Award-winning company Theatre Movement Bazaar, (Anton’s Uncles, Track 3), returns to this year’s Fringe with their new show Hot Cat, an inspired take on Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Los Angeles-based company is dedicated to creating innovative adaptations through original writing and physical theatre. Broadway Baby’s Lauren Moreau met with TMB’s founders, writer Richard Alger and choreographer Tina Kronis, to talk about their latest adaptation.
So that we’re not just lifting the lines, so we’re actually updating and finding our own way of relaying the information or the behaviours, the plot points.
Lauren: Your previous Fringe shows have all been Chekhov adaptations. What prompted this play as a choice for your latest show?
Tina: Well, we love Tennessee Williams and we wanted to explore him. We still love Chekhov and we’ll probably do more Chekhov, but we wanted to do something American and explore that world. A lot of our audiences were interested in us doing something American as well.
Richard: Chekhov was one of Tennessee William’s favourite writers.
T: Yeah, he had a picture of him over his desk.
R: So we were interested in him being inspired by Chekhov, and his relationship to Chekhov’s form of theatre. And looking at the play, you can feel some of that connection… the familial struggles he was dealing with and the class issues that were underlying America, just as they did in Chekhov’s time.
L: Now that I think about it, they are quite similar. There’s this contained setting, this family, these incredibly close relationships.
R: Yes, the hierarchy of the family, the handing off of the land—these kinds of things are so inherent in Chekhov’s stories.
L: So what was different about doing this as opposed to what you normally do? What was different in the process of adapting it?
R: Well, one thing I found when I started working on the text was that Tennessee Williams’ language is already so poetic and stylized, whereas the translations of Chekhov are not so stylized, in fact they seem kind of banal, sometimes. So, there was a challenge initially in finding the way into the language and the poetry. But, as Tina and I kept talking about the language and the themes, we started finding how to break it down and find tangents that were interesting to us.
T: Yeah, the deconstructing of it was helpful.
R: It brought out this theme of the roles of women in society in that time, which is always interesting for us to look at, and then these tangents on communism in the 1950s and the Red Scare—this paranoia.
T: There was also a homophobic scare; they were kind of concurrent.
L: I guess it goes so much with the fear of people in the entertainment industry and in Hollywood. The first time I ever saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the production really didn’t go for that. It went for the homophobia and went very strongly into human right, because it included the servants and actually did a lot with them. That communist paranoia strand was barely touched on though. Another question that kind of relates here—what themes did you choose to bring out and why? There’s so much going on in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to condense it all into an hour is a challenge.
T: Well, also there’s a short story, “Two Players in a Summer Game”, that also contains Brick and Maggie in their first iteration in Tennessee Williams’ work. And it was very interesting to research that story. That’s where the croquet in the show comes from, because in the story they’re playing croquet all the time. And we thought it also adds another layer to Maggie that’s not necessarily in the actual play. At the end of the short story she parades Brick through the streets in a convertible, kind of winning things back.
L: Like the Cotton Queen reference from the show.
T: Yeah, exactly. And there were a lot of American themes that came out of the football, the whole football game was definitely heightened in our show. And we wanted to heighten the relationship with Skipper. He’s an offstage character, but we decided to make him more present.
L: Yeah, you had his voice, which I though was really interesting, because he’s always just this unheard presence.
T: He’s a presence, and here he’s calling on the phone, which isn’t in Tennessee Williams’ play.
R: But I think that the big thing in terms of themes is this idea of this communist scare, this paranoia that’s going on. That’s always something that’s interesting for us, in any exploration of these plays, is finding a vehicle to explore the underlying pressure that’s on the characters. And that idea became a nice angle for us to explore and expand on what’s going in their inner lives in a stylistic way. Because of course in the original they never talk about the surveillance operations—it is there because the family’s listening in—we take it to this absurd level, where it’s almost like secret agents—
T: Family espionage.
R: So that provided an in. It’s great when you find things that are there in the play, but which we can take in another direction that breaks us out of the play for a while but still keeps the propulsion of the story going. And then, as I said before, the women’s themes. You look at all this iconography from the time, you know, the perfect housewife of the 1950s, and Tennessee Williams knew better than anyone that that was a big fallacy, that the things women were going through were incredibly difficult. He was raised by women, so he was around it and saw it all the time. Again, that gave us another avenue to explore and kind of explode in this version.
L: Your shows are very ensemble based. With Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, did you find yourselves having to decrease the focus on certain characters and increase it on others?
T: We definitely brought up some of the characters that are smaller in the actual play. That kind of just happened in our creating process and then in the rehearsal process. We wanted to keep everyone onstage most of the time, except for some of the Act II scenes between father and son. That was a choice, to keep the presence of the family there, and create that claustrophobic feeling of being contained in this family going through this very difficult time. Everyone’s vying for position; no one is going to leave their place.
R: What we try to do in these adaptations is look at who we can get rid of, how can we pare this down to its most essential elements? In Track 3, which you saw last year, we had to have those relationships. Looking at the cast, we realized we had to have the pairings of the couples to have the right chemistry overall. Here, we had to get rid of everyone we could—the doctor’s taken away, the servants are taken away. If we just have these people here, we’ll be able to get across the essential. That’s a lot of what we do in the deconstructions—take something apart and distil it down to just its core. We’re already doing these tangents and these offshoots, but it needs to be grounded in these core elements so that the story comes across. Then Tina’s work with the actors becomes this focus on these very specific characters, on building them up and lifting them off the page.
L: When you’re creating these adaptations, how do you balance the source material with your own? You’re bringing out things you’re finding in the text, but do you ever find yourself thinking “Oh, I’ve got to keep this line of Tennessee Williams’ or Chekhov’s?” vs. “I want to add my own?” Do you ever find yourself being untrue to the play?
T: We try to retain the essence and try to change all the original lines, actually.
R: Yeah, we re-write as much as we can.
T: So that we’re not just lifting the lines, so we’re actually updating and finding our own way of relaying the information or the behaviours, the plot points. We take a little bit of dramatic license, or deconstructionist’s license, and omit certain things or heighten others, but that all happens fluidly as the two of us are working and proceeds throughout the rehearsal process. We want to not only free the original text, but free ourselves in the process, while maintaining respect for the original work.
L: Yeah, I think a good example of that, for someone who’s not seen one of your shows before, would be the biscuits at the very beginning of Hot Cat. That’s something that’s not a big part of the original, but you’ve taken it and related it to the show both physically and through dialogue.
R: Yeah, there’ll be the tiniest reference. At the beginning there’s a party for Big Daddy and there are biscuits mentioned—one of the kids throws a hot buttered biscuit at Maggie.
T: That’s why she’s has to get changed, so she’s in a slip the whole time.
R: So that’s just one little moment, but in discussion we realized that the biscuit is a quintessential Southern thing, so it becomes this great vehicle to explore something else. That’s what’s fun about doing this, there are always these little seeds that can lead us somewhere else, that can break us out of the original. But then the challenge is how do you stay in this world but still remain free to go out. The challenge is for us to create something new, especially on the page, when we’re starting—something that liberates, that doesn’t constrain. We’re not doing the original play, but can we still hold the audience in the story of the original?