By Alexia Narun
Celebrating its 37th anniversary, the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival is trying something different this year, moving the iconic Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest from the closing of the festival weekend to a kickoff position. From March 22 to 26, the five-day, nonprofit festival will celebrate more than just Tennessee Williams –– showcasing theatre, poetry, literature, writers and readers in New Orleans.
In the wake of the 1986 economic slump, festival co-founders Beverly Gianna and Errol Laborde met at Mandina’s Restaurant to plan a morale-boosting, culturally rich French Quarter festival. The first two-day festival took place in April 1987, honoring Tennessee Williams and the representation of New Orleans in his work. Current managing director, Tracy Cunningham, explained how “Every component of [the festival] has grown” and “started out as a much concentrated version of what [they] do now.” Today, the festival offers craft sessions, literary discussions, author panels, food and cocktail events, music, walking tours and writing contests.
TW Fest’s most iconic competition is the Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest, where an actress portrays Stella standing on a Jackson Square balcony as 25 contestants recreate the scene from Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Although undoubtedly classic, the scene follows a drunken brawl between Stanley Kowalski and his wife, Stella, where he has just struck her. Speaking about the scene, Cunningham said, “It’s one of Tennessee Williams’ great gifts…that he can take extremely troublesome characters and these emotionally fraught moments and depict them so beautifully. But, we [the TW Fest board] didn’t want to ignore that this is a very serious scene. It’s about alcoholism. It’s about spousal abuse.”
Usually, the contest acts as a closing event at the end of the weekend and draws a large crowd to the Square. However, awareness is raised over a concluded festival. This year, the TW Fest board chose to move the contest to an opening position the weekend before the festival begins, on Sunday, March 19.
As part of this change, the contest will be much more than a promotional event. TW Fest is transforming the event into a fundraiser partnered with the New Orleans Family Justice Center. The organization provides “free services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, human trafficking and child abuse in the Greater New Orleans area.” Because TW Fest is a nonprofit organization, they have partnered with other nonprofits in the past to share revenue from music, food and cultural events. However, it is the first time for TW Fest to reach beyond theatrical and literary organizations. Cunningham said, “Raising funds for [NOFJC] would be a way to acknowledge the very serious issues underlying this iconic scene and to do some good in the community.” Because “A lot of great literature is filled with scenes that are depicting big problems in society,” she said, it is important to “draw more attention to them.”
Festival go-ers can expect volunteers handing out pamphlets, QR codes for online donations and a spotlight on the scene itself as an “awareness-raiser.” There will also be an online version of the fundraiser beginning in March.
In addition to the fundraiser, TW Fest is hosting the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival for its 20th year from March 24 to 26. SAS Fest is a program added under TW Fest which Cunningham said, “is the only multi-day LGBTQ+ literary festival that exists, at least in the United States.” It is a three-day event with panels, writing workshops, author readings and a book launch. Founded 20 years ago as a means of disseminating information about HIV/AIDS, SAS Fest brought and continues to bring writers, editors, publishers and agents together to support LGBTQ+ authors.
As another added change, TW Fest is putting on the Last Bohemia Fringe Festival as an independent portion of SAS Fest, to reflect Williams’ fascination with the bohemian lifestyle. Nightly shows will be performed in the Twilight Room at the AllWays Lounge and Theatre from March 23 to 25.
Since its founding, TW Fest has been way more than a book festival. Its year-round commitment to nurturing local authors and supporting New Orleans’ diverse readers merits its award as one of the top 20 literary festivals in the United States. The festival is a celebration of New Orleans’ literary history and broad readership, not just the scholarship of Tennessee Williams. And this year, the fundraiser demonstrates loyalty to the Greater New Orleans community with awareness and advocacy for the deeper meanings behind what we read.