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Conversations with Ryan Hartley

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ryan Hartley.

Hi Ryan, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
I became fascinated by theater at the age of three or four. My earliest memories are of watching touring musicals and theme park entertainment – which is funny to me now because those were the specific modes of performance I pursued after college. I think I was always a director. My imagination was overflowing with kinetic images, but I didn’t know I was directing in my mind until I was a teenager. It was then that I started to understand that directing was something you could focus on. About ten years ago, I realized I was outgrowing my gigs directing for high school students and performing for Disney. I decided to pivot toward the contemporary non-musical theater. This pivot paralleled a larger season of change in my life, as I came to terms with my sexuality and the isolation of my upbringing. I started a journey of discovering the contemporary theatrical voices that speak intimately to me. I jumped back into training. Although the COVID-19 pandemic was personally devastating, I was able to use that time to slow down and dive deep into the underpinnings of my practice, something I’m still doing today. My theater laboratory, The New Cosmopolitans, was developed during this period. I’m excited and grateful to be opening my first fully-staged new play as a director – ‘Gummy Worm’ by Nathaniel Foster – at the 2022 Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Following your own authenticity is never easy in a society driven by mindless capitalism. Theater is a field that is so deeply necessary to our emotional development. It also doesn’t fit well into the capitalist model. (Perhaps no artistic field truly fits into the capitalist model.) Financial privilege has long been an unspoken qualifier of theatrical success. Many learning opportunities (internships, graduate programs, etc.) and jobs for theater artists aren’t financially accessible. Conversations about this have come to the forefront over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, but not much has changed yet. From my perspective, coming from a background that was both homophobic and financially underprivileged, I’ve had a lot of work to do in reclaiming my voice as an artist and figuring out how to physically survive as an artist. This is slow, painful work. It means I haven’t been able to move forward as quickly as some colleagues. It means understanding that certain opportunities are not for me. I’m still working on accepting these realities, and ultimately, I’m grateful for the lessons in self-acceptance and mindfulness. I trust that my struggles (and we all have them) will yield results, as I hope for a shift in culture.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I find myself drawn to dialogic, postmodern theater. This means that multiple points of view are put forward and the audience is left to consider what the play provokes in them. This can take many forms, of course. In my current project – ‘Gummy Worm’ – playwright Nathaniel Foster has asked us to consider reproductive rights (among other things) from the perspective of contemporary rural-suburban teens in a politically conservative environment. I respond on a cellular level to the nuances and ambiguities in this kind of drama, especially at this moment in our history. It takes a balance of skepticism and empathy. I respond viscerally to the works of Jordan Tannahill, Steve Yockey, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Caryl Churchill, and Jen Silverman, among others – intellectually engaged writers who are unafraid to by messy, controversial, and form-defying. These writers push me as a director and artist. I also love some juicy complicated gay content that goes beyond old tropes of abuse and decay. It’s still very necessary for sexuality to be politicized, sadly, but I do love it when gay/queer characters are portrayed as having conflicts that don’t revolve around their sexual identity.

I’m proud of my ability to build trust with my actors and creative partners. I’m not a didactic director. I initially trained in a more didactic style, and for several years I struggled to understand why it wasn’t working for me. Through trial and error (and embracing vulnerability) I’ve taken a much more ensemble-focused approach, which is still evolving. This approach, I hope, is evident in the ethos of my theater laboratory, The New Cosmopolitans, under which I initiate my theater projects in collaboration with my colleagues.

What were you like growing up?
I was a very imaginative, precocious child. I was always drawing and planning out some fantastic theatrical world. I was also very musical – not necessarily as a musician, though I studied piano – but internally very very driven by music. I learned how to read from a young age, so books provided a fair amount of fodder for my imagination. As an adult, I have been working to reclaim and create from the impulses I experienced as a child.

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Image Credits
Ryan Hartley, Nicole Ohara

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