Ryan Stevens came to USC in 2011 as an English major wanting to become a novelist – or, even better, “the next Hemingway.” Their very first college class, however, just happened to be “Fundamentals of Acting,” and a new passion took root.
From that fateful moment, Ryan began a theatre-making journey that would see four of their original plays produced on campus, with one of those, Player King (’15), getting picked up by a UK-based publisher. Stevens would go on to earn two degrees from USC, a BA in English (’15) and an MA in Theatre (’17), as well as an MFA in Playwrighting from UCLA in 2020.
Now, another of the playwright and director’s originals will once again shine on home turf, as their short comedy Gershwin’s Last Ride is set to be part of the Lab Theatre’s Ten-Minute Play Festival February 23-26.
We talked with Ryan recently about the rodeo-set play, the fun of writing (and watching) short plays, and how their theatre career took shape on the USC stage.
Tell us about Gershwin’s Last Ride.
Gershwin's Last Ride is a story about a bull that's never been ridden for a full 8 seconds, a cocky rider who thinks he's the one to do it, and the rodeo clown who has to watch this every single night. The story behind it is that when I was in grad school at UCLA, every year we had to submit ten-minute plays for these competitions. And a ten-minute play is kind of funny because it's such a weird type of structure. I was thinking, what's the point of time constraints like that? With a full length [play], it's just as long as it needs to be, so what does it mean to have a firm cap on time? And I thought, well, if ten minutes is going to seem like a sufficient amount of time, then let's try to make something that's really short. The idea came up of a rodeo bull ride, which is meant to be 8 seconds to be successful. From there it was just sort of a game of how do you take this very different theatrical event, the rodeo, which is all spectacle and closer to a sporting event than a play, and try to translate that into something tight and clean with only three characters?
There are moments in the play that are pure comedy, but it actually has a poignant
sense of drama to it. Was there a particular inspiration for the story?
I'm from upstate South Carolina, sort of a rural area, and I grew up on a farm. My father has owned cattle for most of his life, so all of my life I've been around cows and bulls. I've gone to rodeos. I've never participated, you know, for health and safety’s sake. [The play] certainly started out as a comedy. I mean, it begins with Tucky, the clown, telling bad jokes and sort of warming up the audience. And I think there is something inherently funny about putting a rodeo on stage and having someone come out and say, like, “I'm a bull.” There is something silly to that. The trick and the challenge then is to [ask] what is a bull’s perspective because it's not the same as a person.
It was really fascinating in researching for this, seeing how the bulls at rodeos are sort of treated like celebrities or professional athletes. They are given cozy transportation and as cozy a life as you can want as a bull, which is different from, like, matador shows where they are treated pretty horrendously. I guess the pathos of it all comes from thinking about what it means for that to be your whole life, both for the bull and for the human character. What does it mean to go out there and risk your life for a snippet of time? It’s this fascinatingly human desire to prove that we can get one over on the natural world. Surviving is victory in a way that's really poignant to me. It is truly a meager victory, but it is also not easy to stay on there for such a brief amount of time or encounter a wild animal and walk away. And that's special.
How would you describe the style of the plays you write? Do they share any commonalities
in terms of tone or the types of stories you tell?
Something I'm really drawn to is genre and staging conventions. In my time at USC, I wrote and directed a parody Shakespeare play and then a Western that had live wrestling elements in it, and those were both born from this desire to be like, well, what can we put on stage and what can we get away with? We've heard Shakespeare before, but is there any value in writing in that style in the 21st century? Is there any value in adapting something cinematic like Westerns for the stage? And something like [Gershwin’s Last Ride] comes from, again, the spectacle of the rodeo show, which is a unique type of theater. Can you turn up the theater knob and turn down the pure sporting spectacle of that and make people listen to the story behind it?
I think magical realism gets bandied around for a lot of artists and I'll jump on that, too. I'm really interested in the patterns of stories we tell and stuff that usually doesn't get done on stage. I'm not really drawn to realism. Obviously great realism plays have been written, but I think that there's something more engaging about the imagination of less realistic, more absurd works that require a higher suspension of disbelief, works that can require an audience to meet with the performers in their space, on their terms. And we sort of just give ourselves over to the experience of it. The magic of it is the full belief that what we’re seeing is more than what it really is. That sort of imagination is what draws me.
Every show I worked on at USC was a great time and a great learning experience on how to make art with tremendous support from a department whose resources are there if you go to them.
You staged several shows at USC while you were a student, including some of your own scripts. How did those experiences inform who you are as a theater maker today?
The short answer is it's because of that that I am one. Like, that's the whole kit and caboodle. I came to college [as an] English major, wanted to be a novelist, wanted to be the next Hemingway, with all the arrogance that that entails. The first class I ever had in college was beginning acting and that's literally day one of college. It was really fun. From that, I got involved with Green Room Productions who [did] a thing called Grindhouse, which is just like a little short play festival. The charm of that was the shows were always at 11 at night and they were very ramshackle and very by the seat of your pants. And that sort of environment was endearing because it showed this really communal effort. Staging [shows], making them, and working with all these other young students who have a lot of enthusiasm to make stuff was really inspiring and endearing, and made me more interested in the theatrical community at USC, which was a deep well of talent, [with] professors receptive to giving advice to a non-major who just walked in and really wanted to get involved. And every experience, every show was teaching me a little bit more about how to make a show stand on its own from the page and how to communicate with actors, with designers, with other directors, with costume and set designers and all that good stuff. Every show I worked on at USC was a great time and a great learning experience on how to make art with tremendous support from a department whose resources are there if you go to them.
What about your time at USC brings a smile to your face and would you like to share
those things with us?
The things that I mostly remember are the people I met, both students and faculty, and the stuff that we put up and did. I'm hoping the statute of limitations is up, but during my time at USC, I was sort of a sentimental collector when it came to props. Not every show, and certainly not the bigger ones, but one or two small things might not have made it back to the prop cabinet just because, you know, these things hold significance.
What is the fun of a ten-minute play for an audience?
I think the fun for an audience when seeing a festival of ten-minute plays is that you're getting unpredictability. Cynically, if you don’t like it, you know it will be over soon. But more charitably, the fun is seeing how much ground we're going to cover in ten minutes. One of my professors at UCLA said the trick with a ten-minute play is you're either going to make a very brief moment expand or you're going to try and condense an enormous amount of things into the small time.
Ten-minute plays are like a circus show or an acrobatic show. There’s a trick to every ten-minute play and whatever they pull out of the hat to be their solution to the challenge of time is really, really interesting.
Find out more about Ryan’s theatre work online at www.ryangstevens.com.