Hans Fleischmann | Performer of the week

Hans Fleischmann in The Glass Menagerie at Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co.

Hans Fleischmann in The Glass Menagerie at Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. Photograph: Fred Bledsoe

Tennessee Williams’s ubiquitous drama The Glass Menagerie has seen at least three Chicago productions in the past year (Jacqueline Grandt of Redtwist Theatre’s production was a summer performer of the week), but Mary-Arrchie is offering something different with their current staging of the play. Directed by Hans Fleischmann, who also stars as Tom, a character reimagined as a homeless drunkard, the production offers a chilling look into Tom’s fractured psyche. A native of the northwest suburbs, Fleischmann attended Illinois State University with a scholarship from Steppenwolf Theatre. He met Mary-Arrchie artistic director Richard Cotovsky while working on Mother Courage and Her Children at Steppenwolf, beginning a relationship that has continued despite Fleischmann’s move to Los Angeles. He talks to us about why he chose to come back to Chicago to do Glass Menagerie, how he developed his distinct concept, and how he blocked the show to create a more cinematic feel.

What brought you back to Chicago to do The Glass Menagerie?

Well I’ve been wanting to do this show for a while and I knew summers were dead in L.A. So I was looking for something to do over the summer, and I’d wanted to do this for a while but not with me playing Tom. I just wanted to direct it. I kind of wanted [Richard] Cotovsky to play Tom, because I really wanted to show an age difference and I really wanted it to be clear that Tom was going back in memory. Because I think in a lot of productions it’s hard to tell if Tom’s been gone for two months or two years. So I wanted a really big age difference. And I wanted Amanda to be cast as younger. A lot of times she’s cast as some 65-year-old woman. There were things I knew I wanted, and when I started sharpening the concept, I just got really selfish and said, “Well, I think I can do this.” I can grow my beard out. And I’m also old enough now, I’m 37. When I was entertaining the idea before, I was in my late 20s. It felt really young to me, but I guess that’s the age people usually go with for Tom.

How did you come up with the concept that Tom is a homeless drunkard in the present?

I really wanted to do it really dark. I feel like there’s a lot of melodrama in the show, and a lot of times they shy away from the dark. A lot of times they make Tom really normal with an eccentric mother and terribly shy sister. Tom’s always kind of sad when he comes back, but I’ve always felt that he’s very close to Laura. He’s not as shy and not as broken, but kind of that shy. There’s no one that he can connect with, there’s no evidence of him having any kind of relationship with anyone in that play. The one he has with Jim, that’s his best friend, but it’s such a broken relationship. When he talks about other people he says they treat him with hostility. I really wanted to make sure Tom wasn’t normal, in memory and in the present.

So I started with the idea of him being extremely damaged, and I didn’t know exactly where I was going to go with it. And I had been reading an article about Tennessee Williams. It was about a year ago and I was living in a van in L.A. I was between apartments, essentially homeless, and I was reading this article about Tennessee Williams that said that he was homeless for a period. And I was reading this, there’s this guy going down the street back and forth on his cell phone, just having this horrible conversation about how he’s going to sue and his lawyer’s going to be on it and they’ll know better. And I just turned off my light and waited for this guy’s conversation to be over, and then I would turn it back on and read about how [Williams'] sister Rose was schizophrenic. Glass Menagerie is inspired by moments in Tennessee Williams’ life, and the main inspiration was that his sister, when he left, had developed schizophrenia later in life. A lot of cases it develops in your 20s. So he left to pursue a life as a writer, and when he came back home, she had fully developed schizophrenia and his mother had given full permission for her to have a lobotomy. So he came back, his sister Rose was lobotomized and just a shell of a person, and he never forgave himself for that. She was basically torn away from him. He became a pill addict and an alcoholic.

And I’m trying to read and this damn guy kept coming back and forth and it was just bothering me. So finally I was like, as embarrassing as it was sleeping in my van on the streets of California, I got out of my van and was just going to stare at this guy until he moved away from my van. And it was a schizophrenic man talking to himself on the streets. It was just the craziest thing, I thought it was just some Hollywood douche. But the minute I saw the guy talking to himself, everything went, “Ah wow.” Just because of what I had been reading, it was like this clash of two worlds, and I was like, “This is it. This is what I’m going to do.” It was like 2:30 in the morning and I called Rich right away and pitched it.

How do you prepare for a production when you’re both the lead actor and director? And what do rehearsals look like?

I had done most of the ground work before I came in, but it still wasn’t even close to enough. Me and [music composer] Daniel Knox have been working back and forth over the phone about tone and what feeling we wanted, and I’d gone over exactly where I wanted all the music to start and end, exactly what lines. And then I was basically off-book before our first rehearsal, I came in really prepared, but it was still kind of crazy. We pulled it off because of the people involved, the designers, the crew. I had an assistant director, Rudy Galvan, that was amazing. We had a lot of help.

In the first act, characters speak to each other but they don’t look or touch. How do you build those relationships when there isn’t any interaction?

What you have to do is rehearse the other way. You have to make the relationships by actually rehearsing the traditional kind of way, and then once you find that, you go back and start doing this conceptualized blocking. And you start working towards it, then you go back and check in with the actors like you would in traditional blocking, and then you keep going and sharpening until you create something. That’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time with anything, and with this play it seemed to work out the best. There’s a film-like quality that this script has, it’s forced upon the script, actually. Tennessee Williams puts the screen project in, he puts the legends in. He uses imagery and there are movie references all over.

There’s something about that style of blocking that very much reminds me of film. When we’re watching television, we don’t see two actors standing side-to-side for the entirety of a scene like we do on stage. We see how Tom says something, then we see how Amanda receives it. If it’s powerful enough, they’re not going to put the camera on Tom the entire time, they’re going to show how information is taken and then how it’s given. With this kind of blocking, the audience becomes an editor of sorts, we get to choose who we look at. We can look at someone giving information, we can look at someone taking information. That’s always been really fascinating to me, because it seems like it puts a lot of power in the audience, and it blended well with the show in terms of the themes. The schizophrenic elements went really well with that. At times, when you see Tom yelling you kind of feel like it’s that guy that was on the street that night on the phone. That was very appealing to me.

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co.’s The Glass Menagerie runs through January 20 at Angel Island (735 W Sheridan Rd, 773-871-0442). Read our review of The Glass Menagerie.

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