I connect with theater director Nancy Meckler while she’s backstage at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, Scotland. The ballet version of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which she co-created, is preparing to take the stage.
Days later, critic Kelly Apter of The Scotsman raves in a five-star review of the Scottish Ballet production that “you feel as if Tennessee Williams himself is standing at the side of the stage reading you his play. Not only that, but the complex layers of emotional torment and fantasy are all there for the taking, too.”
Orlando Ballet will open its production of “Streetcar” on April 27 in Steinmetz Hall at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando — after some coaching from Meckler. She explains why she always looks forward to working with dancers.
“I find they are really responsive. They can really concentrate and focus on something in a way that sometimes actors can’t,” she says. “Dancers are very disciplined and hardworking. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have gotten where they are.”
And “A Streetcar Named Desire” needs discipline in both dance and acting to convey its story, well-known from Williams’ play and subsequent movie adaptation.
The “Streetcar” story centers on Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern belle who endures a series of personal and financial losses that destroy her once-prosperous and happy life. Eventually, with nowhere else to turn, she moves into a dingy New Orleans apartment to live with her sister, Stella, and Stella’s husband, Stanley. And then the fireworks fly.
There is a lot of plot to convey for a ballet, but Meckler wasn’t daunted when she dived in to work alongside choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa ahead of the Scottish Ballet work’s 2012 premiere.
“I already had this background of telling stories, sometimes without words, using lots of imagery. We’d train our actors to be very physical in telling a story through movement,” says Meckler, who was the first woman to direct at the U.K.’s Royal National Theatre and has directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company, among others.
And Meckler, 82, was no stranger to adapting great literary works, such as “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” both of which she directed for her Shared Experience theater company, which produces work that “celebrates the union of physical and text-based theater.”
Marlon Brando played Stanley in the 1951 film version of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)
She also found a way into the story — when Blanche “spends a very long time giving her history to Stella.” The creative team looked at that and said, “Hey, we could do it all in ballet — not speaking a word.”
Meckler also discovered that starting “Streetcar” from that idea reframes the plot around Blanche — and shows the story in a different light.
“If you really have Blanche’s back story, you really have more sympathy for her than in the play,” she says. She also thinks the popular movie version muddied the dynamics between the characters because Marlon Brando, who played Stanley, had an innate charisma that drew the audience toward him.
“Because Stanley could find Blanche irritating, the audience could find her irritating,” Meckler says. Whereas in the ballet interpretation: “They stay with her.”
The creative team also was able to flesh out the story with different locations — that, conveniently for ballet, also provided more dance opportunities.
“You can actually have scenes that are mentioned in the play but don’t appear in it,” she says, such as a bowling alley that’s discussed in the play’s text.
“Why don’t we go to the bowling alley — and why don’t they do a lot of dancing after they’ve bowled?” she says. The streets of New Orleans also feature in the ballet adaptation, as well as a club where there’s, yes, more dancing.
“There are all these little clues to play with,” Meckler says.
In a 2017 U.S. tour of the Scottish Ballet production, Eve Mutso, center, played Blanche DuBois in Nancy Meckler and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "A Streetcar Named Desire." Musto also has advised Orlando Ballet dancers on their upcoming production. (Andy Ross)
The Scottish Ballet adaptation features original music by Peter Salem, and he, Lopez Ochoa and Meckler have subsequently reteamed on multiple other projects.
But “Streetcar” remains special.
“It’s toured, won a lot of awards, visited the U.S. three times,” she says. “It’s had a good ride.”
Eve Musto, the Scottish ballerina who originated the role of Blanche, will work with Orlando Ballet dancers before their opening night, and then Meckler will take over.
“I’m coming in for the last few days of rehearsal to really finesse and heighten the character work,” she says. “I’m interested in their inner lives.”
She thinks audiences will find the ballet — despite its intense themes — to be relatable and enjoyable.
“It’s a dark story,” she says, “but I think we have a kaleidoscope of emotions.”