Youth Spotlight: Actor/Playwright Ryan Gray
By ANGELA WAMPLER | A! MAGAZINE FOR THE ARTS | January 26, 2011This month the Theatre Department at Virginia Intermont College (VIC) will premiere Backstabbers, written and directed by Ryan Gray from Chilhowie, Va. Ryan is a star-struck senior at VIC, where he is pursuing degrees in both theatre and art. Originally from Ohio, he has lived in Southwest Virginia since he was very young.
Backstabbers is the third play Gray has composed. His Christmas in Windham Heights was a finalist in Barter Theatre's Young Playwrights Festival in 2005, and Jeremy's Rainbow was presented by Chilhowie High School in 2007.
Ryan's creative talents know no bounds. In addition to being an accomplished actor, singer and dancer, he is also a talented playwright and scenic artist. Other areas in which he has made contributions are logo design, sound design, props master, choreographer, publicist, and carpenter.
Of particular delight to his directors and fellow cast members are the caricatures he creates for each show, as well as the scenes he paints on our green room wall for everyone to sign. In this way we have a colorful history of our performances which we all cherish.
Backstabbers is Ryan's ninth production at VIC. Previously he appeared in VIC's Leading Ladies, SNOOPY!!! the Musical, Off the Beaten Path, Magic and Mystery, Singular "Sin"-sations, Rumors, Little Women: The Musical, and most recently in Almost, Maine.
Ryan has also appeared in The Wizard of Oz and Snow White with the Missoula Children's Theatre on tour in Marion, Va. He has served as a performer and scenic artist for the Royal Oak Players of Marion, Va., and he spent one summer working backstage at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va.
In the future, he hopes to return to Barter Theatre. He also dreams of landing a gig on Broadway in such musicals as Hairspray, Wicked, West Side Story, The Fantasticks and Mamma Mia!
A Conversation with Ryan Gray
Why did you choose the arts?
The arts have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I can still recall lying in front of the television with a stack of paper and a box of crayons drawing anything that came into my mind. Growing up, I was a very imaginative person. I was a bit of an outsider because I was always off in my own little world. When I was 13, I got my first art gig by illustrating the book In the Shadow of Unaka by local author Doris Wallin. I was ecstatic for being chosen to do the job.
When I wasn't drawing, painting, or writing stories I would drag out lots of random objects from my basement and go out into the backyard and present shows and scenes that I would make up. Sometimes I would re-enact scenes from some of my favorite books and movies by putting my own little spin on them. Although I rarely had an audience, except for the family pets, I still found joy and inspiration in being creative and different.
In school I was always doodling in my notebooks and would always immerse myself in my art and drama classes. They provide an escape for me.
Another reason why I chose to make the arts my lifelong passion is because I want to give the feeling of fascination and joy to others who view my work. I like to ignite an emotional response in a person. When someone shakes my hand after a long, hard performance and says that I made them laugh and cry, I feel like I have done my job, and that's all that matters. The audience is my life source. I always want to give them more.
When I graduate, there are so many things I dream of doing. I plan on staying local for a while by finding work at a local theatre or art gallery. I am absolutely in love with New York City. Every time I go there, I feel reborn, and I hope that someday down the road I will be up there in the middle of Broadway and all of the great museums. I believe in my favorite song lyric, "The dreams that you dare to dream really do come true."
Have you appeared in high school or community theatre productions? or worked behind the scenes there or with Barter Theatre?
In high school, I appeared in numerous one-act productions and attended many high school play festivals and forensics competitions. Also, I've been involved with my church's holiday programs and the Royal Oak Players. My junior year I attended Virginia Highlands's Summer Governor's School for play analysis and production and learned all about theatrical history and writing styles.
While I was still in high school, The Missoula Children's Theatre, which comes through Marion, Va., on tour every summer, cast me as the Tin Man in their version of The Wizard of Oz and as the Queen's Henchman in Snow White. That was my first professional experience as a young actor, and I had a fabulous time.
Last summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to work backstage as a spotlight operator and props assistant for The Barter Players musical A Year with Frog and Toad. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed working with such a talented and fun company. Doing technical work is a whole new world, but doing it at Barter really opened up my eyes to everything that must be done offstage to make the magic happen. It's such an adventure!
How have you evolved on and off stage — as an actor, scenic artist, logo designer, props master, publicist, etc.?
Being both a visual and performing artist has made me into a stronger and much more open person than what I used to be. I'm not afraid to be in front of large crowds anymore, and I have been blessed with confidence and patience, which to me are the things that the arts revolve around. Onstage, I have never felt better. It is where I connect with life. It gives me absolute happiness and pure, intense joy. Offstage, I still feel that adrenaline — whether I'm sitting in front of a computer creating a logo, mixing paint for a set, or rummaging through the props department. The work involved has also provided discipline, which has helped me really commit to what I do, because commitment is the key to being successful in any field.
