Gillian Anderson Rides A Streetcar Named Desire to St. Ann's Warehouse
Anderson brings her acclaimed Blanche DuBois to the New York stage.
By David Gordon
Theatre Mania: Apr 27, 2016
In the summer of 2014, Gillian Anderson finally had the opportunity she desired for a great many years: She got to play Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Benedict Andrews directed the production at London's Young Vic Theatre, which also featured Ben Foster as Stanley and Vanessa Kirby as Stella. The run quickly sold out, no doubt owing to the star power of the X-Files icon.
A direct transfer to New York came with some atypical stipulations: Anderson and Andrews would not compromise their original vision. Whatever space they moved to must be able to accommodate Magda Willi's insular apartment set connected to the perimeter of the stage by an elaborate bridge-like fire escape. Enter St. Ann's Warehouse, which recently moved into its new home, a former tobacco warehouse on the Brooklyn's waterfront.
With the proper venue selected, Streetcar has now begun previews at St. Ann's, in a run that will continue through June 4. Though Anderson felt like she had no unfinished business with Blanche after the London engagement, as rehearsals began for her second shot at the iconic role, she quickly discovered she was wrong.
When did you first say to yourself "I want to play Blanche DuBois?"
It's been rattling around in my head for a few decades. It was only after I started actually working on the dialogue that I realized that I had spent time with the text before. My mother reminded me that when I was sixteen, I did one of the monologues for a forensic competition. It must have been that moment of working on that text that somehow lodged [it] inside the cells of my being. When people have said, "If you could do any piece of theater what would it be?" I've always said "Streetcar, Streetcar, Streetcar."
What is it like to come back to the play after a year and a half?
I've never had this experience before, going back to something that has a text that is memorized. I've gone back to characters, but not to something that is verbatim. That's an interesting journey, the journey of the brain and memory and what one holds on to. And also, the process of coming back to something that worked, and taking that information and expanding on it, rather than adjusting something that doesn't need to be adjusted. That's something Benedict [Andrews], our director, is very good at. We're going back to the text and picking up on things we missed before. It really does feel like a creative process, not just "OK, do it again."
After the London run ended in 2014, did you feel like you still had unfinished business with Blanche?
Good question. No, I didn't. And yet, in the rehearsal process, I'm still going, "Oh my god, I didn't see that period there. That changes the meaning of the word and the rhythm of the sentence."
In our adaptation of the play, which is approved but isn't necessarily in the Penguin [published] book, I had found that Blanche says, "I want. Magic." It's not "I want magic." Where she's at right there in her journey, it's such a desperate statement. She's about to reveal that she's a pathological liar and excuses it by what she says: "I don't want realism" period "I want" period "Magic."
There's a lot of that. I imagine with this kind of extraordinary text that you're never done with the dig. It's an epic deconstruction of genius, and you can't not continue to find nuggets in there.
How do you and your castmates stay grounded when you're doing a play as intense a play as this?
When one agrees to jump on the Streetcar, you are subjecting yourself to something very specific. There are plenty of plays that ask of the actors everything they've got. It is unique in some ways, and part of that is the state of mind of the characters on the stage and how to stay focused and grounded and sane, dare I say, through the process of doing it day after day, multiple times, even in rehearsal. We're a very tight, caring group. We've got most of the [original] cast in New York, and most of the crew as well, so they're familiar with the needs of the production and the actors. It ultimately comes down to getting enough sleep and eating well and taking care of yourself, and just being prepared.
Why did the production choose St. Ann's Warehouse over, say, Broadway?
We weren't willing to compromise the integrity of the whole of the structure [of the set] for a proscenium. It is as important as anything else in this production. [So] that narrowed it down immediately. It just so happens St. Ann's was in the process of this build and is the perfect place and aesthetic. Having it in Brooklyn between the bridges, the industrial nature of it, and the all-American-ness of that space, it works really well. We are very lucky to have St. Ann's and the malleable space that it is. It feels like it's being re-created as opposed to adjusted for the circumstances.
In the end, does playing Blanche DuBois mean that you get to finally scratch Streetcar off your bucket list?
This is my bucket list. After doing a piece of material like this, it does spoil you. All of a sudden, it's like, "OK, if the pot is that small of what there is to choose from, in terms of that quality of classical work, but also at my age, do I need to be clearer about what those [roles] are, so I can map it out and don't go, "Oh, no, I've missed it?" It's now a bucket list that she will always be at the top of.