Actor and popular Los Angeles cabaret staple Ryan O'Connor will be bringing a new and improved edition of his VOTE, PRAY, LOVE to the Celebration Theatre for four performances only, beginning April 8, 2018. Directed by Tony Award-winner Marissa Jaret Winokur, VOTE, PRAY, LOVE will cover a little politics, a little personal challenges and a little Elizabeth Taylor. Ryan agreed to a friendly inquisition from me for some behind-the-scenes tidbits and some chuckles.
Thank you, Ryan for doing this interview.
I've seen you displaying your vocal and comic chops on stage at Rockwell in THE UNAUTHORIZED MUSICAL PARODY OF MEAN GURLZ and UMPO HOME ALONE. Is Rockwell where you first connected with your director Marissa? You and she also co-hosted A Little New Music at the Catalina last year.
We've actually been friends for over 15 years. We met while she was doing HAIRSPRAY on Broadway. I was a young and hungry, struggling musical theatre actor. We both moved to L.A. around the same time and I had done a few things at Rockwell over the years. Then she came in for UMPO HOCUS POCUS, and I joined the party on MEAN GURLZ. Now we both consider it a home away from home, same way I feel about Celebration. In the show, when I talk about the friend whose guest room I lived in, it was hers! So, she was the natural director for the show. She knew it very well!
Is your title VOTE, PRAY, LOVE a play on Julia Roberts' 2010 flick Eat, Pray, Love? Or, maybe, the 2013 Bravo series Eat, Drink, Love?
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, is huge inspiration for me. When I applied for the job working on the Hillary campaign, I told the woman who hired me that this was my "Eat, Pray, Love" moment and it just sort of stuck. But I wanted a campaign element in the title, so I chose the word "VOTE." Besides, I already did a show all about food years ago. This is a very different story. I don't know that Bravo show! I'll have to look it up!
You're a self- admitted Elizabeth Taylor fan. Wasn't there any titles of her films you could have tweaked to use for this show instead? Ryan on a Hot Tin Roof? Who's Afraid of Virginia O'Connor? Ryan O'Patra?
Ha! Ha! Ryan O'Patra is hilarious!! My favorite Elizabeth movie is actually called Boom! It was a big flop with her and Richard Burton, an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, but it's fabulously campy and in a scene opposite a nearly dead Noel Coward, she wears this incredible gaudy headdress and white and gold caftan, that (spoiler alert!) may make an appearance in VOTE, PRAY, LOVE. I even have a rare Polish movie poster for it which is a drawing of a caftan made out of Elizabeth and Richard's faces. It's stunning. Some day I'd love to musicalize the film and actually play Elizabeth, but I don't know if anyone is banging down my door to produce that. Ha! Ha!
Did you ever have the opportunity to meet Mz. Taylor?
I never met Elizabeth. It's a great regret of mine. I remember being told she was wheeled in to The Abbey once when I was nearby, but she was already covered in throngs of gay men trying to get to her, and I just thought it best to leave her an icon I never met. I didn't actually realize the impact she had on my subconscious until after her death and then, even more evidently, during my divorce.
Will fans of yours experience the same VOTE, PRAY, LOVE at the Celebration that you put on last December at the Rockwell? Or will they be able to detect subtle (or major) changes?
I actually really hope that everyone comes back because I've made a ton of changes and it's so much better! Ha! Ha! It was really well-received, but it was definitely a cabaret show with guests. This time, I've taken the dramatic narrative a little deeper, flushed out the story into a concise takeaway and gotten some incredible actors to actually step in and play multiple roles - based on real people. I have Katherine Tokarz, Lindsay Heather Pearce, and Amber Liekhus playing actual women I met working for the Hillary Clinton campaign in Michigan. Plus some surprise stuff that everyone is really gonna like. I also have the incredible actor Alex Nee playing a character we call "Trouble." He's sort of the sexy, charming villain of the piece, playing multiple facets of, well… trouble. I've cut some songs and added some new stuff plus some actual scenes and less monologues and, truthfully, it's much more like an actual musical than a solo cabaret show. It's pretty exciting. I hope everyone comes back!
How long did you work as field organizer for Hillary's 2016 presidential campaign?
