'Look Who's Evil Now!:' A Visit with Evil Dead's Ryan Ward
"Look Who's Evil Now!"
A Visit with Ryan Ward of EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL
When the audience enters Stage One at the New World Stages complex to attend EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL, they are greeted with an unusual sight: the first three rows of seats are carefully covered with plastic sheeting. This is the "splatter zone", where patrons are issued disposable ponchos to shield them from the stage blood and body parts that spew from the stage during each performance. Most people in the crowd seem to relish the experience, but there are a few who divert their eyes each time more blood flows. However, people from as far as Boston have made the trip to New York City just to see this production and specifically requested seats in the splatter zone.
Presiding over this musical mayhem is the handsome Canadian actor named Ryan Ward who sings, dances, acts and dismembers with great talent and abundant charm. It is Ward's performance in this well-crafted musical that holds the show together while chains rattle, doors slam and chainsaws buzz. To say that he stands out amid such cacophony is putting it mildly. The actor literally glows when he's on stage. He manfully executes the choreography of three-time Tony Award winner Hinton Battle and his blue eyes actually sparkle under the stage lighting. Simply put: he is a bona fide musical comedy star.
On a dim and drizzly Saturday afternoon, Ward strode into a Mexican restaurant near the theater offering a warm smile and a firm handshake before sitting down to talk. It should be noted that the hand he extends is the very appendage that he self-amputates eight times a week during EVIL DEAD performances; creating one of the most vivid images in the show.
The Ryan Ward who enjoys a meal of enchiladas before reporting to the theater for the 7 PM performance is considerably different from the character he embodies on stage. Although he is extremely confident about his accomplishments and is articulate in expressing himself, there is a true gentleness in the man that gives way to meekness at times. Speaking with only the slightest trace of a Canadian accent, Ward is a far cry from the character of Ash, who fights off Candarian demons and bellows "Nooooooo!" throughout the musical. In all honesty, though, his romantic moments on stage are quite tender.
A native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Ward participated in playlets and skits during his elementary school years. "When I got into junior high I began playing sports and being in theater became 'gay' so I stopped going to classes for a while. Then I went to the University of Manitoba for two years. It was there that I took a theater course to fulfill an English requirement. As soon as I got into it I realized that this is something I'd forgotten about but really wanted. I was still feeling my way around about what I wanted to do with myself and immediately I knew this was it." There's a theater affiliated with the University of Manitoba and it was there that Ward was cast in several productions. "I began applying to bigger schools in Toronto and was accepted into Ryerson." If this university sounds familiar to non-Canadians, it is because it is also the alma mater of WILL AND GRACE's Eric McCormack. "Yeah," comments Ward, "the bulletin boards were always featuring notices of his personal appearances and accomplishments."
Among the roles Ward played at Ryerson, was that of Miles Gloriosus in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. "It was great," he recalled, "the director we had was terrific. You may have heard of him. He's Ted Dykstra, He did a show called TWO PIANOS, FOUR HANDS that he played in New York. He always tours it and makes lots of money that way. He's a hilarious guy who is improv-based. He was so free and real which is just what that show needs. He just does what he thinks is funny. I created a bizarre speech pattern for Miles that sounded Elmer Fudd-ish. It contrasted terrifically with his macho image and made him even funnier than he originally was. As with many other performers, Ward admits to having difficulty getting out Sondheim's intricate lyrics. "Bring Me My Bride" presented great problems for him and he doesn't know why. Perhaps it's the manner in which Sondheim phrases his lyrics that present challenges to those who are singing them
For two summers Ward toured his own plays in Fringe Festivals in an effort to earn money so he could go back to school. One year he decided to stay in Toronto to pick up some acting jobs and acquire an agent. It was at that point that he did the first production of EVIL DEAD. "It was in a small club with a bunch of guys who had pitched their own money into it. It took off from there. I did it again that fall and during the next summer we went to Just For Laughs in Montreal. From there we got picked up by a producer in New York and that began a two year process of waiting for it to get here." In the interim he did a few plays and some independent films, but by his own admission there isn't much work for an actor in Canada. According to the actor, his present gig "is a much better ticket than anything I did up there. I was just lucky that it took off the way it did."
