Lisa Rothe in rehearsal for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Photo courtesy of Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
by Abigail Trabue
What is it about Williams that keeps us all coming back for more?
Kansas City Repertory Theatre looks to give KC its yearly dose of Williams this weekend with the opening of a “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” featuring a cast of local talent guided by a director who isn’t afraid to play with fire.
So what can audiences expect? I set down with Director Lisa Rothe to find out what draws her towards this American icon, and why “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” feels so “astonishingly current.”
First, the obvious question – Why now, why here in KC?
As a freelance director, I direct a lot of new plays. But I also love the classics, so I jumped at the chance to direct this play. It is a really good one for this moment, as conversations around tolerance and how to communicate with one another are deeply necessary at this time.
After that, I’d love to know what draws you personally to this script? Williams’ scripts aren’t for the faint of heart.
Tennessee Williams is one of my favorite playwrights and really goes deep into the human condition. And I like plays that deal with big emotions. Big Daddy asks, “Why is it so damn hard for people to talk?” This central question links “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with new millennial conversations (or lack thereof), an example of what makes this play so astonishingly current.
What was your first thought was once you decided to take on this iconic piece of American theater? Did you go into this thinking, “bring it on”
or was there some pause? I know, personally, when I did “Streetcar” there was an “Oh Sh$t” moment, not gonna lie.
Bring it on!!
I’m very intrigued by this paragraph in your bio and curious how you will apply these principles to a Williams script: “Lisa’s guiding principle is ‘helping people access their voices in creative ways on a global scale.’ She loves developing and directing new plays, reinventing the classics, and is a fierce advocate for women. She tends to be drawn to intimate stories about people who are discovering their voices and have big things to say.”
It’s interesting to look at a work that was originally written in the 1950s, reworked in the 1970s, and then explore how it might resonate for an audience today.
All of the characters are figuring out how to speak and use their voices, in a world that doesn’t allow for a lot of freedom to speak one’s mind. The voice is referenced multiple times in this play: Brick asks Maggie to keep her voice down. Sister Woman tells Brother Man not to yell. The “no neck monsters” scream, and Maggie says, “I don’t know where their voice boxes are located since they don’t have necks.” After Maggie and Brick have a fight, Maggie says to him: “that’s the first time I’ve heard you raise your voice in a long time, Brick.” And Big Daddy condescends to Big Mama and complains about her “loud voice everywhere”. And finally, Big Daddy says multiple times, “It’s hard to talk.”
Maggie the cat is an iconic character. She is a woman on a mission. She is incredibly smart and tenacious, and has to figure out how to get what she needs, given all of the limitations placed on women at the time. In real-time, we get to watch her work out a problem that she must solve, in order to survive, right before our eyes. And she figures out a way to do it. She is a survivor. This resonates deeply for me.
Williams is ensemble theater, and you have assembled some incredibly fine actors, and you’ve stayed local. In the early days of rehearsal, what do you see your main focus being? Will you spend a decent amount of time at the table? Do you want everyone on the feet from day one?
I greatly admire actors. I love their generous hearts and minds and expansive and creative ways of looking at the world.
I trust the actors I work with and try to create an environment that will support and encourage their instincts, intuition and impulses. I usually spend a few days at the table, and then I like to get up on our feet to see what the actors bring to the early days of discovery. This is a very fertile time. Our cast is full of very generous, open, curious and kind people, and I feel truly grateful to be working with this ensemble of actors.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this production?
Using the words of our playwright: On October 22, 1956, Time magazine published a letter from Williams who had written in response to a published comment about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “Cat is the most highly, intensely moral work that I have produced, and that is what gives it power. IT IS AN OUTCRY OF FURY FROM START TO FINISH, AGAINST THOSE FALSITIES IN LIFE THAT PROVIDE A GOOD FERTILIZER FOR CORRUPTION. What it says, in essence, through the character of Big Daddy, is this: when your time comes to die, do you want to die in a hotbed of lies or on a cold stone of truth?”
Lisa Rothe is a NYC-based freelance theater director, coach and educator. Recent directing work has been seen at Indiana Repertory Theatre, Irish Repertory Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse, Theatreworks/Silicon Valley (nominated for 8 Bay Area Critics Circle Awards), Two River Theater, People’s Light and Playmakers Repertory Theatre. Lisa is the Director of New Works at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, co-Artistic Director of The Actor’s Center in NYC, a recent co-President of the League of Professional Theatre Women, a Usual Suspect with New York Theatre Workshop, member of the National Theater Conference, an Artistic Affiliate and former Audrey Fellow with New Georges, and a Drama League and Fox Fellow alum. She was also the Director of Global Exchange at The Lark for over five years, providing expanded opportunities for playwrights, aimed at advancing new work to production, both nationally and globally. www.lisarothe.com