Suffocating in smoke

Patsy Ferran on her trip to the Deep South in preparation for Summer and Smoke.

Tennessee Williams spent the first eight years of his life living in the rectory of his grandfather's parish in the Deep South. When I found out I had this role coming up thought it might be a good idea to go and check out that part of the world.

When I started researching where exactly I should go, I found out that Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, but then spent the first eight years in Clarksdale and I was like, "Great, how do I get to Clarksdale?" Turns out you have to fly into Memphis, Tennessee - a completely different state - and then (because it's so remote and so tiny, in the middle of nowhere), you have to drive for hours across state lines. And I went, "Okay I can't do this on my own." So I roped my dad in.

My dad and I had this brilliant father, daughter bonding time in Mississippi. We did basically a Tennessee Williams pilgrimage, which was great because he knew nothing about him and I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, and I'm so glad that I brought him along 'cause it would have been actually quite a daunting experience.

The people there are incredibly front-footed, but in a very open, generous way. The way they speak is very lyrical. They don't apologise for taking up room and time when they speak - sometimes I feel like as Brits everything's very short and clipped in terms of the language we use. It’s all very efficient. We tend to not say what we feel a lot of the time – there’s a lot of subtext going on.

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I know this sounds obvious, but I cannot tell you how American everyone was. I found it really full on and quite overwhelming. When we had to fly into Chicago to grab a connection to Memphis, there was a man that was late getting on the plane. He’d ran what looked like ten terminals to get there and once on board he just suddenly went, "Oh God. Son of a biscuit. Oh cramp." He looked at his belly and said "God this is just full of cheeseburgers and tequila." It was one of the funniest things, and he had the whole plane cracking up. I can't imagine a Brit doing the same thing; if they'd arrived late they’d pretend that, "nope I didn't have to run ten terminals in order to catch my connection, no."

So it made sense, this world of people who can go off on one basically. And it might feel quite jarring, but actually it's not the case at all. It gave me permission to go on stage and go, "This is totally valid and real and this person needs to speak this much because she has to say this much." It's not a playwright just showing off how good he is at writing, it's all part of that natural language.

Clarksdale itself was tiny, walking around took us 15 minutes. But the fact that it was so small made these characters and this story make much more sense. Everyone's in each other's business. The fact that my Dad and I were nosing about caught people's attention because we were obvious non-regulars. At one point we were having coffee in their one coffee place (sadly their high street, which was ten shops either side, about nine-tenths of them were shut down, and the only real, thriving business was this café where obviously everyone went) and there was a group of older men, just having a chin wag and a catch up and they really caught my attention.

One of them obviously saw me just staring at them, and he just went, "Hey where y'all from?" Like that, straight open.

“Oh London.”
“Welcome to Clarksdale.”
“Oh thank you."

And then, "This here's the district commissioner."

And then I met the district commissioner and they were like, "If you need anything at all, you let us know." I'm pretty sure it was a very genuine offer, but it's also wanting to keep an eye out to what the outsiders are up to. In the play there is a whole gossipy world, with all the busybodies, and experiencing this small town curiosity about outsiders really informed rehearsals for me. It made Alma's way of thinking make more sense.

You can justify a lot if you have a very religious upbringing as well. Because even though it was a very small town, there were lots of churches, dead different. You had the Episcopalian church, and then a Baptist church - they're huge buildings. You've got these small tiny houses which contrast with a few of these big columned houses – the type that makes you think about Belle Reve that Blanch talks about in A Streetcar Named Desire, - there were a few houses there that Tennessee Williams based it on. But then there is so much money and space for God. It was just a very normal thing to be a part of and not questioned.

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There’s a running thing of religion versus science throughout the whole play, especially between Alma and John who are constantly debating over it. Alma’s belief system is very rooted which was good to experience in Clarksdale because - especially in this day and age – most people don't have that same relationship with religion. It's not really around, surrounding us all the time.

When your world is so small, thinking about Summer and Smoke specifically, it suddenly made sense the fact you have this one person who has become completely devoted, completely besotted with her next door neighbour of all people, for the whole of her life. And you go, "Would that really happen? What are the chances of that?" And you go, "Yes because there's literally 15 houses that encompass the whole town." And if that's all you've got, if this little town can only offer you this one person, as well as a very religious world, that's all they have and if you don't travel outside of it, how can you question that?

In such a small town and close environment everything feels quite suffocating and claustrophobic, and maybe that's the reason why people react in such volatile ways - a pressure cooker that just explodes.

 

Patsy plays Alma Winemiller in Summer and Smoke, Williams’ intoxicating classic about love, loneliness and self-destruction, runs from 24 February – 7 April.
Click here for more information and to book online.

 

 

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