An interview with the 2014 Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest winner.
by Cerith Mathias
The curtain call of the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival is the hugely popular Stella yelling contest. Crowds gather beneath the balcony of the Pontalba Building in Jackson Square to hear 25 hopefuls compete for the affections of Stella — or Stanley (women can also enter) — by re-creating that iconic scene from Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Judges this year included three-time Academy Award nominee actress Diane Ladd, herself a cousin of Tennessee Williams, with festival President Janet Daley Duval as Stella and 2009 contest winner Matt Payne as Stanley.
This year’s stellar “Stella!” was performed by Eric Cusimano from Metairie, whose impassioned take saw him rip open his shirt, drop to his knees and stub out a cigar on his chest.
Cerith Mathias caught up with him and this year’s Stanley, Matt Payne after the contest.
CM: Congratulations! Is this your first time at the yelling contest?
This was my first time competing. I’ve known about the festival for years and I’ve always wanted to come down and do the competition, but I’ve been in law school for the past three years so and I felt that unless you’re going to come down and give it your all — without school, tests etcetera, then don’t go. This year I didn’t have law school for the first time so I thought let’s do it!
There are 25 contestants — how do make sure you stand out? Did you have a strategy?
Well, it’s a two-round contest so I fully admit there is some strategy to it. I knew I was going to rip the shirt. It’s a nice day in New Orleans and I do like cigars occasionally and I had a few in my car and I just grabbed them, and it just worked out timing wise. I was standing watching the others, from one through to 15 and I thought this is getting serious, this is a real contest, they’re not playing, so if I’m going to do it then what better way than to just go for it. It hurts, but it’s OK, it’ll heal. Love makes you do crazy things I guess.
Was it worth it?
It was worth it! It would’ve been worth it even if I didn’t get in the top five. It’s a beautiful day in New Orleans and events like this are what this city is about. I went to Georgetown University in DC, I have friends who are not from here and I try to talk to them about this place, and they’re like “We don’t understand” and I say — you won’t until you come down here. We can tell you guys great things about New Orleans for years but you have to come here to see what it’s about and days like today are exactly what this city is about.
What are you going to do with the trophy?
I think this might be close to the proudest moment of my life. I already called my grandma to tell her I think I’m going to be on the 10 o’clock news. It’s going to go up somewhere. It’s not going in a box in an attic or anything like that — I’m keeping this for the grandkids!
Matt Payne, you won the contest back in 2009 and now act as Stanley for the ladies who enter. As a Stanley, what are you looking for?
Well there are a lot of kitschy things you can do, but the most important thing of all is to really channel the character. Stanley is like a baby who’s lost his toy and he’s incredibly immature. So you just channel that and let it all out.
Cerith Mathias is a political television producer for the BBC in South Wales, but her true passion is traveling and literature. “I have held a keen interest in the South since childhood, which I believe stems from reading authors such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain,” she says. She’s written articles on Zelda Fitzgerald for literary magazines and published work in New Zealand, Italy and the UK. She’s currently working on a travel guide based on her travels in the South. Read her interview with Alabama Distinguished Writer of the Year Mark Childress here.