Director David Schweizer reconnects with Tennessee Williams

*published on May 7, 2012 in The EDGE

By his own admission, David Schweizer, who is at the helm of the newest and also the final Tennessee Williams’ play “Masks Outrageous and Austere,”grew up in a conservative, gentile, preppy household in Baltimore.

David Schweizer
David Schweizer  

“I went to a boy’s day school and I could have been a totally different person if I hadn’t been sick so much. I was a classic blue baby with a heart valve issue. So I was treated like a little princeling and spent lots of time home reading Renaissance literature and living in my own little world. I was obsessed with the pageantry of history and the gold embossed books that told the story of courtly France. I lay in my bed and had toys that I made into the court of Versailles. The lucky thing was that I was near Johns Hopkins Hospital and so that heart issue was taken care of by the time I was a teenager. But not before I developed a weird arty sensibility.”

Anyone who has seen the 40-year arch of Schweizer’s theater direction is conversant with that off center sensibility. He was famously the protégé of Robert Brustein at Yale as an undergraduate and then got a propitious early start under the auspices of Joseph Papp, during the era at the Public Theater when it was ripe with new writers, needing new directors.

Shirley Knight in “In Masks Outrageous and Austere”  

’Enfant terrible’

Schweizer says,” I was directing professional plays in New York City right out of college. That’s unheard of–so I had a little enfant terrible period. ” He directed a radical re-imaging of “Troilus & Cressida” at Lincoln Center shortly after college in 1974. In the decades since, he has helmed critically acclaimed world premiere plays, performance works, musicals, operas, and off-Broadway works. He has opened shows in London, Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo and Poland.

Schweizer was involved in the Los Angeles theatre scene in the late 1970s at the Mark Taper Forum debuting with Len Jenkins’s “Kid Twist,” which led to various staff and directing stints for LATC, The Actors’ Gang, Modern Artists, UCLA, Coast Playhouse, Geffen Playhouse and Long Beach Opera among many others. He directed musicals, mainstream and main stage works at many regional theaters across America and he even ran the follow spot for John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous. He often directs and cavorts wearing animal print trousers, or a leopard bow tie, silk scarves all topped by a well-coifed shock of silvery hair and a shocking amount of kinetic energy.

In 2001, he garnered awards simultaneously on both for works he directed. Charles Mee’s “The Berlin Circle,” was named Production of the Year by LA Weekly, and Rinde Eckert’s Obie Award winning chamber opera, “And God Created Great Whales,” at The Culture Project on Bleecker Street in New York. Since then Schweizer reprised Eckert’s work downtown to great reviews and standing room only crowds.

Robert Beitzel in “In Masks Outrageous and Austere”  

Williams’ 100th birthday

Capitalizing on the success of ” Whales,” Schweizer wrangled the Culture Project into presenting Tennessee Williams’ final full-length play “In Masks Outrageous and Austere” in time for the playwright’s 100th birthday. This play was unfinished upon Williams death in 1983 at 71, and it went through tortured rewritings, computer generated additions and a host of artistic co-creators before opening under Schweizer’s direction to very mixed reviews.

Schweizer brings the bizarre to an in your face theatrical reality. “What I try to do–and what I do do to some extent–is combine the impulse toward some kind of formal challenge in the work, some kind of questioning of the means of storytelling with, increasingly as the years have gone by, a very audience-inclusive gesture,” he says.

“In other words, I think I’ve had my share over the years of, `Fuck it–I just don’t care what they think. I’m just going to please myself.’ Some pieces I made like that were quite interesting and good and some were terrible. But I think as you stick with the work you started just for the love of it and the excitement of it, and then you were lucky enough to be given a place in that world, quite young, so you’re a little bit spoiled, the years go by, and you have to kind of prove that you’re someone who deserves to stay on, to be given work year after year at theaters.

Christopher Halladay and Pamela Shaw n “In Masks Outrageous and Austere”  

Quirky artistic vision

“Also a lot of my generation who survived the AIDS plague years and remain alive and healthy kind of grabbed hold of a preciousness of life thing, and I don’t think I fly that flag of a New Agey, blatantly spiritual person. I nonetheless was changed by that”

Schweizer has taken his belief in life and his quirky artistic vision and poured them into the final Tennessee Williams’ work. There is also a wonderful personal twist to this story. “This project feels destined for me and even gives me a haunted feeling. You see, I am, I mean, I am now, exactly the age that Tennessee was when we spent our time together.

“I went down to Key West on spring break from Yale as a 19 year old, honestly in search of drugs and high jinx. Instead I met Tennessee Williams and spent the rest of the trip with him. He invited me to go to Europe with him and I did so. I was even late coming back to college. It was very memorable and I was just at the right age. I was intelligent and conversant about the theater and it wasn’t about being with the famous Tennessee Williams, but rather being with this extraordinary man. And I had the ability to raise his spirits.”

Tennessee Williams at his Key West home in 1971  

Could not be stopped

“It was remarkable to see this unbeaten creative spark, the ceaseless creativity; Tennessee would not be stopped. He rose every single day before dawn and banged away at that typewriter. I saw that and I was tremendously moved by it. I went back to school and on with my career. But I was in casual, affectionate touch with him until he died.

“I was so honored to share unabashedly the privacy and learning with him. And so to filter back in this Proustean way, to be given this vision, this last work and to mount it, to let people see were he was. Well, on an emotional level it is enormously significant.”

There really could have been no one else to whom Tennessee Williams’ final play could have been entrusted. But audiences are also eager to see the continued arch of David Schweizer’s career, and they should be.

The remaining performance schedule for “In Masks Outrageous and Austere” is: Tuesday-Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 2 & 8pm; Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $75 for Tuesday-Friday performances and$85 for Saturday & Sunday performances. They may be obtained by calling (866) 811-4111 or by visiting www.cultureproject.org.

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