Playing His Parts

arts shakesWith Mike Ryan behind the scenes and on stage, Santa Cruz Shakespeare kicks off with ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

“It’s been a wild ride,” says actor Mike Ryan of the past year spent shepherding a large Shakespeare festival from one incarnation into the next. No stranger to playing many parts, Ryan currently acts (sorry) as Artistic Director of the transitional Santa Cruz Shakespeare festival—and will be performing in this season’s Much Ado About Nothing. Ryan admits that his current full plate of roles—festival organizer, public outreach, actor, artistic director—has been exciting in many ways. “There are so many new opportunities for growing the festival, for changing it and improving it,” Ryan says. Switching back and forth from acting to administrating, the native Oklahoman notes that he never expected to be an artistic director. “But when the university closed the festival, either I had to let it go or knuckle down and fight,” says Ryan. “And if you don’t knuckle down and fight for the things you love most, then what’s the point of it all?”

Marco Barricelli graciously agreed to give Ryan some on-the-job training by sharing the responsibilities of Artistic Director during the festival’s last year. Now with Barricelli in the role of UC San Diego professor, Ryan is the solo act at the Festival’s helm. “Definitely a switch from acting,” he grins. Grinning is something Ryan does brilliantly.

“As an actor, I have to respond to fellow actors, to the director. The hardest part as an artistic director, actually, is not taking control—it’s relinquishing control,” he says. But he also admits that his heightened profile as a well-known actor has helped with other necessary tasks, such as fundraising.

“There’s always a new challenge in the theater,” he adds. “That’s what drew me to acting. Every day is new. Ultimately it’s about how to bring more and more of yourself to your art.” For Ryan, personal honesty is the key to acting. “Of course in the beginning of your career there’s value in emulating great actors,” he says. “But when you’ve acquired enough tools, then you can mine your own experience.”

Originally, Ryan wanted to be a lawyer. “My dad was a lawyer, but I fell into acting, and then I got obsessed with acting,” he says. However fun and easy it all looks, Ryan insists it’s not all play. “It’s a tremendous amount of work,” he says. “It’s hard and scary and requires great vulnerability. I really believe that for any civilization to work, we have to have a well-developed sense of empathy. That’s the glue of civilization, being able to put ourselves in the place of others. And that’s what theater does,” he says, his eyes crinkling eloquently, for emphasis. “In addition, the work is valuable and important. Acting has enriched my life immeasurably.”

Looking forward to a directing gig next year with Jewel Theatre, Ryan speculates that it definitely helps to have been an actor when working with other actors. “But as a director you have to think about all the actors, all the roles, not just the single focus of one character,” he says. “You have to guide the story-telling of the ensemble. You’re essentially guiding, weaving a living tapestry.”

A master of many Shakespearean roles, Ryan learns parts the old fashioned way. “Repetition, repetition, repetition,” he says. “I believe in moving around while learning the lines—getting the lines fully in my body. If you know why you’re saying something, you’ll be able to remember it. It’s about intention—not memorization.” To play a character, “you essentially have to reveal, to pull away parts of yourself that aren’t right for the role. It’s never about adding gestures, costumes, that sort of thing.”

The great thing about theater, says Ryan, is that everyone brings something to the creation. “It’s a living art form.”
Any roles he hasn’t yet tackled? With a saucy smile Ryan reveals, “Benedick has been on my list for a long time.” How coincidental! When Much Ado About Nothing—in which sparring lovers Beatrice and Benedick endure both wit and trickery—opens next month, Mike Ryan will be playing Benedick.

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ runs June 30-Aug. 30 in the Festival Glen at UCSC. Go to for details, or call the ticket office at 459-2159.

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