"When I first auditioned for it, I thought it was just a bunch of dorks putting on EVIL DEAD. To be honest, I thought it would probably suck. I mean, I like the EVIL DEAD movies and felt it would be a good summer play to do. When I auditioned I thought I'd get some small role. It turns out when I read they said, 'Read Boomstick" so I did the Boomstick monologue and I knew exactly how it should go because I'd seen the movie so many times. When I finished it the director jumped out of his chair and went 'Wow!' It was at that point that I had a pretty good feeling I might get to play Ash."
When it was mentioned that on stage Ward looks remarkably like actor Bruce Campbell who played Ash in all three EVIL DEAD movies, Ward chuckled. "They tell me that but I don't think I look like him in real life. When I'm on stage wearing the outfit and the hairdo and the facial expressions, I bear a resemblance to him. I never thought I did but everyone has been saying otherwise."
There have been easily discernible differences between the Canadian audiences who saw EVIL DEAD and the crowds who are flocking to see it in New York. "When we played in Canada the audience was always 99% Dead-ites. Do you know what I mean by Dead-ites? They're the cult fan base, so anything we would do would have them jumping out of their seats and screaming back to us. We were playing in a place that had a liquor bar in it and people could get drinks sent to their tables while they were watching the show so you can imagine how inebriated they were. If you think that people who come to see the show now are drunk, it was much worse in Canada. New York has such a large theater-going population that there will be nights when we have lots of Dead-ites sitting out front and it's loud as hell. On other nights we'll have a normal theater-going crowd who knows nothing about the movies. They're not a cult, they just want to see the show because they've heard it's good. Sometimes it's crazy. Sometimes it's quiet. It's cool "
As with THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW, there are times when the audience knows the original film dialogue so well that they shout out the lines from their seats. "It's great," says the young actor, "Eighty percent of the time it's better simply because that's the nature of the show. If they yell out something I often talk back to them which kind of elevates their energy and the energy of the show as well. It almost gets better when that happens. Actually, we encourage the interaction." There have been times, though, where audience members have gotten so out-of-control that the ushers have had to escort them out of the theater.
As with any show that features special effects, sometimes the effects misfire or don't work at all. Ward has vivid memories of one nightmarish performance while the show was still north of the border. It was a particularly hot night and the air conditioner broke in the theater. "The blood gets very slippery when it gets hot. Really slippery. It was like a skating rink on stage and no one could even stand. It was particularly treacherous in the part where Linda was jumping on my back. It was ridiculous. We've fixed those problems and figured out how to unstick the stage and to make sure that most of the blood gets into the crowd and not on the set. We've all learned to walk in whatever blood we have to walk in."
When Ward was questioned about how he became interested in writing the plays that he performed during his college days, he answers rather nonchalantly, "I'm just a creative person. It's part of who I am. It's part of what I just naturally do. I love to act in other peoples' stuff but I get a lot more satisfaction out of creating and doing my own work. I've always written my own stuff and at first it was a way for me to cut my teeth as an actor. I felt that rather than try to audition myself into a big part that it might be easier to write myself one, .then go perform it and see how I do. It was really beneficial for me. There was one show called NOCTURNAL MUSICAL It was a one-man show about a guy who was trapped in his own dream. His alter ego was trying to kill him and take over his life. I was playing both characters and there were scenes where I was beating the crap out of myself. That was where I learned a lot about physical comedy." It was great preparation for the scene in EVIL DEAD where he plays his own hand. "I was already there," says the actor. "I already knew how to do that." The result is a moment in the show which is a comic gem and for which Ward takes sole credit in creating.
