Arts & Entertainment
Interview with Ian Ruskin
From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 26
By Ben Miles
Ian Ruskin is a classically trained actor. After perfecting his craft at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), and performing on stage for 15 years in England, Ruskin moved to Los Angeles in 1985. Once there he worked in such television productions as “Murder She Wrote,” “Scarecrow and Mrs. King,” and “MacGyver,” where he specialized in portraying “smart bad guys”. Ruskin says of those tinsel-town days that the roles “paid the rent, but did not in any way fulfill the dream I that I had at RADA – to work in plays that would affect an audience.” Now with two one-man shows – “From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks,” about union leader Harry Bridges and “To Begin the World Over Again,” about colonial revolutionary Thomas Paine – not only is Ruskin fulfilling his artistic goals, playing in 99-seat theaters, on college campuses, and at union halls, he has been honored with an invitation to perform for the British Houses of Parliament. Theater writer Ben Miles had the opportunity to ask Ruskin a few questions about his projects:
What are the greatest challenges in portraying true-life characters?
There are actually two things that compete: A. accuracy, and B. entertainment. For accuracy’s sake, in the case of the Paine play, we’ve employed five historians to ensure that the facts are authentically represented. Still, the show must be entertaining. So we do use poetic license; because the audience will only stay for the show’s end if they care about the characters.
What intrigues you the about the characters of Thomas Paine and Harry Bridges?
That they are so misunderstood. It riles me up how they are both so negatively thought of, if they’re thought of at all. And though these two men were separated in time by a couple of centuries, they were close ideologically. Plus, each of them had great obstacles to overcome. Paine’s hadn’t accomplished anything noteworthy until he came to the colonies at age 37. Once in America, however, he authored several seminal publications, including “Common Sense” and “The Age of Reason.”
Why these two historic figures, as opposed to – say—Alexander Hamilton or Jimmy Hoffa?
Fate, I suppose. I played Harry Bridges in another play, which eventually became a filmed PBS production (with the same title, “From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks”). So it was then that I became interested in Bridges, or as the film’s director Haskell Wexler says, “Hooked on Harry.”
With the Paine play, several people, in different cities, told me after seeing the Bridges play, that I ought to do a show on Thomas Paine. I couldn’t ignore that message. After doing research on Paine, I was struck by the philosophical alignment of these two men, each from different places in time.
Where have you been and where are you going with these characters?
It’s an amazing journey. I’ve performed the Bridges play over 200 times, since I wrote it 12 years ago. With no agent I begin to book the shows in union halls; for Harvard Law School; at the Organization for American Historians; and at The American Philosophical Society, which was a particular honor because Thomas Paine was a member of that group.
In late spring or early summer, we’ll be taking the Bridges play to the British Houses of Parliament. Eventually we’d like it to play before the U.S. House of Representatives.
What do you hope to accomplish with these presentations?
We want to get the word out about these men to as many people as possible. Paine, in the 1700s, was writing about progressive ideas – entitlements, a much misunderstood word these days. What entitlement actually means is that to which we are entitled.
Bridges was talking about universal healthcare way back in the 1930s. So these characters have messages that are relevant to today. It’s important to get their words and stories out to people.
I’ve formed a nonprofit organization The Harry Bridges Project. We have a board of directors and ongoing fundraising activities, which are necessary to keep these productions alive and well.
On Sunday, February 9, 2014, there will be a fundraiser at Ian Ruskin’s Los Angeles home. Wine and snacks will be provided, along with live performing by Ruskin from excerpts of his scripts. To be updated on this and other related events visit www.theharrybridgesproject.org and sign up for the monthly one-page e-newsletter.