“Tennessee Rising” is a new play that focuses on the life of playwright Tennessee Williams during the formative six years prior to his fame. The work explores what might have made Tennessee Williams such an incredible writer whose works remain popular today for their memorable characters and insight into the human condition.
“Tennessee Rising” was written by playwright Jacob Storms and is directed by Alan Cumming. It will run at the Cell Theatre from April 11 to June 27, 2021. The piece is both historical and imaginative. Set between 1939 and 1945, the play introduces Tennessee by his Christian name, Tom, who the audience feels as if they become a friend and confidant to. Ultimately, Tennessee’s best character was himself, a complicated, resilient, and tragic figure.
Playwright and actor Jacob Storms recently discussed this play via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in theater and how did you break into the industry?
Jacob Storms (JS): I dove headfirst into theater when I got cast as Nicely Nicely Johnson in my middle school’s production of “Guys & Dolls.” Then, I was asked to perform Doug Wright’s 35-character solo play, “I Am My Own Wife,” in my senior year of high school thanks to a fearless director I had worked with on other school shows. The unique and crazy experience of doing such an intense piece of a theatre at such a young age solidified my love of acting and propelled me forward to New York City where I was a member of the founding class of actors at the T. Schreiber Studio’s first full time conservatory program. My first break came when I got to play the recurring role, Serge, on Steven Soderbergh & Gregory Jacobs’ Amazon Original Series, “Red Oaks” and work with directors like Amy Heckerling and Hal Hartley. I then won the United Solo Award for Best One-Man Show at the world’s largest solo play festival in New York, United Solo Fest and began performing Tennessee Rising around the country eventually leading to Alan Cumming joining the play as Director.
MM: Did you start out as an actor or a writer?
JS: A couple years prior to my performance in “Guys & Dolls,” I had written an entire play for my fifth-grade class to perform. Naturally, I had written a nice role for myself, so it seems I have been an actor as long as I’ve been a writer.
MM: What was it about the life and work of Tennessee Williams and why did you decide to make a play out of his life?
JS: After seeing “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” on the big screen and then reading Williams’ memoir, I was inspired by this complex soul, who despite being considered by many to be the greatest American playwright of the twentieth century, is still very much unknown to the general public, especially his early years.
MM: Why did you focus on these six formative years?
JS: These six years are truly the genesis of Tennessee Williams. Within those six years we see the metamorphosis of a young, unknown poet named Tom into the beloved American playwright we are familiar with. Within those six years he moves to his beloved New Orleans for the first time, falls in love, experiences tremendous personal and professional highs and lows, eventually culminating with the opening night of his first hit on Broadway. Along the way we see where he became inspired for many of his future characters and plays and experience with him deeply personal events that shape him for the rest of his life.
MM: How much research into history did you do for this play and how long did it take to complete in total?
JS: After reading his infamous memoir, I read all of Tennessee’s major plays and most of his minor ones, his short stories, his letters, poems, several biographies, all of his films and watched any footage I could find of the man. I also spoke to several people who knew him personally or interacted with him. I was also interested in this time period before I embarked on creating the show so I was able to put some of that knowledge to good use. From the moment of inspiration to the first time the play was seen in its earliest version by an audience was in total a six-year period. Only after I performed it for the first time did I realize it took me six years to dramatize six years of Tennessee’s young life. That gave me chills.
MM: What were some of the most interesting and/or memorable aspects that you discovered about Tennessee?
JS: I think most people who are semi familiar with the man and his work have a certain image of him in their mind’s eye. But I wanted to show the Tennessee that I fell in love with. A young man setting out to make it in a world that he saw crumbling around him as World War II ravaged the planet, and yet he never stopped moving forward, never stopped creating beauty through his raw truth. He had an unstoppable will power to create no matter how high the odds against him truly were.
MM: How did you get Alan Cumming on board to direct?
JS: Soon after I won the United Solo Award, I was serendipitously introduced to Alan after a performance of our mutual friend Charles Busch in New York. We connected on Instagram and after informing me of his love for all things Williams he eventually came on board as director and we reworked the show into its current version.
MM: Was it a challenge to plan for live theater during a lingering pandemic?
JS: I was actually scheduled to perform this new version of the play under Alan’s direction at the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival in March of 2020 but the festival ended up being canceled. I tried to take a page from Williams’ personal “religion of endurance” and not lose hope. I love sharing this new and improved version of Tennessee Rising with the world now that we are getting back to our lives.
MM: What is some of the best feedback you’ve gotten about this piece thus far?
JS: I have been most pleased by the fact that Tennessee Rising has been enjoyed by both Tennessee Williams scholars as well as people who know nothing about Williams and his indelible contributions to our culture. I purposely designed the play to appeal to both the Williams expert and the novice as much as possible so whether you know his work or not you will relate to his humanity and complexities as an individual. I love hearing audience members tell me how, after learning about Williams’ younger, unknown years, they are inspired to reinvestigate his life’s work or investigate for the first time.
MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to explore in future works?
JS: In addition to continuing to perform the play my next plan is to see Tennessee Rising on the small screen. I have adapted the first year of the play explores (1939-1945) into a TV mini-series. I also have several screenplays coming down the pike including the largely unknown true story of two brothers and their unique relationship as it played out in Nazi Germany, a contemporary ghost story, and a personal story of my friendship with someone who struggled with Alzheimers.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
JS: I’m looking forward to sharing “Tennessee Rising” with the world and continuing to push myself as an actor and writer.
Follow Jacob Storms on Instagram @therealjacobstorms.