The cast album of EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL was recorded in December. Anyone who has viewed D.A. Pennebacker's 1971 documentary about the recording of COMPANY's original cast album has some sense of the tension that develops during these recording sessions. EVIL DEAD, like the original COMPANY, was recorded in a single day and in some ways it was a nerve wracking for Ward. The session was scheduled a day after the cast had given a full eight performances. "By the end of the day my voice was tired. I'd asked them to please schedule anything that required me to scream last so that whatever I had to sing I could put a nice tone to. Of course that didn't work out and I had to scream the moment I got in the studio. By the end of the day my voice was pretty well gone. I've heard some of the tracks from the recording and they sound really good. I'm pretty happy with it. They're still mixing it but last I heard the release date is set for April 3rd"
Stage acting isn't the only branch of the performing arts that Ryan Ward has found a home in. He's acted in several independent Canadian films and really has his heart set on finding a niche for himself in the movie industry. Although he's very happy to be in EVIL DEAD and to be enjoying the applause and reactions of the audiences, he claims that movies are his true love. "I'm like an encyclopedia of movies. I've seen them all and I love them. My ultimate goal has always been to get into films. There's quite a bit of difference acting in the movie medium as opposed to the stage. In movies you have to actually be 'thinking it.' You play it with your eyes and ask yourself, 'What would the character be thinking here?' On stage I can be thinking about my laundry list and you probably wouldn't be able to tell unless you're in the first few rows." He's written several short films, among them, REBIRTH and THE FIGHTER. As an actor, Ward appears with Daniel Baldwin in the feature film SIDEKICK which is awaiting distribution.
One film project that Ward is very enthusiastic about is called SUNSHINE, which is presently in development with Lost Horses Productions in Canada. "It's actually a film that I wrote. It's about a guy who is born with Tourette's Syndrome. He's a young guy and he has experimental surgery to take away the symptoms and make him normal. However, with his Tourette's comes the ability to cure the sick and dying but he doesn't realize he has the ability; it's kind of a natural extension of him when he does it. When he has recovered from the Tourette's, he thinks his life is going to improve but he feels this void. He begins a process of searching and finds out about himself, where he comes from and who his father is. Basically the meaning of the film is 'Be who you are, as you are and you will be valuable to the world.' It'll be a really good film when we do it."
The demo DVD for SUNSHINE indicates that Ward may be understating the potential of this film. As a writer, he knows about the value and economy of words. As a screen presence he comes across as both intense and sensitive. Quite obviously the camera shows his physical features to great advantage that would certainly enlarge his ever-growing fan base.
When asked whether there is a particular role that he longs to interpret, Ward is quick to reply that Sonny Johnns in the SUNSHINE film is a role he's eager to play. "That's a dream role. I'm pretty much a modern theater person. I'm more intrigued by things that have been written recently. I'd love to play Hedwig I love that show. I'd also like to play anything written my Martin McDonuagh. Anytime I've seen any of that guy's work it just blows my brain out.I think he's the best theater writer in existence. I saw LONESOME WEST and it was just out-of-sight. THE CRIPPLE OF INNISHMORE was amazing. The black humor and the pathos he's able to invest his characters with despite how terrible they are to themselves and others is incredible. Anything by that guy would appeal to me." Ward is also intrigued by the oft-discussed stage version of THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and would jump at the chance to play Jack Skellington. Surely his talents and penchant for physical comedy would make him a perfect match in that role.
It's apparent that Ryan Ward won't be looking for another acting job for any time soon. Audiences for EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL continue to grow. They arrive via public transportation, taxicabs and even stretch limousines Of course they clamor for seats in the splatter zone and frequently wait for Ward to walk out of the stage door afterwards. According to Ward 200 students from Denmark recently attended the show. Despite the physical workout he gets during each performance, the actor is very polite to autograph seekers and is obliging to those who ask to have their pictures taken with him.
He's certainly a welcomed addition to the New York theater community and one can only hope that he'll be a regular fixture on American stages, as well as on the silver screen, for many years to come.
EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL is playing at New World Stages. ( 340 W 50th Street) .. Performances are Mon-Thurs at 8 PM. Fri 7:30 PM and 11 PM. Sat 7 PM and 11 PM.
Ticket prices $25-$65. (212) 239-6200.
Evil Dead photos by Carol Rosegg: 1) Ward as Ash; 2) Ward and Brandon Wardell; 3) Darryl Winslow, Renee Klapmeyer and Ward