Hans Fleischmann on the unlikely inspiration behind his production of “The Glass Menagerie”
By HANS FLEISCHMANN July 15, 2013 3:22PM
Updated: July 15, 2013 8:58PM
On New Years Day 2011, after attempting and failing to book acting roles in both my hometown of Chicago and in Los Angeles, I spent my remaining savings on a 1987 Chevy Transvan and took to the streets of LA. I chose to park the vehicle alongside one of the big studios in Hollywood. I was not the only one.
The streets were lined with the homeless. I judged quickly and avoided them all; I was afraid of being associated with the drunks and drug-addicted. But I soon came to realize that many of them suffered from some sort of mental illness — in fact, most of them did. These were people with histories, families, pains, regrets, many of whom still dreamed and hoped for something better. These were people.
There was Chris, an ex-heroin addict who lived in a Winnebago. He had served our country as a soldier and suffered from a mental illness that took him away from duty. Familiar with street living, he became a sort of big brother to me. He was a lifesaver.
There was Tony, who’d worked for his father’s trucking company in Miami, and, like many exhausted truck drivers, picked up a heroin habit. He was two years sober when I met him and living with his mother. When she passed, the bank took her home, and Tony was forced to sleep on a rain-soaked couch left outside in the garbage. I made him promise to stay clean before I returned to Chicago, but I worry about the state he was in the last time I saw him.
And there was a man who walked by my van one morning and changed my life forever.
Before I encountered this man, I was filled with humiliation, holed up in the back of my van so that no person would assume there was a soul inside. I needed human contact, and I dreamed of going back home to Chicago to perform for a couple of months. Specifically, I wanted to do “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams.
“The Glass Menagerie” is considered Williams’ most autobiographical piece. The character of Laura Wingfield stands tribute to his sister Rose, who, at the age of 26, was institutionalized for schizophrenia. While Williams was away, his mother consented to have a lobotomy performed on Rose. Because this was one of the first lobotomies performed in the country, there was no cost for the operation. Rose lost her anxieties but also much of her mind, slipping into a dreamlike existence that lasted the rest of her long life. Williams never forgave his mother, and this moment is believed to have been the catalyst for “The Glass Menagerie.”
One early morning in LA, I began re-examining Williams and his play. While I was trying to read under the low light of a cellphone, I was interrupted by the bellow of a man yelling into his phone. He ranted, loudly and obscenely, making any concentration on my end impossible. He threatened the person on the receiving end for more than an hour, and I became so frustrated with him that I was no longer concerned with concealing the fact I was living inside my vehicle. I exited my van to confront him.
I instantly realized that though he was a man, he did not have a cellphone. He was speaking to ghosts, schizophrenic, homeless, tattered and dirty. My outrage subsided immediately. In that moment of empathy, my vision for “The Glass Menagerie” was born. This was my Tom Wingfield, the narrator in “The Glass Menagerie,” homeless and schizophrenic like Williams’ own sister. I wanted to both direct the piece and play the role of Tom, taking an audience with me into Tom’s memories and showing them how and why he ended up the tattered man they saw before them.
Inspired, I continued working through the morning on the concept. I called Richard Cotovsky, the artistic director of Mary-Arrchie Theatre, and pitched the show to him. We made plans to include it in the following season.
I continued living in the van for the following year. I stopped shaving and cutting my hair. I obsessed over the script, the direction of it, every design element.
In October 2012, I finally returned to Chicago to begin work on the production. When it premiered, the response was overwhelming — it went on to sell out its entire run. A four-week extension was then added, which quickly sold out. After turning hundreds of people away at our tiny storefront theater in Lakeview, we remounted the show at Theater Wit. In its current incarnation, it is even more aching than before.
I now live in Chicago and share a tiny garden apartment with my lovely girlfriend, cat and dog. For a time, I believed my street living was the lowest point in my life. But it now seems to be the most influential time of my life. What once filled me with shame now fills me with pride. And I hope, in some small way, that the play can inspire and encourage us to have empathy for one another.
“The Glass Menagerie” runs through July 28 at Theater Wit. For tickets ($37), visit Theaterwit.org.