Brett Batterson leans back in his brand new chair in the brand new Halloran Centre for Performing Arts Education and taps the frame of an old photo-- an artifact of his time working for The Nashville Network when TNN’s programing was built around Tennessee’s Country Music industry. “This is The Statler Brothers,” he says. “And this is one of my set designs for The Statler Brothers show. That was the height of Country music and the height of The Nashville Network. I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, which is kind of the story of my life.”
Batterson is the new President and CEO of the Orpheum Theatre, replacing Pat Halloran who retired in 2015 after 35-years at the theater’s helm. Prior to moving to Memphis Batterson served in a similar position at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. He’s not from Nashville or Chicago though. Over five decades the plain-spoken Iowan has planted his shiny cowboy boots in ten different states. He’s evolved professionally from performer to scenic artist to theater builder, and finally to arts administrator. Batteson arrives the Orpheum during a major transition, as the opulent antique playhouse on Main at Beale launches its new, state of the art education center.
Memphis magazine: Tell me your story. I’ve done my homework and know all the high points. But I’d like to hear you tell it. I’ll rudely interrupt you with questions along the way.
Brett Batterson: I was born in upstate New York but when I was eleven months old my family moved to Davenport, Iowa. So I was raised in Iowa and claim to be an Iowan but I have a New York birthright, I guess. My parents were puppeteers. My father was a commercial artist and a wood carver, and together they made marionettes and I grew up with a puppet theater in my basement. So all of this has been in my blood since the day I was born.
How involved were you in all of that?
I started taking creative dramatic lessons when I was about five years old at a children’s theater group there in Davenport. I did that all the way through high school. When I was 7-years old my dad passed away unexpectedly and my mom needed to find a career that brought her some satisfaction. So she started working with another woman and they started presenting Broadway shows in Davenport at a theater that was aptly called the RKO Orpheum Theatre. So I’ve been in this business my whole life. So I went off to college not knowing if I wanted to be an actor or do tech theater and I met a professor who convinced me I’d make more money as a set designer than I woul as an actor so I became a set designer. The funny thing, now that I know the way things work, I’m sure the professor was just trying to get bodies in his class. But it convinced me to become a set designer. So I got a BA in theater arts in Minnesota and then I got an MFA in theatrical design from Tulane in New Orleans. Went off to West Texas, to a very large community theater in Midland, TX. It had a professional staff, and was very similar to Theatre Memphis. And then I went to the Chattanooga Theatre Center in Chattanooga for five years. But I didn’t want to get stuck in community theater so I went out on my own and started doing a lot of work in Nashville. I did so much scenery production work for The Nashville Network and the Grand Old Opry.
That’s when the personalities on TNN were basically all the same folks who’d been broadcasting in Nashville for years. They basically moved their local TV programing to a national format. Like Ralph Emory…
Ralph Emory, Crook and Chase. The Nashville Network was great when it was local. But then it sold to CBS and then Westinghouse, and… After doing set design for 15-years I was getting itchy to change. I thought I could build a theater because I’d toured all over North America at that point and I’d been in a lot of theaters. So the Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit was looking for a project manager to come and help convert a 1922 movie theater into the Detroit Opera House. So in January 1994 me and my wife — who’d never lived outside the state of Tennessee — and my two daughters, who were young and had also never lived outside the state of Tennessee, moved off to Detroit in the middle of a blizzard.
I was born in Detroit. I’m thankful to live in a place where we don’t have very many blizzards.
Well, we intended to get the opera house open and move back to the South. Of course it took 21 years to get back. When the opera house opened they didn’t have anybody to run it, and I didn’t have a job. So I ran the opera house for three years and that’s how I segued into arts management from being a set designer. After three years of that they asked if I’d be managing director of the company, the Michigan Opera Theatre so I did that for five years. That’s when I was recruited to come and be the director for the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. I was there of 11-years. And then I was recruited to come here.
