Moving Toronto to Tennessee
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Moving Toronto to Tennessee

The Tennessee Williams Project is pairing independent theatre companies with a familiar name, but in unfamiliar territory.

Tour Toronto's neighbourhoods as you tour the canon of Tennessee Williams.

A trip from theatre to theatre in Toronto can feel like a trip around the world. So far this season, we’ve seen stories from Africa, India, Japan, Europe, the United States, Canadian aboriginal reserves…the list goes on. But while these plays offer windows into the lives of people and places halfway around the world, theatre-goers rarely venture out of Toronto’s more art-friendly downtown locales to see them.

Fortunately, a new project being put on jointly by nine independent companies is hoping to burst the city’s theatre bubble. From May 1 to 8, The Tennessee Williams Project will present a series of one-act Tennessee Williams plays in venues scattered throughout seven different neighbourhoods—Cabbagetown, Greektown, Roncesvalles, The Annex, North York, Leslieville, and St. Clair West. They won’t be staged in traditional theatres. Instead, they’ll unfold in bars, restaurants, or stores. Casts and crews won’t have a chance to get comfortable in these unconventional spaces, as they’ll tour from location to location each night.

Creators Daiva Zalnieriunis and Alex Johnson came up with the concept for The Tennessee Project while in a situation familiar to many recent theatre school grads: they had lots of ideas, but almost no resources, and they were facing imminent unemployment.

“We bemoaned the obstacles before us. ‘I don’t have the money to do this show,’ or ‘I don’t have an actress to fill this part.’ It became increasingly clear to us that we needed to reach out,” said Johnson at a recent fundraiser for the project, surrounded by many of those on the receiving end of their outreach, all of them now participating in the project.

Creators of The Tennessee Project, Daiva Zalnieriunis and Alex Johnson, with production manager Suzan Balogh.

Johnson and Zalnieriunis say the feedback they got from Toronto’s independent theatre community was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. After setting the limit at nine groups, they’re still receiving requests to join. Artistic leaders—like Soulpepper’s Albert Schultz and actress Diane D’Aquila, and even the renowned New York City-based company The Wooster Group (in town with their own adaptation of Williams’s Vieux Carré at the Harbourfront Centre later this month)—have also expressed support for the project.

Thrilled though Johnson and Zalnieriunis are at the response (they hope to expand the project in the years to come), mainstream participation was never really the goal of The Tennessee Williams Project. In fact, it was born out of a perfect storm of altruistic intentions.

To Johnson, it began simply enough. “We just did it because we wanted to work,” she said. But the pair also hoped to support quality and collaboration between Toronto’s independent artists—including this year’s participants: The Red Light District, Another Theatre Company, Birdtown and Swanville, Theatre Caravel, Afterglow Theatre, and Quixotic Arts Collective—by taking on all of the administrative tasks of the festival.

“We realized what a gift this was to give to these companies. To say, ‘We’ll take care of the production side, you just focus on the art,’” said Zalnieriunis. All the casts and crews have to worry about is perfecting Williams’ one-acts, like This Property is Condemned, I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix, and Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen.

“And from there we developed kind of lofty ideals about outreach, about values of a community. We adopted a philosophy,” added Johnson. “Our goal is to get enough money so that we can pay our actors to take off work so they can actually just help. So it can become a more consistent part, a three or four month lead-up to the shows.”

The inaugural festival focuses on Tennessee Williams specifically, both because of the fact that theatre-goers know his name and because of his canon of strong one-act plays. But Johnson and Zalnieriunis aren’t limiting their ideas for the years to come. They’d like to expand their reach to Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods and perhaps involve local playwrights who might create pieces about each specific area.

“These neighbourhoods are amazing,” said Zalnieriunis. “I think they’re so beautiful, and I think it’s great that every one has their own personality, and it’s fantastic.”

“But I think it also isolates the city as a whole, and I hope that eventually, [The Tennessee Williams Project] helps create more of a connection throughout the entire city.”

Images courtesy of The Tennessee WIlliams Project.