Local actor brings talent, humor to life's stage

Thursday March 8, 2012

BENNINGTON -- They say that all fine actors have one thing in common: An expressive face -- a face that shows humor, or horror, without saying a word. Doug Ryan has a very expressive face.

Ryan's face says as much as his words, whether he is silently bouncing around a Chekhov farce, turning from quiet fear to explosive anger in an Albee plot twister, or -- as in the current Theater Company at Hubbard Hall's production of Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana" -- taking a darkly serious turn on stage.

As with the Janus face of actors, the smile and the frown are two sides of the same face.

"Humor is a skill (that he has learned) ... after 10 years at Hubbard Hall, I can pat myself on my back and say ‘I can be funny'," Ryan said in an interview this week, after a day at work at the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. "But I feel that the artist thing to do is to still approach something with a veil of ignorance, like I am the last person in the room to see me as being funny."

And showing his serious side, he says, is something he now finds new and challenging.

"I had a really hard time (getting into this current role), in a way it is the hardest thing I have ever done, the role is not easy; he is a passionate person, he is a suicidal person, a recovering alcoholic person," he said. "All these things that are not my issues."

But it is not that he has no experience with persons struggling through life, as he will sometimes reveal.

While Ryan seems fairly shy on first glance and often holds his words tightly, once comfortable, the stories flow from him like perfect ad lib lines. He talks about his upbringing -- the source of his natural humor and, equally important to his acting, natural understanding of the dark side of life. He also talks about how his work in the medical field impacts, and is impacted by, his acting ability.

He grew up in New York City, moved to Vermont to follow his future wife to Bennington College, and decided to make this area his home. But his formative years are what made him an actor.

"My father (Terry Ryan) was a comedy writer; my father wrote for ‘Sgt. Bilko'," and other television shows, "so I was pretty much raised that if you did not have something funny to say, don't say anything at all," Ryan said. "I was pretty much raised to be funny but, at the same time, he found his job incredibly stressful. The show moved to L.A., and we stayed in New York and he started to have some health issues.

"I had this sort of double thing, the only thing I was raised to do was to be funny, but I saw the stress of it."

That humor, and hardship, have been a key part of his life in the theatre.

Ryan has acted in more than 20 plays as part of the Theater Company at Hubbard Hall, starting in 2000, he said, with "Talk," a play written by Matt Swan, another alum of Bennington College; he graduated in 1996, with a degree in drama. The play was also directed by a Bennington graduate and, he said, he auditioned, got the part, and "things just went from there."

Most people know him as a very funny man, who can both make you laugh with his words and without saying a word.

But earlier this winter, in the Edward Albee short play "The Zoo Story," Ryan played a character that seemed humorously deadpan right up the point when he explodes and takes matters -- and a killer's knife -- into his own hands.

In ‘The Night of the Iguana," Ryan takes his serious turn to another level entirely.

In the play, one of Williams' lesser-known plays made famous by a film starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner, Ryan takes on the role of disgraced clergyman Lawrence T. Shannon, barred from his church for "heresy and fornication," yet surrounded by temptation as he travels with a busload of women tourists to a dilapidated resort hotel in Mexico in September of 1940; war is as imminent to the world as a breakdown is to Shannon.

"The role is not like Richard Burton, I am not going to use that brooding intensity," Ryan said. "We decided to do it with an accent and when we did that, I was able to let go of Burton ... that left, and it became my role. You might find my Reverend Shannon a little sweeter than in the movie version."

Ryan's serious turn is his doing, surely, but TCHH's artistic director John Hadden, who also directs "The Night of the Iguana," has his fingerprints all over the change in the actor's body of work.

Ryan "is so comfortable as a comic ... he is so special ... but we both feel he needs to work on more serious roles," Hadden said of his actor and friend. "He is such a great guy, a family guy and part of the community, but such a great actor. He was a big draw for me (to lead HHTC), I feel so comfortable with him."

Ryan also seems comfortable with where his life has taken him.

He has worked at the hospital for about 10 years, as does his wife, Kitsey Canaan; the two have two children and live in North Bennington. He has held several positions at the hospital; currently he is a phlebotomist (drawing blood for tests, usually).

He also finds that his acting ability bleeds a little into his work at the hospital.

"You walk into a room, and you have one personae if it is a little kid you are going to draw blood from ... I do feel like my customers are an audience and I want to give them an experience that makes them feel comfortable," he said. "They are like an acting partner -- you have to read them and try to give them an experience that's as positive as can be. For me that feels like a little performance."

And, you know, who doesn't want a little humor to be mixed in with your hospital visit?

K.D. Norris can be contacted at knorris@benningtonbanner.com, or follow or tweet him on Twitter at banner_arts_KD

Hubbard Hall is located at 25 E. Main St. "The Night of the Iguana" will play Fridays and Saturdays, at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $24 and $14 for students. For tickets and information call 518-677-2495 or visit hubbardhall.org. Sunday matinees will be followed by audience "talk-backs" with the actors and the director.


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