In January, Ryan Knowles responded to an audition breakdown: tall, thin, deep voice, good with improv for the role of Caligula in Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner’s Off-Broadway production of CALIGULA MAXIMUS. Knowles said, “If I had to write a description of myself, it would have been what they were looking for with Caligula. I really wasn’t nervous. The audition went well, and I was off and running.”
For his star turn in the title role of CALIGULA MAXIMUS, which recently ended its twice extended run at the Ellen Stewart Theatre on April 17th, Knowles (Disney’s Aladdin, Nickelodeon’s ME:TV) is riding high on the best reviews of his career. Preisser and Weiner’s CALIGULA MAXIMUS , an outrageous theatrical extravaganza, combining elements of a circus, a play with music, and a nightclub installation, was for Ryan Knowles and the 30-plus cast, a “marathon” and an “erotic rollercoaster ride”.
Lauren Wissot of TheaterOnline.com referred to Knowles as Mick Jagger-resembling…A charismatic performer,” while Dan Bacalzo of Theatermania.com said, Knowles takes control of the stage…A dynamic presence…appropriately seedy charisma. He also has a deep baritone which he utilizes to good effect.” “[The producers] wisest decision is the casting of Ryan Knowles. He carries the entire production on his slim shoulders, imbuing [it] with charisma, intelligence, tenderness, and a sense of irony, said Backstage’s Clifford Lee Johnson II. NYTheatre.com’s Mark Roberson said, “Ryan Knowles is perfect! A Jagger-Hedwig hybrid, Knowles hits all the right moments!”
A commercial run of Preisser and Weiner’s CALIGULA MAXIMUS is in development, and will be produced by Stephen Pevner, Hammerstein & Weiner, LLC, Christopher McElroen, Alfred Preisser and Kingsize, USA. Stayed tuned to http://www.caligulamaximus.com.
Actor, singer, comedian Knowles is no stranger to the art of transformation. He recently played Brenda, the Wicked Witch of the Westside, in the National Tour of OZ: The Musical, written and directed by Todrick Hall (American Idol), and was recruited by Disney to portray “The Genie” in Disney’s Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular, directed by Francesca Zambello (The Little Mermaid), a role for which he wrote his own material. He has starred in everything from musical comedy to children’s television; feature films to stand-up comedy. Off-Broadway, Knowles originated the roles of “Nick Bottom” in the hit Shakespeare musical Fools In Love at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre and “Prospero” in Tempest: The Musical at the Cherry Lane Theatre, for which he co-wrote and adapted the book from Shakespeare’s original with composer Daniel Neiden, working with concept author Thomas Meehan (Annie, Hairspray, The Producers). On television, Knowles brought his comic appeal to millions of children nationwide every weekday as a host on Nickelodeon’s live 2-hour program Me:TV. On film, Knowles portrayed the demonic villain in Holedigger Films’ 2009 supernatural thriller Camp Hope. As a Stand-Up Comedian, he became the first American in history to win the WUDA World Championship in Stand-Up Comedy in Glasgow, Scotland. Aside from performing, Knowles is also the author of 5 plays and musicals and co-founder of INTERPROD, a national theatre institute and production company.
In June, the award-winning actor and playwright will debut his first solo show, DIG & BE DUG: The Gospel of Lord Buckley, at the Gene Frankel Theatre (24 Bond St.) from June 3-15, 2010, as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity in New York. Written and performed by Knowles and helmed by David Kraft, DIG & BE DUG: The Gospel of Lord Buckley is the inaugural New York production of INTERPROD THEATRE.
The production features musical arrangements by Peter Saxe, projection design by David Kraft, illustrations and graphic design by Dan Mazanec, costume design by Ryan Knowles, sound design by Luqman Brown and stage management by Mike Yrigoyen.
On a sunny afternoon in April, Knowles and I sat down on the steps of The New York Public Library to chat about his new show DIG & BE DUG: The Gospel of Lord Buckley, produced by INTERPROD THEATRE, a production company he co-founded with David Kraft, and his experience with CALIGULA MAXIMUS.
You recently reigned as the roman emperor Caligula in Preisser and Weiner’s CALIGULA MAXIMUS at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre. How will playing Lord Buckley be different from playing Caligula?
Knowles: How won’t it? (Laughs.) I mean, there are some similarities between the two shows, in that each is about an extraordinary personality who actually existed and each are about 75 minutes long. But the similarities stop there. Caligula is an outrageous and fun character, sure, but he’s also evil and despicable. He’s only likable in the sense that he’s an abstract entity that exists only in that theatre netherworld. If he lived next door to you and your family, I don’t think you’d welcome him to the neighborhood. Whereas with Buckley, the story of his life, career and message are extremely likable, relatable and inspiring. He’s the kind of performer that is easy to listen to and watch. You immediately feel as if this guy is onto something. It’ll be a fantastic challenge to try to create that feeling in the context of this show. I’m looking forward to it.
Who is Lord Buckley and what is your fascination with him?
