BWW Interview: Ryan Stana on Creating Entertainment Firm RWS & Associates, Advice for Young Performers and More!
Now celebrating its 10th Anniversary, RWS & Associates is the largest full-service entertainment firm of its kind. Started in 2003 by then 23 year-old Ryan Stana, RWS is a worldwide Production Company that provides the very best in custom-designed, as well as pre-packaged events and live shows for corporations, theme parks, cruise ships, resorts, shopping centers and the fashion industry. Additionally, RWS is North America's largest provider of branded stage shows and experiences.
Founder and CEO Stana recently chatted with BroadwayWorld about the company's humble beginnings and the many opportunities it provides for up and coming performers across the country.
So how did all of this come to be? You got your start as a performer, correct?
I grew up in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. I was an only child whose parents were both entrepreneurs and I really benefitted from that extra attention. From an early age I was always interested in two things: performing and teaching. What I imagined when I was younger my family always made complete reality for me. Like I wanted to have a schoolhouse and my family built that for me- complete with letterhead lesson plans and an annual holiday musical- the whole thing. They taught me that anything I dreamed could be a reality.
So along with my pretend teaching career, I was heavily involved in performing as a child performer. I earned my Equity card working for places like Pittsburgh CLO and Pittsburgh Musical Theatre. By my senior year of high school I started blending my teaching and performing together by working behind the scenes producing corporate entertainment for a company in Pittsburgh that hired me to write and choreograph shows for them. During high school I was the kid that was scheduling auditions and recording studio appointments for corporate events in between classes.
So you had a knack for juggling it all early...
Yeah, I had a knack for doing this and after high school I went on to study musical theatre at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and Point Park University- just wanting to be the next big Broadway star, but I still enjoyed the behind the scenes stuff a lot- especially the whole commercial theatre market. Like cruise ship entertainment, theme park entertainment- that whole genre I really loved. And I always thought that area of the business was always neglected and were run by companies that were lost in the 1980's.
So after college I moved to New York City and decided that I wanted to focus on production work in the corporate entertainment world. So I began working at a company as an associate producer and while I had great respect for their creativity, they didn't know how to run a business. And I became frustrated with it and one day on my way into work I called my parents and they said, "Well why don't you start your own business?" I took their advice and walked in and quit that day, and I went home to my apartment in Astoria and took a gypsy cab to a Staples down the street and bought office supplies and set up a desk in the corner of my apartment. And that's how I started RWS and Associates in 2003!
Wow, so where did you go from there?
In 2003 luckily I garnered clients such as Six Flags and Clear Channel Worldwide but at that point I was just focused on "Oh my god, Ryan. Are you going to be able to make the rent?" Then in 2004 I brought on clients like the International Children's Games, Kohl's Corporation, CoverGirl and Coppertone... they all became clients and that gave me the capital to be able to move into my office in Times Square, and... get an employee! We are now a full service entertainment firm and we offer pre-packaged and custom entertainment events all around the world. And now since starting in 2003, I own a multi-million dollar company with over 300 employees!
It's so random and I'm so proud of it, but I couldn't be where I am without my family and without my awesome employees. They are what make the company.
What were the biggest challenges of those first years?
Having someone trust a 23 year-old when they said they could do a million dollar project for them and do it better than anyone else that had years and years of experience. That was definitely the biggest struggle.
How many shows does RWS have running now?
We have three departments here right now: a corporate entertainment department: we produce shows for the Hard Rock Resorts, fashion shows for Vera Wang, Jennifer Lopez. It's all large review-type shows for these high-end clients. Then we have a theme park division. We're the largest theme park show provider throughout the world. We provide shows for Six Flags and Cedar Fair who own Cedar Point. Then we have a retail department that makes shows for retail destinations. So we provide shows for Macy's or at malls when Santa or the Easter Bunny arrives, stuff like that.
We're also the largest provider of licensed properties, so in any of those three areas you can only come to us to launch shows like 'Barney,' 'Thomas the Tank Engine,' 'Survivor,' 'The Amazing Race.' So we can develop those branded shows for the stage. We're the largest, full-service, entertainment firm of its kind out there!
You recently founded the RWS and Associates/Esther M. Kocevar Scholarship?
I started that back in 2009, so this is its 5th year. Esther M. Kocevar was my Grandmother, and when I say that I was an only child, I was also an only grandchild throughout the entire family. So my grandmother really gave me support and encouraged me like none other. When she passed away I felt like she needed to be remembered and not everyone had an 'Essie.' So I wanted to be able to financially help someone who doesn't have that support in his or her life. I offer it to anyone in Westmoreland County- where I grew up.
You're also on the board for the Broadway Dreams Foundation... what does being a part of that mean to you?
It means a ton to me because we are able to offer training to children and adults that are not always able to afford training in musical theatre. And really the whole foundation of RWS is education. So when performers work for us at a theme park, our directors and choreographers are training everyone about what it's like to be in New York City and being a working professional. That's the same foundation that BDF has and that's why I enjoy being a part of that board and making that foundation a success.
Over the years we guide performers and place them with agents and have them meet with casting directors. They begin their journey with us, and we're a stepping-stone for them. We're so proud of those people who work with us at a theme park or cruise ship and go on to book a Broadway show or a sitcom. We want to give them the right foundation to be able to do that, because a lot of performers these days tend to think "Oh if I can kick my leg to my head or sing better than the next person then I'll get the job." That isn't the case. This is a business and you need to treat it like a business so we try to teach them that. Talent is a given but being a strong businessman is what makes you successful.
Is that the biggest piece of advice that you'd give a young person that's looking for work in the theatre after college?
That's exactly it. You have to remember that this is a business. The real life scenario is that everyone wants to make money. It's a business and you have to treat it that way. That is something that I have taught my staff and they communicate that to our performers. We're all about helping them go to the next level.
What kinds of opportunities for performers are out there right now through RWS?
We're always looking for performers and we always have audition opportunities. We hire over 500 performers a year and we do a 25-city audition tour. We are casting for things now- we just took over the Holland America Cruise Line contract, so we're looking for performers to go on that starting in October. We also have a new resort contract with Grand Geneva Resort and Spa- we're producing a holiday show for them. And we have about another 150 shows coming up that we're casting for, so everyone from college age performers to seasoned Broadway vets should follow our audition schedules and come out and be seen by us!
You've accomplished A LOT since starting this company- has there been a highlight for you personally?
There are two that I can think of- one, in 2009, we won a creative arts Emmy Award for producing 'Macy's Stars on Broadway' on CBS. That was a really proud moment. Another is having a dedicated staff that has been with me for many, many years. A lot of companies have high turnover and most of my staff has been with me for seven years or more. That is a really proud thing for me and it really clicked in this past year when it turned midnight in 2013. I thank them all the time, but I want to publicly thank them.
RWS has been around now for 10 years... where do you see the company being another 10 years from now?
It's a funny thing; I used to think "Ryan, you will be so happy when you have a full time assistant." Then I had three staff members and I thought, "If only those staff members had an office manager to take care of things..." I never thought in a million years that I'd have what I have today. It's really a product of hard work from the staff and the performers. We wouldn't keep getting contracts to do events if we didn't have strong performers on the front lines.
Now were looking into moving into a 20,000 square foot facility, and its just amazing to me. I walked into one of the places that we're looking and I thought, "Oh my gosh, Ryan. This is like something the Sony Corporation would have!" It takes me back because I realize that this is what has been built from some guy who has a degree in musical theatre. I don't know where we'll go. I wake up with a smile on my face every single day and my partner always says that I skip off to work every morning.
For additional information, visit: http://www.rwsandassociates.com/