“Thomas Wolfe was wrong,” Bryan Batt says. “You can go home again, and if you’re from New Orleans, it’s a whole lot easier.”
Wolfe’s novel is about a writer who depicts people from his hometown and becomes unwelcome there. In his solo piece, “Dear Mr. Williams,” presented as a staged reading April 15-16 at Le Petit Theatre, Batt is on the relatively safer path of writing about his own experiences and inspirations from Tennessee Williams.
Batt’s interest in the playwright and theater was galvanized when he was a student at Isidore Newman School.
“After seeing ‘The Glass Menagerie’ for the first time when I was in eighth grade, that was life-changing,” Batt says. “The people I rode the bus with to school were transformed into Amanda and Tom and Laura (Wingfield) by his words. I realized the power of storytelling.”
Batt has never performed in a full production of a Williams play, but he’s always been inspired by Williams’ writing.
“As I put (‘Dear Mr. Williams’) together, I remembered how much Tennessee influenced me while I was growing up,” Batt says. “Quotes from poems, plays, letters and short stories intertwined with my own personal stories about growing up and going to New York. Tennessee had to leave St. Louis and come to New Orleans to find himself. I had to leave New Orleans and go to New York to find myself. I got to come back.”
On Broadway, Batt performed in “Cats,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Saturday Night Fever” and other shows and played Salvatore Romano on TV’s “Mad Men.” He started doing solo cabaret shows after Hurricane Katrina, and in May he starred as God in the almost-solo show (two angels have a few lines) “An Act of God” at Le Petit Theatre.
In recent years, Batt has been a regular participant in tribute readings at the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival. Two years ago, he was part of a program dedicated to Williams’ work focusing on Italy. He suggested that the festival highlight Williams’ works about New Orleans for the edition during the city’s tricentennial. He ended up developing the first version of “Dear Mr. Williams” for the 2018 festival.
Actress Betty Buckley and producer Travis Moore attended the reading and urged him to develop it as a stage production. Batt is working with director Michael Wilson, who directed Batt and Buckley in a production of “Grey Gardens.” As the artistic director of Hartford Stage, Wilson produced many Tennessee Williams plays.
“Dear Mr. Williams” skips back and forth from the past to present and in many ways mirrors Williams’ life, he says.
“If you read his life story and what he was dealing with, it was ebb and flow,” Batt says. “His addictions and his ‘blue devils’ as he called them, his romances and dealing with his sexuality — he tried to be honest and tell the truth as he saw it.”
Some of the ties to Williams are serendipitous. In “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Mitch and Blanche DuBois’ first date is at Pontchartrain Beach, an amusement park owned by Batt’s family. Batt also finds it useful as a metaphor.
“The whole journey is about finding yourself,” Batt says. “I was looking to Tennessee Williams’ writings for guidance. It was a roller coaster ride. That was my family’s business. It was the perfect training for life and show business. It is a roller coaster ride.”
Events take place at the New Orleans Healing Center and other venues in Bywater and Faubourg Marigny.
Get ready for soul-searching, lamenting lost love, and plenty of East Kentucky drawl at Tyler Childers' upcoming performance at the Civic Theatre.
The song’s melody is based on the traditional fiddle tune “The Eighth of January,” which also was the date of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.