Relationship Building Looms Large With Musical Actor Ryan Widd ’11
By Al Daniel
Correlation or not, separation from Montessori Community School nearly derailed Ryan Widd’s ’11 theatre career. That was until an MCS connection put his spirits back on track.
Now fresh out of the University of Tampa, and uprooted to Broadway’s neighborhood, Widd has a more decisive plan. Coming off an invitation to this past winter’s Tony Awards and a host of high-end elbow-rubs, his confidence and desire match the 6-foot-6-inch, 295-pound frame he touts on his public resume.
With eight college credits in the theatre plus five vocal activities, he enriched a Durham springboard that started in earnest at MCS and more or less culminated at the Playmakers Repertory Company the summer before his Tampa orientation.
But in between, Widd admits, he needed reinforcement from a fellow Mustang at Jordan High School.
“I was actually scared to do theatre at Jordan my first two years and stayed away from it,” he said.
During that hiatus from school-sanctioned shows, Widd went to Temple Theater in Sanford. There he landed the part of Issachar in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Despite that and other external pursuits, it would be a while before Widd envisioned the stage as a long-term workplace.
But Cam White ’12 initiated a turning point. When he convinced Widd to audition for Jordan’s 2013-14 production of Footloose, love conquered fear in earnest.
“From there, it snowballed out of control,” Widd said, “and the rest is history.”
White’s words were a booster shot of what Widd had absorbed during his six-and-a-half-year enrollment at MCS. After previously living in Great Britain, then the Miami area, his family moved to Durham in January 2004. Widd’s mother, Michele, would soon follow him to MCS, eventually teaching in a then-newfangled Adolescent Community.
With Kayla Richardson-Piche ’12 and Ben Richardson-Piche ’14, Widd had two fellow faculty kids among his peers. By the time Kayla and Widd were classmates in Room 603, they each had a parent there in Peter Piche and Michele, respectively.
“MCS teachers have a much stronger relationship with these students, and are a really integral part of their lives,” Widd said. “My mom had an advantage with me because she knew everything that was going on when I was in her class, but I also didn’t have too many places to go to just be by myself.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, though, and I don’t think Ben and Kayla would either. Our parents were, and are, so good at what they do. Somehow they were all able to separate being our parents in the classroom and just be teachers. Trust me, I got no special treatment.”
But he did get crucial encouragement from Kayla’s father, the resident theatre specialist among the Adolescent Community guides. When the class performed Alice in Wonderland in 2011, Peter took what Widd called “a leap of faith” by casting the lone eighth-year boy as the Queen of Hearts.
“At the time, I wasn’t aware of how powerful that could be,” he said. “An eighth-grader, straight male, doing drag. Not something you see every day!
“During the whole process, it was just all fun and games to me. But as I grew older and explored the craft more, I started to realize how empowering that was to my career. If I could do that, and have the support of my community, I could do anything.”
Of Peter, Widd added, “His constant support and reminders that I could be whatever I wanted to be as long as I worked for it were important. To this day, we still keep in touch, and his words of wisdom are still super encouraging.”
The Richardson-Piches and White alike exemplify one of Widd’s most treasured takeaways from MCS. They have fostered his fundamental grasp on musical theatre and sustained his hunger for it through continued contact.
In so doing, Widd says, they are proof of the natural compatibility between Montessori education and the performing arts.
“It wasn’t just the performance opportunities I got at MCS,” he said, “but also the way the curriculum is formulated. The Montessori method highly encourages strengthening relationships and making discoveries for yourself, something I do every day in my job now. My whole job is centered on analyzing situations, how people react and respond, and then deciding how I would respond accordingly.”
Between MCS and Tampa, Widd garnered rigorous testing and training on each of those fronts at the Long Lake Camp for the Arts in Ferry, New York, and at the Southeastern Summer Theater Institute in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Long Lake’s camp promises its participants “Over 30 Theater Shows per Summer and a Cast of New Friends.” By its own admission, the SSTI “isn’t for the faint of heart” and strives to create a family feel and “cultivate nice, generous, respectful and thoughtful young people.”
Widd attended the SSTI, a five-and-a-half-hour drive from Durham, between his junior and senior year at Jordan, learning from the likes of Tony-winning Oklahoma! actor Shuler Hensley. The next year was comparatively easier, distance-wise, as he partook in Playmakers, a common stop for theatre-enthused MCS alums and other Durham-Chapel Hill students.
“I think MCS prepared me for these different programs by helping me program my mind to really work toward strong relationships,” said Widd. “It’s tough being away from home, especially when you’re working three-to-six hours a day and you haven’t left home much before, but MCS prepares you for this kind of experience.
“The emphasis on a student-driven learning environment and the importance of not relying on our teachers for everything helps make it a seamless transition for Montessori students to thrive in this environment.”
Ironing out his repertoire through his own assessments has bolstered Widd’s transition from school to full-time theatre commitments. He dubbed his junior year at Tampa “transformational” in that “It was the first time I really knew I could make a go of this as a career.”
With his physically commanding presence and operatic baritone, he has accepted his niche in the field. From recitals to full-fledged productions, he often portrays famously towering characters, such as Pierre Bezhukov of Tolstoy’s War and Peace or the Addams Family butler Lurch. He appreciates the fact that only a select few can play such roles, and equally embraces his fluctuating falsetto, which is especially suitable for dramatic operas.
“I think my height, paired with my voice, provides me the opportunity to be a really versatile actor,” said Widd. “I can do a lot of different things, some things that other people can’t do, and I’m really happy that I found good teachers who helped me realize that.”
“I really want to find a way to just make this career work any way possible,” he concluded. “The whole ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ thing is really fitting for my current situation.”