I worked as a Field Organizer for four months. From July through the November Election in 2016. That's where the bulk of the drama of the show comes in. It's about the strength I got from these incredible women I met there. As well as, the actual day-to-day of working for the campaign, and the highs of being certain we would elect the first female President of the United States, as well as, the incredible lows, like the Comey letter and, of course, Election Night.
Must have been difficult editing down the stories you accumulated of that time. How did you whittle it all down to fit into VOTE, PRAY, LOVE? You picked the Top Ten funniest incidents? What other criteria came into play in your Hillary material selection?
Yeah, basically. The humor comes from the absurdity of the situation mixed with the incredibly high stakes. I'm also somebody who will find the humor in absolutely anything. So, even a dramatic story like this, you can always trust that I am going to focus on the humor wherever I can. My hope is that by using humor I can help people sort of process and digest this time that most of us would rather not relive.
Can you share a Hillary incident that almost made it into your show, but didn't?
Great question!! Yes!! One of my favorites that I couldn't get in the show! One day, I was out knocking doors to remind people to vote and check people's voter registrations and make sure they knew their polling locations… daily business as usual for us. And this day, I was knocking doors in a retirement village, and this old man answered the door in a shirt and no pants. No underwear, nothing. He must have been 85, and he had a walker, but that didn't cover everything up. He then proceeded to invite me in, tell me about every Democrat he ever voted for, what he thought about gerrymandering in Michigan, and his position on every ballot measure - with no pants. And he never referenced it. He was completely lucid and so nice, but no pants. I didn't know what to do, so I just acted like it was normal. I resisted the urge to ask him to volunteer. Seemed a little risky.
I congratulate you on being in such a healthy place that you can mine laughs out of your previous health challenges for inclusion and exposition in VOTE, PRAY, LOVE. Soooo, would you proudly share with us your latest goals you've attained?
Ha! Ha! Wow! I never thought I'd get that question in an interview, but yes! I have been sober for two years and four months now. I've maintained my weight loss and even started running, if you can believe it! I also quit smoking six months ago, which was actually the hardest of all! So, now I just have a ridiculous Starbucks Cold Brew problem. It's bad.
Is your divorce going to make me laugh through your tears?
I hope it makes you laugh! And, if you need to cry, I hope it helps! I didn't talk about it until I had some distance. It was really hard. Everyone tells you it will be okay, and they're right. But when you're in it, (pause) it feels impossible and endless. I remember getting so much strength from Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Nora Ephron, Carrie Fisher, Michael Ausiello, and other people who shared their super personal stories. Those people's books, movies, and shows gave me so much hope and if I can do that for anyone, it's all been worth it. Well, sort of. Ha! Ha!
Will you be covering your encounter with Oprah in VOTE, PRAY, LOVE, in which she chose you to be one of the ten finalists out of 19,000 applicants in her search for the next TV star?
I will. Sort of. It's kind of where I pick up the story. Like, here I was on top of the world, how did it all fall apart? I actually just made a big decision last night about something I want to put in the show and I'm really excited. I think it's gonna be cool. Oprah fans will be very pleased. Hopefully, Oprah will too!
If you had your druthers, and knowing all you do now about Hillary and Mz. Taylor, would you have ever wanted to have switch places with one or both of them? Or not?
Ohhh, that is a serious question!!! Hillary is currently wearing a lot of caftans, traveling the world, and seeing a lot of theatre. And no one had a more interesting life than Elizabeth. So, they're both pretty tempting. But, I actually have a pretty spectacular and interesting life. If I didn't, it would be so obnoxious to think anyone would want to hear about it for 90 minutes!
Can you give us a hint to some of the songs we might be hearing in VOTE, PRAY, LOVE?
I use almost entirely songs by female songwriters to tell the story. So, you're gonna get these stories told through the music and lyrics of women you know and trust, like Carly Simon, Stevie Nicks, Annie Lennox, Ani DiFranco, Whitney Houston, and a bunch more. I sneak a couple show tunes in there too, though, don't worry.
Thank you again, Ryan! I look forward to laughing and crying through your triumphs!
Thanks, Gil! I'm excited for you and your readers to see it!
For tickets to check out how much Ryan will be you laugh or make you cry at one of his four scheduled performances through April 16, 2018; log onto CelebrationTheatre.com