Tuesday, July 8, 2014

7 Questions With Actor Ian Ruskin

Ian Ruskin is a busy actor who has had a busy career in both the US and the UK.  He has worked in English repertory theatre, in London, and in film and television, including the Laurence Olivier version of “King Lear” for Granada Television and the title role in “Jack the Ripper” in London’s West End. Work in Los Angeles included the acclaimed one-man play “The Man Himself” and voice work in over 100 films and television shows.  Since 2000, he has written, produced in two acclaimed one-man shows, one based on the life of labor leader Harry Bridges and one based on the life of Thomas Paine.  See his website http://www.ianruskin.org.
1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I actually got “hooked on Harry” i.e. Harry Bridges. I am an English actor living in Los Angeles who was dissatisfied with the potential work here, particularly the work on episodic television. I wanted to play characters that could affect the audience in some human and important way, make them think and consider new ideas. This was not happening on the MacGyver sound stage, or any of the sound stages that I found myself on. Then I was caste to play Harry Bridges and I had found a character, a real historical character as it happened, who certainly made me think. Here was a man whose ideas I found inspiring, who had his faults, his highs and low, and a great impact on the American labor movement, and so I started The Harry Bridges Project to tell his story, and wrote From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks.

Portraying Thomas Paine
2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
The effect of my work about Harry Bridges, and now equally importantly the effect of my new play To Begin the World Over Again: the Life of Thomas Paine has been profound. The philosophies and ideas of both men have made a deep impact on my view of the world and my own belief system. My understanding of questions of equality, democracy, freedom, justice and God have been redefined and sharpened. My sources for news have changed. My skepticism of much that I hear in public life has grown. My realization that America, and the world, still has a long way to go before achieving the founding ideals of this country, has been a sobering but challenging realization.

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
My work life has changed totally. I now write my own plays, book my own gigs and produce radio and film documentaries. I spend more time raising money than I would like, but I love the work that I do and believe it to be important. It takes me to many different places and introduces me to many amazing people. All because I am telling the story of two historical figures!

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
It has all been said before…that “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” Or as Milan Kundera wrote and is quoted at the beginning of From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks….“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
No particular period. What inspires me and fires me up is when I discover men (I only write one-man plays, for obvious reasons) who have been, as Paine says in To Begin the World…”much maligned, misused and misunderstood”, forgotten geniuses who, had they been listened to, would have helped to create a more just and happy world.

Portraying Thomas Paine
6. You’ve created and performed one-man shows about labor leader Harry Bridges and Thomas Paine.  How do you choose your subject and how do you go about creating your show and character?
I choose my subjects as described above to the extent that I do choose. I suspect that Bridges and Paine both chose me! To create historical characters in a play has its particular challenges: 1) to be accurate 2) to be entertaining 3) to create characters that people care about as human beings and 4) to find individuals that had faults as well as greatness, failures as well as triumphs. I felt that Bridges and Paine had all the ingredients. With Bridges I interviewed dozens of people who had known him and worked with him (he died in 1990). I read biographies and had scholars and archivists checking my work. With Paine it was almost all reading biographies and then discussing issues with my five scholars who oversaw my work, or rather kept a critical eye on it for both specific inaccuracies but also to see that the broader themes were also true. I occasionally took what is called “poetic license” to make something more effective in a play, and I tried to follow a line of including material that was personal but not private. And I firmly believe that history is by its nature subjective and that this must not be in any way disavowed.
7. What projects are you now working on? What is next on the horizon?
Three projects:
I am completing a radio documentary A Wild Woman Sings the Blues about the life and music of singer and social activist Barbara Dane, a woman who, but for her politics, would have been a blues and jazz star. It will be a program in two one-hour segments, hopefully distributed by PRI, Public Radio International early next year.

I am in pre-production, which apart from anything else means raising money, to produce a film version of my Thomas Paine play, probably for distribution to PBS. This will follow in the footsteps of the film we produced of From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks. Fund-raising will probably include an Indiegogo campaign and I encourage anyone interested to sign up for our mailing list. Please email us at info@theharrybridgesproject.org

My next one-man play will be about the life and work of one of the greatest geniuses and most mistreated men in history, the man who “invented the 20th century”….Nikola Tesla. Stay tuned for more news!

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