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Balancing Act 

After success and burnout in New York City, Ryan Rilette returns home to get his groove back and tackle the original version of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth.

After three years in New York City, Ryan Rilette was burned out. The former New Orleanian may have been at the top of his game as an off-off-Broadway director, but didn't have anything to show for it financially. There was no balance between his passion for theater and the demands of his day job.

But after an unexpected return to his hometown, Rilette believes he's found that balance and hopes to apply it to his latest project. In taking on Sweet Bird of Youth as part of the upcoming Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (March 20-24), Rilette is trying to tackle the original version of the play without allowing it to sprawl more than three hours. The play opens this Friday at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré and runs through the rest of March.

Rilette even sees a juggling act in Williams' work. "Williams walked a balance -- especially in this play -- between a heightened, poetic realism and complete expressionism," Rilette explains. "He does this in a way that nobody else does. The play kind of looks like a realistic world with very heightened language, but then there are moments when (actors) turn to the audience -- almost like Shakespeare -- delivering a soliloquy. His language in those moments is just incredible."

Rilette knows about the search for a happy medium. His work as co-artistic director of the ensemble troupe Rude Mechanicals earned, among other things, the Harold Clureman Award for best ensemble theater. But long hours that stretched into the wee hours of the morning got him little more than a six-pack of beer, making a labor of love sometimes feel like a nightmare.

The South beckoned to Rilette and his wife, Christy, who considered everywhere but his hometown (Atlanta and Austin, for example), anywhere that would allow him to juggle his theater hobby and his journalism career. "I didn't think I'd ever come back to New Orleans," Rilette says, "just because I didn't think I'd be able to find a job down here doing what I do."

Then he learned from a friend that a position in custom publishing had suddenly opened at New Orleans Publishing Group. Next, a house went on the market in Mid-City -- the couple's dream neighborhood -- and Rilette grabbed it during an open house. Soon after, Christy landed a job as a librarian at Loyola University.

"Everything about coming back here has been serendipitous," Rilette says.

Once he was back home, Rilette planned on taking some time off from theater -- all he wanted was to spend more time with his wife and enjoy having just one job for a change. Those plans quickly ended when he learned of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival's production of Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth. Initially, Rilette wanted to play central character Chance Wayne, a Hollywood hustler who takes one last stab at success. As an actor, Rilette was more than qualified. He'd performed with the American Repertory Theater and American Conservatory Theater as well as several off-off-Broadway venues. But after learning the festival's coordinators were searching for a director, Rilette set his sights higher. He put the word out that he was interested and quickly landed the job.

"The nice thing about New Orleans is that it has such a tight-knit theater community that you can call anybody and they'll, number one, return your phone calls and, number two, be helpful," Rilette says.

Rilette wanted to direct the original script of the play, which appeared in Esquire magazine just before its 1959 Broadway premiere. "Williams was in the middle of cutting the play when Esquire published it," Rilette explained. "They published a version that was sort of a work in progress, so the Esquire version is very, very long." Still, Rilette prefers the rarely performed script since it digs deeper into the symbolism surrounding the play's Easter Sunday setting and presents Chance Wayne as more sympathetic than in later versions.

To ensure the play's success, Rilette assembled a talented 17-member cast that includes members of local theater companies IMAGE and Running With Scissors, as well as veteran actor and Loyola University professor Francine Segal, who taught Rilette when he was earning his bachelor's degree in New Orleans. "Ryan has every strength necessary to be a good director," Segal says. "Some directors say (something's) not working, but they don't know how to get you there. He knows how to fix things. He's an actor's director, and he knows how to take command."

Now that he's in control, Rilette hopes to find the same balance in Williams' work that he's found upon his return home. "Embracing that language and finding the style of the production -- the in-between worlds of something that looks realistic and also moves into expressionism -- is the hardest part," he says of Sweet Bird of Youth. "But we're getting it. We're finding it."

click to enlarge 'He's an actor's director, and he knows how to take command,' says actress Francine Segal (at right with actor Scott Screws) of Ryan Rilette's direction of Sweet Bird of Youth. - MICHAEL PALUMBO
  • Michael Palumbo
  • 'He's an actor's director, and he knows how to take command,' says actress Francine Segal (at right with actor Scott Screws) of Ryan Rilette's direction of Sweet Bird of Youth.
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