URBANA — As Illinois Theatre Professor Tom Mitchell dug through files of Tennessee Williams’ archives at the University of Texas six years ago, he found 75 disorganized pages of a story that surprised him.
The prolific playwright, whose archives include unpublished stories not written for the stage, penned a fragmented story called “Why Did Desdemona Love the Moor?” about a White female movie star’s love affair with a Black writer.
“I thought, ‘This was pretty controversial material for a Southern American writer to write, and it was pretty well-written for something that wasn’t published,’” said Mitchell, a scholar of Williams’ work. “I also thought it translated pretty well to the stage.”
So Mitchell went to work piecing the work together and turning it into a play.
Finally, the work was ready to be performed at the Tennessee Williams Festival this fall by four actors, including three University of Illinois graduate students. While the festival is still happening in a modified way, Mitchell’s play was commissioned by the festival as one of a few satellite performances across the country.
Instead of performing inside a theater, they’ll be performing outside, under one of the UI’s coronavirus testing tents on the southeast end of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Thirty audience members who contacted the theater department were able to attend each showing, scheduled to take place Saturday and Sunday.
“What actors do is the same,” Mitchell said. “We’re putting microphones on them so they’re easily heard outside with the distractions and the noises you might hear throughout. I think the audience (is) aware of the trees and the nature that’s around us in that setting, and that goes along with the story that’s being told.”
Until Friday, rehearsals took place exclusively online, which in another sort of play would have meant difficult hurdles.
Luckily, the play was perfect for a bare-bones setup.
“There are only four actors in it, and there’s a narrator,” Mitchell said. “It lends itself to the simple presentation we can do.”
Mitchell wrote the play with the approval of Williams’ estate, which brings its own kind of pressure.
The play will be the second that Mitchell has written based on Williams’ unpublished works. He wrote “Amor Perdido/Lost Love” in the spring, which was supposed to be performed at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival before that event was canceled.
Adapting a story that wasn’t meant for the stage is an irregular experience for Mitchell, but he said some of Williams’ playwriting skills translated to his other work.
“I spend a lot of time in the editing trying to be faithful to Williams,” he said. “I haven’t added anything to what Williams wrote or changed anything.
“I arranged some parts that were a disorganized mess, but following what seemed to be his plan,” he added. “It’s good, because the characters that he writes are good for actors to sink their teeth into. There’s a lot of complexity and emotion in his characters.”