From the ground up

Kevin Ryan is Island Theatre Workshop’s multitasking leader.

Kevin Ryan, artistic director of Island Theatre Workshop. — Gabrielle Mannino

Kevin Ryan is a homegrown Island theater guy. He’s been a vital member of the Martha’s Vineyard community since arriving in 1990 and, for most of that time, actively involved with Island Theatre Workshop.

With no previous training, Ryan’s theater education is a locally produced, completely hands-on production, with study at the feet of Lee Fierro, the longtime beloved former artistic director of ITW.

Ryan, now ITW’s artistic director, speaks with admiration and fondness of Fierro, his principal mentor. “Working with Lee was a great theater education,” he says. “I learned how to lay out and plot a show, to make sure I knew what I thought the play needed to say, and to think through every detail. Lee was always specific in her advice, and had the most focused vision I’ve ever experienced.”

Ryan had, through his involvement with ITW, a graduate course in theater, a sort of “Island M.F.A.” For years now he’s been putting his artistry and technique to good use. Originally, he was a singer with an “Irish tenor” voice, eventually adding acting, stage management, design, and administrative elements to his toolkit. “The more I got involved, the more it became apparent that directing was where I wanted to be,” Ryan says.

Like a good teacher or coach, a director must figure out how to motivate each individual while maintaining a productive esprit de corps. Ryan achieves this by doing his homework, understanding the responsibilities of each person involved, and creating an overall friendly atmosphere. “The director doesn’t do this alone,” he notes. “There’s a big group of people working diligently to pull things off, and it’s really the teamwork that makes a successful show, and a successful company.”

Directing community theater is a lot harder than directing professionals. It’s not that there isn’t plenty of talent to go around, or enthusiasm, or desire. It’s the fact that the experience and training levels of the players are wildly variable, running the gamut from former professionals to shy-but-willing types who have never been onstage before. Then there’s the rehearsal schedule, which instead of being a concentrated, full-time job for six weeks or so, can be spread out over three months or more, often meeting only once a week in the beginning stages. Additionally, casts have jobs or school, making rehearsal attendance, even with the best intentions, unpredictable. So instead of a concentrated period, with progress each day, community theater deals with people who understandably need to review from rehearsal to rehearsal, and familiarizing those who have missed rehearsals, making for slower progress. It balances out in the end, but adds to the challenge for all concerned before the team gets there.

Brad Austin, a carpenter by trade, an ITW board member, actor, singer, and one of the many chief cooks and bottle washers, is a familiar face to Vineyard audiences. He too is a homegrown theater talent, having avoided acting in high school because “it wasn’t cool.” Surfing was cool, and yes, he grew up in Southern California.

Austin started out at ITW by working with Fierro 15 years ago, in a production of “Once Upon a Mattress,” where he appeared in pink tights. He got over it. Austin says of his comrade in arms, “Ryan will do whatever it takes to ensure the show works. He’s got the knack of drawing unexpected things out of the team. He’s all in, all the time, and I try to be all in with him.”

ITW these days has four basic programs, Family Classic Theater (summertime Broadway musicals), One Acts and New Directors Studio (off-season events), and Act MV (popular children’s summer camp).

Stephanie Burke, a longtime ITW board president, originally trained as a musician. She came to the theater, like Ryan and Austin, after arriving on the Island in 1984. Among many other things, Burke acts in shows and oversees ITW’s Act MV. “Like Kevin’s directing style, our core mission is education. Kevin has incredible energy and a great eye as a director, not just for acting, sets, lights, and costumes, but for the flow of the staging,” Burke says of Ryan. “He’s able to help us all go right to the essence of the story.”

Clearly, community theater takes commitment and willingness to spend leisure time performing a disciplined, task-oriented activity. Why do it? Ryan, Austin, and Burke all speak of their passion for theater and the therapeutic benefits they’ve experienced working with a group of like-minded, slightly lunatic souls. Ryan was initially intimidated in his early days in the theater. “It’s a wonderful surprise to myself,” Ryan reflects, “that now in my 60s, I am confident in my technique and abilities.”

Which is a good thing, as the director is key for a positive experience, onstage, behind the scenes, and for the audience. It’s the director who wrangles the entire shebang, and Ryan does it beautifully.