TW/NOLF Willis Depends On The Kindness Of Strangers
Is it possible to produce a world-class 5-day festival with more than 120 events, including literary panels, educational seminars and workshops, theatrical performances and concerts, that feature more than 130 authors, actors and musicians with only 3 staffers and a budget of $500,000?
Paul J. Willis, Executive Director of the Tennessee Williams/ New Orleans Literary Festival, has been doing it for a decade – with the help of his core staff, Board members, sponsors and patrons, more than 100 volunteers, foundation grants, the generosity of local venues and the several thousand attendees who, in the Spring, come to celebrate the creative genius of Tennessee Williams who considered New Orleans his spiritual home.
The 29th TW/NOLF will take place Wednesday, March 25, through Sunday, March 29, 2015, in and around the French Quarter.
“Everyone is doing everything,” Willis said. “Programming, fundraising, event planning, volunteer coordinating. It’s overwhelming.”
USA Today named the TW/NOLF, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, one of the best literary festivals in the country, and the Fest received the 2006 James Patterson PageTurner Award for excellence in finding innovative ways to promote the joy of reading to the public and the Louisiana Governor’s Arts Award in 2008 for Outstanding Arts Organization.
“We work on so many things at the same time, and we interact on every level with actors, Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and our loyal volunteers, some of whom have worked with us for more than 20 years,” Willis said. “It’s interesting and exciting. Every day it’s something new, someone new. I get to meet and work with so many different types of people.”
The TW/NOLF’s statistics show a 58%/ 42% split between locals and out-of-towners with about 63% being repeat visitors and about 12% attending the festival 10 times or more, 65% of attendees are women, 35% men and 83% of attendees have college degrees – 34% Master’s and 19% Ph.D’s or an equivalent doctoral title.
More than 3,000 Fest-goers are expected to fill 11,000 audience seats, and create an economic impact of more than $2 million this year.
But you don’t have to be a bookish brainiac with big bucks to enjoy the TW/NOLF. You don’t even have to care for the works of prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Williams, who passed away in 1983. Willis, who’s had 16 years of experience in nonprofit management, said it’s not all about Tennessee.
“It’s awkward marketing,” he said. “About 30% of the Fest is related to Tennessee and the other 70% contemporary literature with multiple food and music events that tie into writing. His namesake remains the draw, but we hit all aspects of New Orleans culture too.”
Scheduled events for this year’s Fest will include a visual arts exhibit of rare Williams paintings, drawings and mixed media at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, accompanied by an Allen Toussaint piano performance.
There will be 9 theater offerings including a Southern Rep Theatre production of “Suddenly, Last Summer,” starring Obie Award winner Brenda Currin as Violet Venable (Currin starred as Nancy Clutter in the 1967 movie adaptation of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”), and Broadway veteran Joel Vig will perform as Truman Capote reminiscing about his special friendship with Williams in “Truman Talks Tennessee.”
Added to the mix is filmmaker John Waters who will perform a one-man show at The Joy Theater called “This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier,” and a Literary Late Night with The NOLA Project, who will perform an hip, no-script, improv of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
The TW/NOLF’s dates are always set around Williams’ birthdate (he would have turned 104 on March 26), and this year attendees will celebrate the day with a Birthday Bash and theater performance with Keir Dullea, who played Brick in the 1974 Broadway production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Tony Award nominee Mia Dillon and “Mad Men” star Bryan Batt.
There will be a series of Master Classes featuring Roy Blount. Jr., Patricia Brady, Randy Fertel and Nigel Hamilton, Pultizer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg will talk about his recent Jerry Lee Lewis biography, publicity agent Lauren Cerand will spill secrets on how to generate literary buzz and good PR and Peggy Scott Laborde, Poppy Tooker, and Kit Wohl will deliver a delicious discussion about their favorite classic Creole recipes and the local restaurants that serve them up.
