Ryan has the distinction of being the first theatre artist I ever met in Vancouver, back when we were both toiling away in the same crappy hotel, except that he would start the graveyard shift just as I was leaving my bar shift, and he’d finish as the sun was coming up, to spend the rest of the day on his theatrical passions. He never slept, as far as I could tell, and I still harbour suspicions that he may be a vampire. He remains one of the rare individuals who truly keeps the faith and just keeps on making theatre, no matter what. He is an inspiration. Ryan is an actor, director and photographer, he trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and is a former member of their Repertory Company. He has directed and acted in over 30 plays. TV credits include the series John Doe, Just Cause, Peacemakers, Da Vinci’s Inquest, and The Masters Of Horror. Commercials include Nintendo Brain Age, Ensure, and BCAA. He is a resident director of First Impressions Theatre, operating out of the Deep Cove Shaw Theatre.
1.) In one word, describe your present condition.
Searching (or starving, depending on the day…)
2.) Give us your view on the current state of Vancouver theatre.
The independent scene in film and theatre is flourishing, and (as usual) generally impoverished. The main stages I find are sporadically interesting, but perhaps catering to the middle of the road too heavily. The riskier and most interesting work I find is in the independents and small theatres, and because they usually have the lower budgets, they have to rely on the commitment of the artists involved. And because there’s not a lot of money there, the actors, directors, and entire staff are there for the sheer love of it, which as a rule reads loud and clear on stage, and is one of the greatest joys of live theatre. A friend and mentor once described the Church as a place to be one with God, and the theatre as a place to be one with being human. That’s what I truly love to see, the audience and performers meeting in the middle, and glorying in the messy and beautiful business of being human.
3.) What are the positives of putting up theatre out in Deep Cove? The Negatives?
The Deep Cove area is perhaps one of the most picturesque and peaceful areas in the Lower Mainland, and I find it a very conducive area to create. Inspiration is all around. And we have a fairly small, but incredibly supportive audience base. The negative is trying to build appreciation and excitement for a theatre that, although its located only 8 minutes by car from the Second Narrows bridge, is viewed as being “too far away”. I’ve spent longer looking for parking around the Stanley!
4.) To what extent do the tastes of your regular audience factor into your choice of material?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that the producers, Eileen and Michael Smith of First Impressions Theatre, have been willing to take some interesting chances with me. Their main concern is that it be watchable! They even OK’d a show I directed where the first half hour is (apparently) a silent dismemberment of a murder victim in a bathtub, done to Beethovens “Ode To Joy” (“Murderer” by Peter Shaeffer) The blood budget on THAT show was high, and I managed to gather a complaint letter and more than a few walkouts. On the whole we try to balance a season out with risks and safer audience pleasers.
5.) What changes need to be made within the Vancouver theatre community to increase its viability?
There are challenges in Vancouver that we can’t do anything about. For example, in an area as beautiful and vibrant as Vancouver can be, we are frequently competing with God. Tough to get someone to sit in a chair when they’ve just spent the morning skiing, the afternoon kayaking in the sun, and the evening having dinner on a patio somewhere. Another is the emphasis on film and television in Vancouver, which seems to lead to theatre occasionally being seen as the poor cousin. So to combat that, in my opinion, greater co-operation between the smaller companies in promoting the work would help. Creating excitement about what we all do and what we all offer should be paramount. Frequently, there’s a “us vs. them” attitude which only serves to fracture us apart, when we should be doing everything possible to help each other. A hit for one small company means that that audience is willing to gamble their hard earned free time and money on another show by a small company. When one wins, we all win. Also in my opinion, more small theatre spaces would be an asset. Not every show requires the wing space of the Playhouse. I find Boca Del Lupo’s use of spaces in public very interesting for example.
6.) How important is formal training in actor development, and where should the emphasis lie?
Up until the middle 1800’s, there was no such thing as formal training, you apprenticed. So the entire “formal training” question still nags at me, even though I went off and got some! One of my dreams is to open and run a training theatre someday.
