Rattling off the titles of the Gold Dust Orphans productions — “Who’s Afraid of the Virgin Mary?” “How Mrs. Grinchley Swiped Christmas,” most recently “Thoroughly Muslim Millie” — usually gets a laugh. Being an audience member to one of the mad-hat, slapstick musicals guarantees a series of not-so-graceful snortles. For Ryan Landry, who has been at the helm of the company since its inception and through its 20-year history, it's this trusted brand of in-your-face meta comedy — beginning with the punny names, swerving into a raucous line kicks and taking whatever detour his mind demands — that has earned him a reputation in Boston, Provincetown and, the past few years, New York City.
Because of this, on May 11 at the Shubert Theatre, Landry will be recognized by the Boston Theater Critics Association with their most prestigious honor, The Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence, joining recent past winners SpeakEasy Stage founder Paul Daigneault, voice-over artist and actor Will Lyman and Boston Playwrights' Theatre artistic director Kate Snodgrass.
“[The award] goes to someone in our theater community who has consistently performed at the highest level,” says Joyce Kulhawik, arts journalist and president of the Boston Theater Critics Association. “In the last 20 years, Ryan has done that as a writer, director, performer, and he and his Gold Dust Orphans have occupied a niche no one else does, and they've done it on a shoestring at Machine, lovingly revered as The Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts.”
Recalling some of her most precious moments as a Landry friend and fan, she says, “Ryan has an encyclopedic knowledge of and love for musical theater, old movies and drama, drama, drama. I remember being dumbstruck and dazzled by what he did to Tennessee Williams’ ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ which he of course turned into ‘Pussy on the House'.”
Kulhawik continues: “As a director, Ryan has whip-crack comic timing, and an infallible ear for the nuances of that arch inflection actors had in those screwball comedies along with all those highly stylized conventions. Orphans' shows are packed with hoofers who tap their hearts out, and drag queens who sing like their lives depended on it. Ryan and his Orphans send up the sentimental, and strip things down to the essentials without a second thought. Things can get pretty raunchy, but never really mean. It's pretty liberating.”
The Gold Dust Orphans tried and true "maximalist" formula of rapid fire and frequent costume changes, potpourri pop culture references and fourth wall breaks feels familiar to the returning patron, yet Landry and friends keep things fresh and surprising, ensuring a reliably unique and memorable theater-going experience with each show. It inspires exuberance and energy in the viewer — something I can attest to after laugh-crying through the entirety of “Thoroughly Muslim Millie,” to which the Elliot Norton Awards ceremony is effectively its Boston wrap party.
Ahead of that much anticipated evening The ARTery caught up with Landry to discuss where he’s been and what’s up next.
Susanna Jackson: What set you on your theatrical path?
Ryan Landry: I suppose I have always been a performer. Always eager to please. At 5 years old I was my father’s prize pony, dancing on tabletops and singing out Hank Williams' songs until one day in a buffet restaurant I sat down with my hot dog and Jell-O, tied my napkin around my head like a kerchief and crossed my legs like a girl. That was the day we stopped speaking.
Since then, I guess I’ve either been trying to please him or piss him off, I don’t know which. Who knows what our true intentions are when dealing with our parents. I guess I wanted him to clap his hands and sing along to my silly babbling always. But it could never be that way. Not back then. It was a very different time.
I remember my father looking at me across the table as if I’d turned from cute to cloying overnight. And who could blame him? What would his friends think if they saw him encouraging me to impersonate Lana Turner? He’s been dead for many years now but I can still see the look on his face when I donned my napkin kerchief along with my mother’s sunglasses, brought the spoon up to my lips and cooed in my very best Hollywood lady voice, “I just adorrrrrre Jell-O, don’t you?”
In a past interview, you credit the success of the Gold Dust Orphans to brainstorming as an ensemble: “Since we all hang out with each other on and off the stage we are able to run ‘bits’ or concepts for characters by each other all the time. If we laugh, it usually means that the audience will laugh.” Do you write all your pieces this way, or is there a moment when you take the reins and hammer it out yourself?
Once the title is established and the actors are assigned their characters, yes, I most definitely take the reins. In fact that’s just about the time when I begin to fashion the reins into a whip. I believe in hard work and never resting until we get it right. Some people can’t handle that. They want to take ten minute breaks every five minutes, endlessly snack and play with their cell phones. They don’t last long. I have no tolerance for “Sunday Actors.” There must be a passion burning deep inside each Orphan to do the very best job possible or they’re out the door. Because of the nature of the style there can be no nimrods. Everyone must tow the line. And they do so with pleasure. This is why I am dedicated to them and stand by each one on and off the stage no matter what. They have sacrificed much for our little company.
And so to answer your question, yes, there are indeed many sailors keeping my ship of fools afloat but only the Captain turns the wheel.
I very much respect your can’t-please-everyone (and-not-trying-to) approach. Are you always able to allow criticisms to roll off you?
No. There have been times when I wanted to kill the critics. I still hold to the truth that my play “M” (produced by the Huntington Theatre) is the best thing I’ve ever written. Surreal, abstract, yes. But alive. So very much alive. Someday someone out there is going to read it with fresh eyes and end up producing it long after I am gone.
However, back when it was playing you would have thought (from the reviews) that I’d completely lost my mind. As if my ultimate goal was to bring down the entire American theater as we know it. This is probably due to one particular line in the text. When speaking of the critic, a character whose name was Pig, the lead actress softly sighs … “All critics are pigs. Some shit in a pen, others through one.”
Do you ever play anything safe?
Sex. But then who’s getting that these days?
What do you think about the word provocative?
It sounds like something Madonna would call herself. Like her, it’s a dull entity that tries too hard to be edgy.
Are there any parodies or riffs that you’ve brainstormed and axed?
We still haven’t done “Mammy Dearest” (our take on “Gone With The Wind”) or “Anne Frank’s One Night Out.” “The Elephant Lady” is one that we never finished though we meant to and “Suddenly Last Supper” is still on the table. Like most people, we still have so many dreams unfulfilled and not much time left now before we die. Come to think of it, we’d better get to work.
Why do you think you were chosen for this honor at this point in your career?
They must have heard I was leaving town!
I hear you’re moving to New Orleans. Is that true and what does it mean for the Orphans in this city?
We move to New Orleans next year, but we will still be doing [two] shows a year in Boston.
What’s next on the agenda?
A screenplay based on the Orphans.
What do you hope to do inspire, change and/or champion in the next years of your career?
I only hope to keep working, reading, writing, thinking. And when this is all over, when I am old and my mind goes (and it will) I want to be brought to a buffet restaurant one afternoon. Once seated, I want to cross my legs like a lady and tie a napkin round my head. And there I shall sit, eating my Jell-O unashamed.
Susanna Jackson’s writing has been featured in Art New England, Boston Globe and DigBoston. You can find her on Twitter @suedoesnttweet.