Have you had private lessons in singing or dancing or acting?
When it comes to voice lessons, I have had the pleasure of working with Charlotte Anderson during my years at VI. As far as acting, I have worked intensely with my professors, Bonny Gable and Melanie Barton, who have helped me reach emotions I never thought existed. Theatre is all about discovery, and my instructors have really been a delight in helping me make those discoveries. James Quesenberry and Will Hankins, two of my technical directors, make set construction very entertaining. I've also had training in stage combat, and I enjoy giving someone a fake slap on the face. Dancing is still a new area for me, and I took advantage of the dance courses my college has to offer. Last year I was involved in a modern and contemporary dance class. This year I decided to tackle the art of tap dancing. The fact that I am 6'3" makes it quite humorous and challenging, but I know I can do it.
Tell us about the plays you've been writing.
I get ideas from unexpected objects and people and create my plots around them. The first play I wrote was a 10-minute drama called Christmas in Windham Heights, about a small American town in the 1930s that raises money for a local family. Windham Heights was based on the people and places found in the large Christmas village I set up in my home every year during the holidays. That's when I decided to pursue playwriting further.
When I was a senior at Chilhowie High School, I wrote, directed and appeared in my second play, Jeremy's Rainbow. This play was more dramatic than the first, mainly because of its story of a mentally challenged teenager growing up in a dysfunctional family. The week after the show premiered, I was suspended from school for a day because some parents questioned the language and themes the play dealt with, which surprised me. In a way, I'm proud that it happened because it showed everyone that I don't hold back in my writing.
What inspires you as a young playwright?
I get inspiration from everything, mostly real life experiences and things I've witnessed or gone through growing up. A lot of my writing deals with youth and the trials and tribulations they go through. I like to explore the complexities of real people and investigate their thoughts and actions. I love to incorporate references to personal things I enjoy in life, whether it's a reference to a movie, song, book, or person that has impacted me. I make my own interests the character's interests. I'm considering tackling a possible musical that's all about my job at Food City, which has gotten a lot of laughs from my co-workers. On a slow workday, I like to burst out into song and dance and turn the store into a Broadway set. Although it's still a funny little idea in the back of my mind, I like to imagine the words Food City: The Musical shining bright in the middle of Times Square. Hey, anything is possible.
What famous writers or actors have influenced you?
As far as writers, I really enjoy the works of Anton Chekhov, Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Oscar Wilde. Shakespeare is one of my more complex inspirations; some of his works really speak to me. When it comes to visual artists, I am all about Andy Warhol, Claude Monet, Jackson Pollock, Picasso, and Al Hirschfeld. I adore all artists, classical and modern. It's hard to choose specific actors to talk about because there are so many to name, but I have been deeply moved by such legends as Julie Andrews, Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Mickey Rooney, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, and Ray Bolger. I have been greatly impacted by Judy Garland because her story provides hope around the world. She overcame so many obstacles and still brought an audience to their feet. Some of my modern favorites include Meryl Streep, Jack Black, and John Goodman. Idina Menzel, who originated the role of Elphaba in the musical Wicked is an extraordinary singer whose voice demonstrates the power of a song. And I gotta say that The Beatles, Janis Joplin, and Barbra Streisand are the best.
Backstabbers is the play that you most recently penned, and the one that you are directing at VIC in February.
Being a director is exciting. I love working with other actors and seeing my story come to life. When the cast was modeling their costumes, I almost cried because it's such a dream come true to see my characters brought to life. I'll never forget it. Backstabbers revolves around a group of popular, socially elite students on their prom night. I basically wanted to illustrate the fact that nobody is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. Backstabbers was written as a comedy and should be treated as such, but it can be considered a drama as well, because every comedy has its serious side. The audience is introduced to self-absorbed characters who act like they have no problems in the world, but when you look more closely, you realize that they all have struggles underneath their glossy exteriors. No matter what a person's status is in the school or in their community, they can't escape their problems until they fix them. I think that's why so many people are fascinated by members of the "in" crowd that we all knew growing up. The ones who always had the perfect hair, perfect clothes, perfect house, perfect everything. Backstabbers makes fun of the ridiculous behavior that popular students portray. It's almost like a Comedy of Manners — everything is really shiny and overdone, which adds to the fun. It also deals with the damaging effects that gossip and rumors have on people and how a single secret can turn one's life completely upside down. I also wanted to address serious issues that many young people go through, like teen partying, underage drinking, and unstable relationships.
>> Performances of Backstabbers are February 10, 11, and 12 at 7:30 p.m. in the Fine Arts Center Theatre on the VIC campus. Tickets are $5.
One of Ryan's favorite roles was Snoopy.