On the whole, any training is better than none, as long as it gives you the tools to attack a role. Acting techniques, movement techniques, and (surprisingly frequently ignored) vocal techniques. And as well, it should push you to a greater understanding of yourself. After all, that’s what you build the characters you play out of, so hadn’t one best make the most of what one has?
The positive of formal training is that it creates a very focused environment to begin developing a personal discipline, and that the above techniques are generally covered during it. That’s something that workshop training can’t deliver by its very definition.
7.) What do you wish you could tell yourself when you first started in professional theatre here?
Breathe deep, and don’t worry about the small stuff. And never, ever believe that because you work in small theatres, the work is small. I never realized that until I did a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, and practically lived in London’s West End afterwards, and saw that we have nothing to apologize for here.
8.) Weigh the theatre artist’s responsibility to develop new work against his/her responsibility to re-produce great established plays?
They actually go hand in hand. An appreciation of the traditional rules gives an appreciation of when to break them. Learning from the greats allows one to use that knowledge to help build NEW greatness. Which is truly a heck of a lot of fun.
9.) What is the critic’s role in the business of a theatre company?
An educated critic is a great benefit. True greatness in criticism is a goad to push the artists farther. When the critic can go further into the work, and analyze the play from the outside of the production, the view from the audience can be very educational. Finding that level in criticism is difficult. I’ve always believed that criticism is necessary, I just don’t read them until closing night :)
10.) What are your top three reads for the aspiring theatre artist?
1. “A Treasury Of The Art Of Living” by Rabbi Sidney Goldberg. – A collection of sayings and quotes from the great people in history, on a ton of subjects. You’re going to have days in this industry where you’re raw, and bloody. Reading the thoughts of others who’ve been whacked around by life can be very heartening at those times. This is my personal “band aid” book.
2. “Standing Naked In The Wings” or “Exit Through The Fireplace” – Both of these (1 Canadian and 1 English) tell stories of frequent hilarity of life in the theatre. When they drop the lights on you at the top of your big monologue, going home and reading the stories can soothe the pain.
3. The play “Noises Off” by Michael Frayn. We laugh because its funny, and we laugh because its true….
4. (Yes, I know you asked for 3) “Charles Jehlinger In Rehearsal” by Eleanor Cody Gould. If you know anyone who went to the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts, one of the books they gave me when I attended was a collection of the catchphrases of Charles Jehlinger, the first great acting teacher there. Steal it from them ;) The quotes range from the 20’s till the 50’s, and are still relevant to those working on the stage today. Its tough to top the advice “Listen, and it will all handle itself”.
11.) What’s next?
I’ll be workshopping a play in the fall for a young playwright who’s just finished some rewrites called “The Sign At The End Of The World” Then, looking to get out on stage again.
“There are challenges in Vancouver that we can’t do anything about. For example, in an area as beautiful and vibrant as Vancouver can be, we are frequently competing with God.”
This reminds me of something I read recently (and please forgive me because I’ve forgotten the source). Basically, and to weakly paraphrase, theatre is not in competition with television and film; theatre is in competition with everything – from video games and newspapers to bars and beautiful sunsets.
In realizing this, we lose the easy bad guy (the monolith of mainstream movies and TV), but we gain in that we can move forward and stop wasting our time wondering why people would rather go see The Matrix Revolutions than coming to our one-man show. It’s a false dilemma.
Thanks, Ryan, for calling it out.
All true, theatre is in competition with everything, and nothing more than the general public’s indifference to it. I believe (I have to) that Vancouver right now is a latent theatre town, one that will buzz about it if contemporary, identifiable theatre becomes cheap and plentiful, and marketed well. It’s been proven that it’s not enough to rent a theatre, email your dates to the few free listing publications, and put on your show. It’s time for a new model if we ever expect theatre to once again be “hip”.
Great interview, another inspiring artist in the land of mountains. Keep up the struggle, it’s insight like this that ingnites thought and motivates the soul.