That’s a pretty circuitous route to The Orpheum.
I didn’t realize it until I signed up for Facebook and you have to put down the dates of your employment, but I moved to Chattanooga in 1984, I moved to Detroit in ‘94, I moved to Chicago in ‘04, and I probably would have left Chicago in ‘14 except it was the 125th Anniversary of the Auditorium Theatre and I wanted to get through the anniversary year. I’ve been a 10-year guy. But this job at the Orpheum is my last job and I’m going to be here more than 10-years because I’m not leaving Memphis. I am never moving again. I’m here until I become Pat Halloran and fade into the sunset.
I’m not entirely sure anybody can be Pat Halloran. But I think it’s especially interesting that you start out as a designer and a builder. I think technical people see the big picture a little differently.
Most of the arts administrators of my generation weren’t trained to be art administrators. Most of us were artists first. And I think that helps us because we can see the whole picture, and it helps us understand the needs of the artists. Now you can study arts administration in college and there’s a whole generation of artists administrators coming up who were never artists. It’s going to be interesting to see how that matures as a career that people actually train to do.
But, in addition to the usual performance-based classes, the Halloran Centre will also train in technical theatre.
Here’s what I want to do at the Halloran Centre. Learning to sing better or act better or dance better or even learning the tech theater part all happens in the training. But the purpose of arts education in my mind, is not to build better singers or dancers, but to build better people. So the curriculum we’re going to devise for the Halloran Centre is really only going to be about making a better Memphis and making better Memphians through arts education. And the byproduct of that will be that some of the students go on to become professional theater artists. Some may go on to great fame. But most who come through these programs are going to be better people and therefore better Memphians. That’s what we’re here for.
So you’re a 10-year-guy. That means every time you move you’ve got a whole new cultural and economic landscape to explore. What is the learning curve like?
The good news is that that the Orpheum’s structure is very similar to both the Auditorium and Michigan Opera Theatre. Budgetwise we’re very similar. The Orpheum is about $15-million, the Auditorium was $13-$17 million depending on the year. Michigan Opera Theatre was about 12-and-a-half-Million. So all are a similar size. And the governing structure with a board of directors is similar. So, all of that is pretty seamless. The learning curve is understanding the culture of an organization. Understanding the needs of the community. And understanding the funding community within the local market, which is slightly different in each city. The beauty of this job -- the challenge and the opportunity -- is The Halloran Centre. The organization created a business plan they used to fundraise, but now we have to put the pedal to the metal and figure out exactly what we’re going to do with it. How do we make it impactful, how do we make it relevant? How do we create an identity for both The Halloran Centre and The Orpheum? Because we’re one organization. Two buildings under the same umbrella.
Are there surprises in store with the added facility? I know the Auditorium had a resident company with the Joffrey Ballet. Could the Orpheum ever develop that kind of creative partnership, or will it remain, primarily, a presenting house?
I’d rather say, at this point anything and everything is on the table. What I can say definitively is that what Pat has built is not going to substantially change. We will continue to present the biggest and best in Broadway touring shows. We will continue to make the Orpheum available for concerts, and for community events, and all of the things Pat has done so successfully for 35-years. What I’m going to do is try to make the Orpheum more inclusive and more representative of the entire community. I’m going to try to make the Orpheum more integral to the fabric of Memphis. We’re going to try to build on what Pat did and take it higher.
In what ways? Is there anything specific you can discuss?
Let’s be blunt. Broadway is primarily an affluent white audience. So we have two challenges in Memphis, a city that’s largely African-American. One: How do we increase the African-American participation in Broadway. And how do we create program that is inviting and inclusive? There’s a book written by a friend of mine called, An Invitation to the Party. And it talks about how reaching ethnic communities is not as simple as traditional show business marketing where you put an ad in the paper and wait for people to buy tickets. It’s more about inviting them into the facility. To present programing of the highest quality that speaks to that community’s experience. That’s what we’ll be doing.