Military News

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

"Bug" transforms Airman into actor

by Tech. Sgt. Nadine Barclay
432nd Wing/ 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

3/3/2015 - LAS VEGAS  -- In a lonely corner of the art district, nestled within the shadows of the Las Vegas lights, a nearly giant man enters a tiny theatre as it prepares to roar to life. Inside, the smell of excitement looms as people seeking to be entertained fill the small space and the cast prepares for another performance.  The man's adrenaline begins to pump.

Ducking through doorways as he moves backstage, the 6-foot-8-inch man, who plays the fictional character Jerry Goss in the play "Bug," towers over his costars.  Just hours before, however, the actor was referred to as Capt. Ryan Hess, a U.S. Air Force officer. But now, with a change of his wardrobe, he immerses himself into a character.

Whether it's starring as an emcee in military balls, hosting fundraisers dedicated to preserving the historical integrity of his service branch, or handing out laughs at local improv comedy shows and plays, Ryan dedicates himself fully to his greatest roles as a military officer, while striving to reach his childhood acting dreams by night.

Balancing two worlds is a delicate process, particularly when they share no obvious similarities. But to Ryan, the two worlds are more alike than they seem.

"I've taken things I've learned as an Airman and applied them to the craft of acting," Ryan said. "Having discipline, dedication, and being hardworking, as well as having the occasional joke stolen from office conversations, have all helped in my acting and comedy."

Ryan says sharing his love of the arts onstage isn't the only reason he chooses to serve his passion for acting. The instant gratification of laughter and emotional response from the audience is his reward.

"Like serving [in the military], it's creativity mixed with hard work, and the reward is entertaining people," he said.

Much like Russell Crowe's character of Maximus in "Gladiator," who demands respect and attention, Ryan's combination of persona, towering physical presence, and performance leave no room for disappointment when he transforms himself with utter confidence into his stage persona.

"I don't really get nervous so I don't have the typical butterflies that people usually do, but I have a lot of adrenaline. It's something of a rush," he said assertively.

Like Clark Kent, who maintains a daytime career and manifests into Superman when needed, Ryan similarly balances his professional obligations during the day and the need to release his creative side at night.

"For the Cockroach Theatre's  "Bug" the play I'm in right now, I worked from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., then drove to Las Vegas to begin rehearsals by 6 p.m.; it was a significant challenge and tested my dedication to my chosen craft," he said.

Aside from the full duty day and the hour drive to the theatre, which is sometimes clouded with rush hour traffic, Ryan has dedicated hours to perfecting his role during rehearsals, which would sometimes exceed 12 hours in a single day.

Unlike its name suggests the Cockroach Theatre isn't a place for subpar actors.  According to Las Vegas Review Journal, "'Bug' was superb, amazing, genuinely creepy, and explosive." Las Vegas Weekly quoted  it as, "Any play that can make a physically abusive felon its voice of reason, as this does with Goss, takes you to some extreme places. 'Bug' is worth it."

Like opening a window to a world of pure madness, "Bug" features a woman haunted by her abusive ex-husband and the loss of her son. She finds comfort in an Army deserter, and together they become increasingly delusional until an extreme and unexpected climax provides for an epic twisted ending.

From the first certain call

As the plot thickens, Ryan torments his costars with his loud shouts while physically overpowering them before storming offstage. He ducks into a dimly lit room and recalls the moment he found his passion for acting while playing his first villainous roles.

"The bug bit me when I was cast as the villain in "Annie" in 8th grade," he recalled.  "I knew I liked being onstage and acting. As a junior in high school I auditioned for "Taming of the Shrew," and from that point on I was hooked."

It wasn't till much later that Ryan a junior in college allowed his creative side to take him in new directions.

"Friends and I started an improv comedy troupe [like "Whose Line is it Anyway"]. It was with them and their encouragement that I first got onstage at an open mic night to do standup comedy," he said fondly. "After that, I was hooked on both comedy and acting."

Commonly cast as the villain due in large part to his immense size, Hess explains it's relatively easy for him to physically bring his characters to life.

"I always try out to be the villain since my size and voice makes me ideal to be scary and intimidating," he said playfully. "The hero is often the underdog, and it's hard to have the underdog be the biggest person in the room. Contrary to my characters, I do not use my stature to actually make people afraid of me [in real life]."

Ryan said his most recent character, Goss, was challenging to play because he is an alcoholic abusive and violent ex-convict.

"One would hope [Jerry Goss and I] have almost nothing in common," he said seriously. "Besides being physically intimidating, there is very little I share with him. Again, he is the villain, meaning it is fun to play him, but when I leave the stage, Jerry Goss does not come with me."

After Ryan validated his reasons for choosing villainous roles, just before the play begins, among the 60 office-style chairs arranged in stadium formation in the theatre, Ryan's parents and wife were there, sitting no more than two feet from the stage.

Ryan's parents described what they saw from their son's performance as Jerry Goss as completely gritty and contradictory to anything they had experienced from him previously.

"This was different than anything I have ever seen him in," said Karen Hess, Ryan's' mother.  "We are used to more fun productions where, even as the villain, it is fun to watch. This was serious, even scary, but very well done and completely immersive."

Tying the roles together

As he sits patiently in the center of an aged couch back stage waiting for his next scene, the lights in the theatre darken, drawing the audience into even darker places, Ryan said he has used the things he learned as an Airman to help balance his double life.

Ryan also credits the Air Force with showing him that service can be tied into many aspects of life off duty as well as on, no matter how dissimilar they may seem.

"Many people do not realize that like the military, theatre troupes have a hierarchy, which must be respected in order to function as a team," he said. "Learning how to play my part on a team is another thing the Air Force has helped instill in me."

Admitting he failed to secure roles on his first few attempts, Ryan said his service has made him better prepared for the opportunities when they present themselves.

"In a play, once it is show time there's no option to simply bail out, so I made sure that work considerations were handled," he said. "You must define for yourself how much time you are willing to dedicate to your hobby. Simply, as in the military you must know your priorities."

Ryan closes his performance with one more piece of advice to others like him.

"I think everyone needs a creative outlet," he said. "Performing comedy or acting may not be for everyone, but having an outlet is important no matter what you do. It keeps us resilient."

As the audience presents a standing ovation, silence falls on the theatre once again. On  this play's closing night there's one thing that is certain, Ryan will continue to dazzle audiences both in and out of uniform, and regardless of what role he is playing.

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