• Anthony Chase

Theater Community Mourns Tilke Hill

By ANTHONY CHASE

A man and a woman in a play
Tilke Hill as Blanche DuBois with Stan Klimecko as Stanley in "A Streetcar Named Desire" at Torn Space Theater in 2012. Photo by Lukia Costello

Buffalo’s theater and film communities were startled by the sad news that actor and producer Tilke Hill died on Wednesday. The word began to circulate gradually over the past few days.


In recent years, Tilke had gravitated toward the film world. With boundless energy, enthusiasm, and creativity, she seemed to embark on one bold new project after another. In 2015, she was one of a group that exerted leadership to keep the Buffalo International Film Festival going and served as Festival Director. She co-produced and starred in the web series “Why I Murdered My Roommate,” the first such series to be set and filmed in Buffalo.


I remember Tilke, most vividly, for one remarkable evening of theater. She was the most vibrant and powerful Blanche DuBois I have ever seen. Hers was a unique interpretation of the role, under the direction of Dan Shanahan at Torn Space Theater. Blanche’s immortal line, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” is typically delivered with ethereal detachment. Tilke’s Blanche spat the words at her sister, Stella, as a stinging accusation. The moment was entirely unexpected, but seemed so right. How did this remarkable production and this singular interpretation come to be?


Shanahan recalled that Tilke had, characteristically, brought the project to him.


“I was reluctant, at first,” recalls Shanahan. “To begin, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, a major work from the established canon, is not what we do at Torn Space. Added to that, the project came with Tilke as part of the package, and I did not know her very well.”


Torn Space is known for avant-garde and expressionistic work. “Streetcar” was specifically not a likely choice for them. Still, Tilke persisted, and Torn Space produced the show back in 2012 with Tilke as Blanche, Stan Klimecko as Stanley, and Kristin Bentley as Stella.


“The early rehearsals were really shaky,” says Shanahan, “I became more convinced that we had made a mistake. Tilke was basically recreating the film version of Blanche. I spoke to her about this, and we began to have rehearsals together. I urged her to go back to the text.”


Shanahan observes that an aura of sensuality permeates most memories and interpretations of Streetcar. The seductive Marlon Brando persona disguises the brutality of the script.


“Together, Tilke and I began to dig into Blanche’s story,” says Shanahan. “What happened at the Hotel Flamingo? What happened between Blanche and those men? We began to see a story of abuse and trauma. Tennessee Williams lays it all out. Every person in the play has been abused. Blanche is traumatized, but Stella has also been abused. So has Mitch; he lives with his mother and has difficulty relating to other people. Stanley has just returned from the war; what has he seen?”


The work paid off.


“Looked at without preconceptions, the text kept revealing more and more,” says Shanahan. “The lack of privacy in the Kowalski apartment also exposes a lack of boundaries of all kinds. This became especially revealing as boundaries within Blanche’s mind begin to erode, between the past and the present, between reality and fantasy. Tilke found these.”


These observations found visual realization in the work set designer Kristina Siegel, and the production is notable as the first of many successful collaborations between Siegel and Shanahan. Tilke Hill and Dan Shanahan never worked together again, but the 2012 production of Streetcar was a landmark for Torn Space Theater in many ways.


Tilke Hill, Stan Klimecko, and Kristin Bentley each gave original and revelatory performances. Tilke was rewarded with an Artie Award nomination. Christian Brandjes was also recognized for his performance as Mitch. Dan Shanahan won the Artie for his direction.


“I have never worked so hard with an actor on a performance, and I have never seen an actor work as hard on a character as Tilke did,” says Shanahan. “Delving into Tennessee Williams’ text with such intensity enabled Tilke to find her interpretation and to deliver that line, ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,’ the way she did.”


The passing of Tilke Hill is certainly a major loss for the arts in Western New York. She was a person known for her energy, her enthusiasm, her drive, her creativity, her loyalty, and her friendly nature. Her life was too brief, but she certainly exerted a positive and enduring influence.