There will be a Scholars Conference, a book fair, walking tours, and, of course, the STELLAAAAA!!!! Shouting Contest where contestants vie to rival Marlon Brando’s primordial scream as Stanley Kowalski in the Elia Kazan’s 1951 celluloid version of Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Women are also welcome to yell for “Stanley” at the festival’s culminating event, which takes place in Jackson Square.
New to the Fest, the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, which used to be held in May, will now convene within the TW/NOLF and bring together the who’s who of LGBT publishers, writers and reader from around the world.
“There is no way we can pull all this off without our volunteers,” Willis, who started as a TW/NOLF volunteer himself in 1996, said. “They work with us around the year, and during our 5-day event we have about 100. They’re like family.”
Willis said he also struck up lasting friendships with many of the Fest’s featured guests. He became pen pals with Kim Hunter, who won an Academy Award for her performance as Stella Kowalski in the big-screen version of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and Willis formed a close friendship with famed Tony Lifetime Achievement Award-winning actress Marian Seldes. Seldes, who passed away last year, performed in the 1964 Broadway production of Williams’ “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” and earned a nod in The Guinness Book of World Records as “most durable actress” for never missing a performance starring in the four year run of Ira Levin's “Deathtrap,” on Broadway.
Willis said this year he’s looking forward to John Lahr, longtime senior drama critic for The New Yorker magazine, talk about his recent biography, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.” He also said his dream Fest guest would be Academy Award, Emmy Award, Golden Globe Award and Sag Award-winning actress Jessica Lange, who played Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway and on TV.
Past luminaries, who participated in celebrating the special bond between Williams and New Orleans and the symbiotic relationship between artists and Louisiana, include Edward Albee, Carroll Baker, Alec Baldwin, John Berendt, Douglas Brinkley, James Carville, Dick Cavett, Lois Chiles, Andrei Codrescu, Richard Ford, John Goodman, Tab Hunter, Patricia Neal, George Plimpton, Rex Reed, Anne Rice and Eli Wallach, to name a very few.
“The real stress of the job is raising money for the Fest,” Willis said. “It’s becoming more of a challenge because there are so many nonprofit arts organizations in the New Orleans area and a limited corporate foundation base. We do a great job on a tight budget, but when you factor in plane tickets and hotel rooms and honorariums, we couldn’t do it all without our long time supporters.”
The TW/NOLF lists almost 200 groups and individuals who have become “Friends of Tennessee,” including sponsors Iberiabank, the Bollinger Family Foundation and Whole Foods Market. Willis said they depend on money coming in from their membership base, ticket sales, and crucial foundation grants from organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, the Louisiana Division of the Arts and The Arts Council of New Orleans, among others.
“It’s all about being creative, figuring out how to make it all happen and make it the best quality it can be,” Willis said. “You always have to ask ‘how can we afford it,’ and face it, you have to be a little tight. It’s why we’re still here, especially after surviving Hurricane Katrina and the economic downturn.”
Willis said the Fest also depends on the generous collaborations of local venues that host their unique programming and creative theater productions in non-traditional spaces like The Historic New Orleans Collection, The Williams Research Center, the Hotel Monteleone (which is referenced in Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo” and “Orpheus Descending”), The Palm Court Jazz Café, Muriel’s Jackson Square Restaurant, Hermann-Grima/ Gallier Historic Houses, Southern Rep Theatre, Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre and the Beauregard-Keyes House.
“The accomplishment I’m most proud of is encouraging the next generation of writers through the Festival’s educational outreach,” Willis said of writeNOW, a program that brings area high school students together for writing workshops and discussions with acclaimed national authors. Participating students receive free scholarship passes to attend The TW/NOLF, and Willis said they have started to offer scholarships to Louisiana teachers to attend as well.
Willis said the TW/NOLF supports year-round literary programs in the community, provides professional writing education to area students and nurtures up-and-coming literary and theatrical talent through readings and writing contests for poetry, short fiction stories and one-act plays.
“We need to build our future, and reach out to younger audiences,” Willis said. “We always want to hear and include new voices, and read works from our youngest writers.”
Memberships, panel passes and individual event tickets are still available for the 2015 TW/NOLF.