Essay – A “gutsy vision” takes the stage at 6th Street, but whose?
6th Street Playhouse is advertising its current production of “The Glass Menagerie” as a “revival of the great Tennessee Williams classic, newly envisioned by Playhouse Artistic Director, Craig A. Miller” and quotes David Templeton’s North Bay Bohemian review that “Miller’s gutsy vision makes for an evening of challenging and thought-provoking theater.” There is no question that the 6th Street Production contains unusually original conceptual choices, but questions are being raised within the local theatre community about whose choices they really were.
I and other critics have been approached about the striking similarities between a production done in 2012/2013 by a small Chicago-based theatre company and the 6th Street production. Both shows reset the action to an urban alley beneath a fire escape, both shows make use of a glass menagerie of “redemption” bottles and, most importantly, both shows have Tom, the plays narrator, recall his memories not just as someone who has left home, but as someone who has become homeless and progressively unstable. Coincidence?
In Miller’s “Directors Notes” from the show’s playbill, he states that:
*** “… last fall: feeling nostalgic, I went to the play for a comfy read one afternoon – and I found it brand new in so many ways. The play was the same, but something was different about me and how I had, since my last encounter with it, been shaped by my experience in the world and in my community… The play is about a man who leaves home… The question became clear: Where are you when you leave home? The answer: Homeless.” ***
Anyone who has spent any time around the Railroad Square area knows that the issues of homelessness are regularly in view, so it is distinctly possible that Mr. Miller was indeed inspired by his surroundings. The timing of his inspiration, however, is in question. In his director’s notes, he refers to “last fall” as the moment he began to work on his concept. But in an interview with KRCB’s Charles Sepos on September 5, 2014, he says the following: “About a month ago, I came back to the play and it was just kind of a comfort read – I just love Williams – and I came back to it and I was reading it and one line jumped out at me and it made me kind of think of the play in a new way… I actually came up with this idea that perhaps (Tom’s) homeless…”
Whether it was last fall or 30 days ago, that would still put it well past Chicago-based director/actor Hans Fleischmann’s take on the Williams play. Here’s an excerpt from a May 21, 2013 Hans Fleischmann interview with the Chicago Daily Herald’s Burt Constable:
*** The revolutionary concept of seeing the lead character in Tennessee William’s classic “The Glass Menagerie” as a homeless man came to creator Hans Fleischmann appropriately enough while he was living out of his 1987 Chevy conversion van on the streets of Los Angeles in 2011.
“It’s 2 in the morning, and there is this guy talking loudly right outside my van. He just sounds like this Hollywood jerk,” recalls the 37-year-old Prospect Heights actor and director, who had ventured to Hollywood to strike it big. Slipping into character as the agitated, screaming man outside his van, Fleischmann shouts, “I’ll get my lawyer on it! … Yeah, well you tell him … Oh, no, no, no, no, no! … Do they know who I am?”
As the tirade stretches into its second half-hour, Fleischmann pries his weary head off his pillow and steps outside, hoping his mere presence will force the mover-and-shaker to take his cellphone screed elsewhere.
“He wasn’t on a cellphone,” says Fleischmann, realizing the man was homeless, had no phone and was responding to the voices heard only in his head. “And I went, ‘Oh, my God. That’s the character. That’s Tom.'” ***
Two very different origins for what turns out to be an almost identical concept. I reached out to both Craig Miller and Hans Fleischmann for their reactions to each others’ productions and to the questions that have been raised about originality. Both sent very passionate replies. I asked them both identical questions: When did you come up with the concept? Were you aware of the other’s production? Did you have any contact with the other theatre company? Were any concepts or designs shared?
Here are their responses:
*Authors Note – The prior edition of this article contained clearly labeled excerpts from the following response. While strictly an editorial decision on my part, there has been some confusion and concern expressed. In the interest of transparency, the following are the complete responses with only phone numbers redacted.
Craig Miller –
“Hi Harry –
Thanks for reaching out to me on this, and allowing me to speak to the aesthetic, but absolutely coincidental similarities between these two productions. I guess I should start by stating, unequivocally, that I was unaware that this Chicago production existed wherein Tom was depicted as a homeless man (and I state this with reluctance, as I fancy myself a theatre artist who is usually aware of what is happening in my artistic world). Since receiving your email this evening, I went online to search for this production and not only did I find many fantastic reviews for this production, but also saw video clips from the production – and I am fascinated by some of the production value similarities (in fact, I must admit that I wish I had see this earlier so as to avoid this conversation – it seems a solid production from the video clips I watched, but it does not resemble much of what we have done with the show at 6th Street). So, to answer your final question, no, I was at no time in touch with any representative of the Chicago production, as I was unaware of its existence. My depiction of Tom (yes, as a homeless man) in our production is the result of my daily life here in Sonoma County, and more intimately my experiences derived from running a theatre company in our community that is located two blocks from Santa Rosa’s busiest homeless shelter.
