior year at UM Ann Arbor, the affable and always-smiling Vinogradov chuckled when asked about his major. “Oh, it’s a whole smorgasbord. I’m doing two majors and a minor. So I’m majoring in English with a sub-concentration in creative writing, and then the other major is in film with sub-con in screen writing. And then I’m minoring through the theater school in playwriting. So I want to be an accountant,” he joked.
What’s not a laughing matter, however, is the recognition his writing has already received at the university. This year alone, “A Night of Stars with Tennessee Williams” earned him the 2017 Hopwood Drama Award and The Dennis McIntyre Prize for Distinction in Undergraduate Playwriting, earning him a considerable chunk of scholarship money.
“At Michigan, it’s like this big thing apparently,” Vinogradov explained. “When (Arthur Miller) was deciding where to go to school, he specifically went to Michigan because of the Hopwood Awards.”
The awards were named after dramatist Avery Hopwood, a 1905 graduate of the university, who left a fifth of his estate to establish and administer the program designed to encourage creative writing among the university’s students. Since 1931, more than $3 million has been awarded to more than 3,200 student authors. “So the Hopwood for Drama is sort of like the big award,” Vinogradov said.
Equally impressive is this: The Hopwood Drama Award was the only category in which he competed with graduate students. “So it was me and two other graduate students that won it, but the Dennis McIntyre Prize is for recognition by an undergraduate in playwriting. So that one I swept. It was very unexpected; (I’m) still a little surprised by it – hoping, you know, they opened the right envelope or whatever.”
Previously, in his freshman year, he won a Hopwood award for undergraduate students. And not to be outshined, in 2016 Vinogradov was the first-ever recipient of EncoreMichigan.com’s Rising Star Award for his performance in Slipstream’s production of “BFs!”
When asked what theatergoers will take away from his play, Vinogradov thought for a few seconds. “I think that people will leave wanting to know more about Tennessee Williams, wanting to see what was fact and what was fiction, and also wanting to re-read some of the plays they talk about a lot. I think it’s very, very truthful, phenomenally funny, and the kids are really good. I shouldn’t call them kids. The younger actors are really, really good.”