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Tennessee Fest Gets Props

by Erin Z. Bass

New Orleans Tennessee Williams Festival Named A Top Literary Festival in North America.

Only a few days after the close of New Orleans’ 24th annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, which drew close to 10,000 people to New Orleans at the end of March and broke an attendance record, the event was named one of the “Top Literary Festivals in North America.” The blog RatesToGo.com listed the festival in the company of San Francisco’s Litquake, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York City, saying, “The Big Easy has a prominent literary and cultural landscape, which the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival celebrates in style every year.”

Next year would have been the 100th birthday of playwright Tennessee Williams, so the festival is going all out to celebrate, but this year was no less exciting, from the quality of writers presented to the volume of shouting in the closing Stanley & Stella Shouting Contest. Below are a few of our favorite moments from this year, and a full retrospective of highlights since the first festival in 1987 can be found on the festival website.

  • Hearing Dave Eggers speak in a beautiful room at The Historic New Orleans collection about how newspapers and books are still important in today’s Internet world. On the subject of his Hurricane Katrina-related novel “Zeitoun,” he was asked if he thought the public was getting tired of books about the hurricane. His response: “There are more stories to tell.”
  • Attending an evening “Literary Death Match” event and seeing poet Chuck Perkins perform his work live at One Eyed Jacks.
  • Just being in the presence of playwright Edward Albee, from his dry wit during the “I Remember Tennessee” panel to hearing his stories of old Hollywood stars like Vanessa Redgrave and Bette Davis, who was supposed to play Martha in “Virginia Woolf.” At 82 years old, Albee kept the humorous quips coming. On writers: “We do it because it’s our nature. People are things. Some are axe murderers. Some are even Republicans.”
  • Meeting Sweet Potato Queen Jill Conner Browne (she was not in costume; this is a press photo) and getting a few words of wisdom in the process. Words to live by for a queen: “Big hair makes our butts look smaller.” “If you aint’ lovin’ your life, change it.” “It’s easier to make a point when you have hair to fling around.” She signed my copy of “The Sweet Potato Queens Book of Love” with a final piece of advice, “Be Particular.”
  • Getting some insight into HBO’s “Treme” from the producers and writers before the show aired and hearing the story of the “Magic Hubig’s” in the pilot episode. Read our “Treme Tales” article for more about this panel.
  • Lastly, receiving an education on Tennessee Williams as a person. Edward Albee admitted he wrote two lines in “Virginia Woolf” just to make Tennessee laugh because the playwright had such a great chuckle. And Broadway actress Lois Smith, who starred in Williams’ Orpheus Descending, reminisced about how hands-on he was as a playwright.

Mark your calendars now for next year’s Tennessee Williams Centennial Celebration. The festival plans to throw the biggest birthday party ever, with confirmed guests like Olympia Dukakis and Zoe Caldwell. In the meantime, poets and writers can participate in several contests, including the festival’s first Annual Poetry Contest, accepting submissions through August 15; and the Fiction and One-Act Play Contest, which will begin accepting submissions in June.

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