My relationship to this play is tumultuous at best. I begged for, but was passed over for the opportunity to direct this play in grad school, and then when I finally got to direct it in Houston in 2006 was very nonplused by that experience for many reasons, not the least of which was finding a way to understand Tom in a completely impactful way (narrators are boring to me theatrically). I have always loved the play for its majestic writing, but never really could find a way into it due to the function of Tom as this seemingly ethereal being who was magically able to have his feet in two worlds, as narrator and character. Fast-forward seven years, and for the last three of those years I have never been closer to the homeless situation in America as I have been here in Santa Rosa; dealing with that on a daily basis – seeing these men and women in my own neighborhood (I also live two blocks from the Playhouse on 6th Street) and witnessing their struggles informed my thoughts on the play, specific to Tom, when I was considering it for the season back in October of last year. I have seen homeless people on the northeast stoop of 6th Street Playhouse talk to people who weren’t there – at least to me they weren’t there – and not just a few words, but full on conversations with people who they obviously knew in a past realm of reality, but who are now memory – or even hallucinations. I am telling you that my journey to this interpretation of our Glass Menagerie was born there; my life experience on my own street is what informed my take on the show – not another production. Even after watching less than ten minutes of the Chicago version on YouTube this evening, I will tell you that they are two different animals – and anyone who sees the 6th Street show would say the same. I would also add that my work with the designers and actors on this show has been the most original work that many of us have ever undertaken in reexamining a classic of this relevance and fame – we were both exhilarated and terrified the entire time as we explored this turning-on-its-head of the play. I would encourage you to speak to them if you would like (I am copying them all on this response, just to let them know of your questioning of my concept origination and to be totally transparent with all involved that I have not been – to use your word – disingenuous with anyone, especially them) – they can most assuredly speak to the fact that no other production was ever discussed, watched, or asked to be copied.
This is our work, Harry. It is purely our imagining of the show, and our organic work in the design meetings and in the rehearsal hall cannot belie that. While we live in a world where entire Broadway productions are posted to YouTube, and can easily be copied from A to Z (and most definitely are by some companies), and while I can understand your need to set the record straight considering the reported whisperings – that is not what happened here. I look forward to your article, and hope that you can discern my heart and my honesty in this response to your questions. I don’t steal, and I didn’t steal. I would gladly give credit if credit were due to someone else, but this Glass Menagerie is ours, and no one else’s.
Furthermore, I commend Hans Fleischmann on being as seemingly bold and brave with his handling of this American treasure as we have been. His show, from all accounts I have read, was a great success – as is ours. Until tonight I (perhaps idealistically) thought I was cleverly and remarkably unique in my approach to this play. Clearly I am not, but I remain extremely proud of what we have created.
If you would like to ask me any further questions for the article, I am available to speak to you in person. ***-***-****.
P.S. – Oh, and please also publish the links to the YouTube video of the Chicago show in your article as well as the photos of the two productions. That way the patrons who have seen our production and who read your article will see that I didn’t steal a thing from this Chicago production. They will see similarities in costume and makeup in the photos you present from each production, but what homeless guy doesn’t have tattered clothes and a beard? Only fair to stop the whispers, I think. Thanks! – Craig”
Hans Fleischmann –
“I heard about this production from friends who saw mine and noted the similarities to my long-running and commercially successful production two years ago. I wish I could feel honored that another artist chose to copy my work. Shakespeare stole his plots from other writers without giving them credit too. And David Cromer’s brilliant reimagining of OUR TOWN has now been copied by hundreds of community theaters across the country.
However, I do not feel honored. Mr. Miller’s THE GLASS MENAGERIE is hardly original or of his own creation as he claims it to be. It would be absurd to think that an Artistic Director with Chicago ties had not heard of one of Chicago’s most critically acclaimed productions of recent years. To blatantly steal intellectual property and tote it off to unsuspecting artists and audiences as his own is is both abhorrent and unethical. The misappropriation and theft of my vision and ideas is unquestionable. Since its original publication in 1945, THE GLASS MENAGERIE has never once been staged or interpreted with my application. It was an artistic leap and crafted from deep, personal experiences. It is beyond coincidence that Mr. Miller took this identical leap immediately following our highly publicized year long run in Chicago, one of the most notable theater cities in the world. Especially given the fact that he and I are both alumni of the same University and share many of the same friends, both personally and professionally, in Chicago and on the West Coast.
My version was a labor of love created from personal inspiration and experience. I, personally, lived on the streets of Los Angeles in a van for over 2 years. I spent a year of that just preparing and adapting the idea of the play. I didn’t groom my hair or beard, I spent time with the homeless of L.A. This play was my life for almost 3 years and the public response was overwhelming to say the least. I highly doubt the intricacies are at all alike, but the major brush work is without doubt an act of plagiarism.
We plan to take the show to New York in 2015, with intentions of a remount on the west coast as well. I would love to show San Francisco theatergoers the original re-imagining of this magnificent play.”
As I said, very passionate responses from very passionate artists.
As I prepared to write this essay, the question was asked of me “Would you allow for the possibility that two artists can come up with the exact same idea?” My response was that of course I would. It’s rare, but the question of “original concept” has kept Hollywood lawyers well-stocked in expensive cars and fancy houses for years. But if you allow for that possibility, you must also allow for the possibility that at some point Mr. Miller saw something, or read something, or overheard a conversation about the Chicago production (perhaps he caught a glimpse of a Facebook post about the show by one of the 37 mutual Facebook friends shared by Mr. Miller and Mr. Fleischmann) and that perhaps this planted the seed of an idea – an idea strengthened by the everyday exposure to the plight of homelessness witnessed by anyone who’s spent anytime in the Playhouse neighborhood. Mr. Miller allows for no such possibility in his response, but as an outside observer looking in, common sense would lead most to believe that it’s at least possible.
I would like to make clear that members of the community raised the issue of originality with me and asked me to look into it. I detected no malice or ill-will in their intent, but a genuine curiosity born of the similarity in the productions or in defense of artistic integrity. This essay is the result of those requests. Mr. Miller stands by his vision. Mr. Fleischmann takes issue with that.
All that’s left are the productions themselves. The 6th Street Playhouse production runs through September 28th. I genuinely hope that Mr. Fleischmann is able to bring his vision to the Bay Area. I suspect I wouldn’t be the only North Bay theatre-goer to attend.
If your curiosity has been piqued, I encourage you to visit the websites below for more information on the productions. You may also want to search You Tube for clips of the Mary-Arrchie production.
6th Street Playhouse production photos by Eric Chazankin
Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company production photos by Emily Schwartz