Knowles: Lord Buckley was a show business original; a pioneer of comedic and jazz performance, a revolution in spoken word so ahead of his time that, sadly, he is nearly forgotten today. We’re talking about the man who inspired Lenny Bruce and countless other legends of comedy and music. He was the rare breed of performer who needed to do what he did, regardless of money or attention: he had a Gospel to preach, and he testified his message of Hipness wherever he found an audience. I just love this man’s work. Buckley’s brand of entertainment is a thought-provoking spoken art that continues to inspire. Something occurred to me when I discovered him completely by chance on YouTube. There is very little footage of him actually performing. I’ve been ripping off this guy’s act and never knew it. Similar in two ways, his act blends two personas, his British Lord, which is his ostensible persona, speaking with a faux British accent. He comes from LA. His other persona is a southern black preacher, jazz man, and hipster. It was never a racial impersonation, but more of a cultural incarnation.
Why write and perform your own one man show?
Knowles: It’s actually something I’ve consciously avoided doing for a while. When I first came to the city, for the first few years of my urban incubation, it seemed that every actor and performer in the city had a solo show. Big stars, nobodies, everyone had some gimmicky vehicle that ostensibly played to their strengths. I saw an incredible amount of them. Some, brilliant. Most, not so much. So I didn’t just want to do a one-man show for the sake of doing a one-man show. The pitfall, I think, in doing a solo show, by its very nature, is that it doesn’t take a lot for it to become masturbatory. It’s the whole “vanity project” angle to some solo shows that is a big turnoff for me regarding the genre. There needs to be another reason, besides self-promotion, to do a solo show. I discovered Lord Buckley a while ago and have felt a sort of artistic kinship with him. Though we’re by no means similar in most regards, I feel that our shtick is in sync. And I find it criminal that this brilliant man is not better known today. But the thing you notice, what I’ve found in talking to people about Dig & Be Dug, is that the people who do know Lord Buckley can’t stop talking about him. They worship the guy. To know him is to love him. So, I’m trying to get more people to make His Lordship’s acquaintance. Buckley seemed to represent the idea that it is just as important for people to dig the messenger as it is for them to dig the message. He held an affection for his audience that was palpable and he seemed to make every performance more than a passive entertainment, but a visceral celebration of that affection. That’s the kind of feeling I aim toward creating in a theatre. And that’s why I wrote this show.
Aside from Lord Buckley, who are some of your inspirations?
Knowles: The things I enjoy, the people that inspire me, are usually a mix of the classic and the new. When it comes to comedy, I can’t get enough of legends like Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Eddie Cantor; on the flipside I think Trey Parker, Matt Stone and “South Park” are about as funny as it gets. To get a little more obscure, my biggest comedic influence would have to be a guy named Phil Hendrie. He’s a brilliant comedic radio performer who invented a type of entertainment he calls “Theatre of the Mind.” He’s nearly impossible to describe yet amazing to behold. I seem to like anything that takes a classic form, a knowledge and respect for what came before it, and turns it on its ear, bringing something entirely new to the existing creative context.
What are your plans for DIG & BE DUG after the run at the Gene Frankel Theatre?
Knowles: David Kraft and I are talking about doing a mini tour of DIG & BE DUG –Ft. Lauderdale, Miami and Orlando – in August or September. We are also thinking of taking it to California and Chicago next year. The idea is to do it in a small version in New York, take it on the road, it changes and it grows. Then we’ll bring it back to New York to play in an Off Broadway house.
As a production in the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, DIG AND BE DUG, will be benefiting a charity. Which organization have you chosen and why?
Knowles: Myself and director David Kraft, as well as our production company INTERPROD Theatre, are thrilled to be benefiting CityMeals-on-Wheels, a spectacular organization that I’ve admired for years. We’re still in the planning stages, but we intend on having benefit performances, a special event to raise funds and awareness for CityMeals-on-Wheels, as well as offering information on the organization in our show materials and during the production’s run. Lord Buckley was someone that cared for and about his fellow man. He toured with the USO, gave his talent and passion to countless causes and benefits, and preached a hip Gospel of love and human harmony. I think it is quite fitting that the world premiere of DIG & BE DUG be done with a similar social conscious and charitable spirit.
What will you take away from your experience with CALIGULA MAXIMUS?
Knowles: I take with me the knowledge that I should be doing exactly what I’m doing. Actors doubt themselves all the time. In my experience, you wonder because this is so hard. It’s not easy to pursue acting in New York, much less anywhere. Doing this production of CALIGULA MAXIMUS has emboldened me. I feel I am on the right path doing exactly what I ought to be doing and headed in the right direction. I am completely emboldened for the future, my future. How can you not be having played that role? Everything about it is exciting.
Performances for DIG & BE DUG: THE GOSPEL OF LORD BUCKLEY, at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St. in New York are:
Thursday 6/3 @ 5pm
Sunday 6/6 @ 1:30 pm
Monday 6/7 @ 7:15 pm
Saturday 6/12 @ 9:30 pm
Tuesday 6/15 @ 7 pm
Tickets are $18 and can be purchased online at www.planetconnectionsfestivity.com.
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