My interview with Chris Ryan opened with an apology. You see, when I first heard the cast announced at the launch of King Kong last year, my immediate reaction to the name Chris Ryan was, “Who?” A quick google didn't really help. I did work out that he was not the British former-SAS-soldier-turned-author and nor was he a professor or a neurosurgeon. It seems Chris Ryan is a very popular name. I finally found the correct Chris Ryan and discovered this one has an extensive background in theatre, but not professional musicals … which explained why I didn't recognise the name. Ryan tells me his mother read a newspaper article that suggested Chris Ryan was one of the most common names in the world. Ryan knows all about that other famous Chris Ryan – the former SAS soldier – he's been given several copies of his books as a gift/joke.
Chris Ryan, the Australian theatre actor (not the author,) is about to add another famous “Chris Ryan” to Google as he takes on the lead role of Jack Driscoll in the world premiere of the highly anticipated musical theatre event King Kong.
Ryan started out in amateur musical theatre. His last musical theatre role was Enjolras in a production of Les Miserables at the Altona Civic Centre, at the age of 21. Ryan decided to audition for WAAPA simply because it felt like the place for musical theatre performers to study, but when he was not accepted he instead auditioned for the VCA. Ryan was accepted into the VCA drama program and despite still having a love for singing, thought it was worth at least trying for a few months. Six months later, he was loving the course, loving the great teaching staff and never looked back. Upon graduation from VCA he immediately moved into acting roles with Bell Shakespeare, MTC, Malthouse and STC and his career took a decidedly dramatic path.
Ryan maintained his love for singing but had not been successful in moving into the professional musical theatre genre … and then King Kong came along at just the right time. His audition was successful and he is now preparing to play the romantic male lead in a world premiere musical. Finally, he can showcase his outstanding vocal ability with a voice that would turn any judge's chair. It's a big role in an ever bigger show. The enormity of this is not lost on Ryan.
The rehearsals for this musical event have been on a totally different scale to anything Ryan has been involved with in the past, but he is trying not to focus on the scale of this show. He is determined to stay true to the way he would normally approach his work. What he is enjoying the most is the incredibly collaborative approach amongst the team and Ryan has found his creative background has been a huge asset.
What makes this show different, however, is the 6 metre tall, 1 tonne silver back gorilla named "King Kong." Ryan says he nearly jumped out of his chair the first time he saw this massive beast in action. There is truly a wow factor when you see King in action, but Ryan feels people can't really understand or appreciate this until they see him for themselves. There was a distinct excitement in Ryan's voice as he shared about the incredibly intricate and detailed technical rehearsals to make King appear lifelike. Having seen King for myself, I could only agree and we chatted about the amazingly lifelike facial movements of King in particular.
Ryan describes this production as pioneering. It is unlike anything that has been done before and the rehearsal period has meant accepting failures: try something, if it doesn't work then try something different. There is a certain pressure that comes with a new work, particularly one of this scale, but also a sense of excitement being part of something new and totally unique.
Ryan plays Jack Driscoll in the show. In the various incarnations of King Kong it is this character that has changed the most. Ryan describes his version of Jack Driscoll as somewhat different again. Driscoll is back to being the first mate of the ship that goes in search of the giant gorilla, but his character has been fleshed out more. Driscoll has come from a wealthy background. His family are in the steel manufacturing industry and despite being in the middle of a depression, they continue to build an empire amongst the poverty and Driscoll becomes privy to the corruption in his world. Ultimately, Driscoll must face some tough personal decisions and become the hero. Ryan feels there is a relevance in this story to current day and Driscoll is a character that audiences will be able to identify with.
To prepare for the role Ryan spent time reading about the Great Depression and understanding the families in the steel and building industries at this time. He also read about archetype heroes who undertook heroic journeys in life and in particular the work of Joseph Campbell. Although he had seen the original movie in the past, he deliberately avoided watching the more recent remakes of the film to allow his own development of the character.
One thing is for certain, with his romantic-lead good looks, his nice guy charm and his beautifully smooth voice, Ryan is set to make a huge impression on the musical theatre world. Maybe one day someone will ask one of the other Chris Ryan's out there, “Hey, are you the guy from King Kong?”