Filmmaker John Waters, the so-called Pope of Trash, has a special appreciation of Tennessee Williams and New Orleans. When he realized the streetcar named Desire had been replaced by an RTA bus named Desire, he had a friend take a picture of him exiting the bus, and he used the photo as his Christmas card one year.
Waters never met Williams, but he is a longtime fan and is among the eclectic collection of celebrities (playwright John Patrick Shanley, "Ask Amy" columnist Amy Dickinson) reading works at "Blue Devils and Better Angels: Tennessee Williams Tribute Reading Friday" at The Old Ursuline Convent. It's one of several events featuring Waters at the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival (March 25-29). Detective fiction writer Laura Lippman interviews Waters Friday afternoon, and the filmmaker performs his solo storytelling show This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier at The Civic Theatre Thursday.
One of the reading organizers is Thomas Keith, the editor who asked Waters to write the introduction to the 2006 publication of Tennessee Williams Memoirs. In the essay, Waters famously said, "Tennessee Williams saved my life." He tells a story about stealing a collection of Williams' short stories from the public library when he was 12 years old. Though Williams was a very successful playwright whose works ran on Broadway, the book was kept behind the librarian's desk, and patrons had to request it.
"Those short stories — One Arm and Hard Candy — when I swiped those books from the library, those were the ones they wouldn't let children read," Waters says via phone from his Baltimore home. "If you read them today, they're pretty amazing. They still would cause trouble. ... To me that was liberation. ... Those things were such a huge influence on me when I was young. (The film) Baby Doll and Hard Candy are not brought up as the first things you mention when you talk about Tennessee Williams. I forget in which one — one of the stories with the guy in the electric chair had a little drawing of an electric chair. It was so beautiful, it made me so crazy when I was a child. These stories gave me the permission to want to be what I wanted to be as a kid."
At a young age, Waters knew he and Williams were fascinated by the same types of people.
"Truman Capote didn't want to be in bohemia," Waters says. "He wanted to be with rich people. Tennessee Williams never wanted to be with rich people. He wanted to be with outcasts and bohemians. That just pointed me in the right direction. He wanted to hang out with prostitutes, hustlers and sailors."
But Waters wasn't just fascinated by obscurity and unseemly things.
"Other kids wanted to play sports," Waters says. "I wanted to be with Maggie the Cat. That still (photo) of Marlon Brando at the bottom of the steps in Streetcar, I still have that hanging in my house. Those are such strong images."
Early in his filmmaking career, Waters produced the cult classics Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, starring the zaftig transvestite Divine (aka Harris Glenn Milstead) and featuring gross-out scenes and prurient and violent crime. His 1988 film Hairspray, about teenagers integrating a Baltimore TV dance show, helped launch Ricki Lake's career, was turned into a Broadway hit and remade as a film with John Travolta in Divine's role as Tracy Turnblad's mother.
In recent years, Waters has focused on writing. His 2014 book Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America recounted a trip from Baltimore to San Francisco (where he also has a home). He was picked up by everyone from a Republican politician from Baltimore to the rock band Here We Go Magic. He reflects on chain budget restaurants and hotels and encounters with people who didn't recognize him. Some thought he was a homeless old man and tried to give him money, he says.
His art career also has brought Waters to New Orleans, and he's had a few photography shows at Arthur Roger Gallery. He's participated in Tennessee Williams festivals before and he has an idea for future editions: costumes.
"Lots of Maggie the Cats walking around," he says. "That's what I am encouraging. A lot of Bricks. All the different characters — Sissy Goforth. Christopher Flanders, the angel of death in Boom. Then it would be like a Star Wars convention and it would be really good. ... More cosplay."
The festival features the Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest in Jackson Square at 4:15 p.m. Sunday. There also are several productions presented by local theaters during the festival. Southern Rep continues its run of Williams' Suddenly Last Summer at the Ashe Power House. The Hotel Plays by Tennessee Williams features scenes set in hotel rooms and boarding houses. It runs Thursday through Sunday at Hermann-Grima House. The lineup of writers includes Rick Bragg, Dan Baum, Roy Blount Jr. and others. There also are panel discussions on Williams' work, literary topics, publishing, music events, parties and more. Visit www.tennesseewilliams.net for full schedule.