'Pirates' take stage at Bedford Middle School this weekend
Published 2:18 pm, Friday, December 3, 2010
Ryan O'Neil epitomizes the diversity of the Westport arts scene. Whether strumming his guitar and composing lyrics, directing plays or acting on stage, his star shines once he steps on stage.
He now is the assistant director of Bedford Middle School's drama program, and is directing a production of "Pirates of Penzance" at the school this weekend. The performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.
The "Pirates of Penzance" production is a challenge, with 105 student actors and 10 to 15 others providing technical support. But under O'Neil's tutelage, the show is coming together.
"We have quite the conglomerate of kids and we hope to put together a good middle school play," O'Neil says.
This is the first of three plays that will be staged at Bedford during the school year. In the early spring, there will be a sixth-grade musical, and in the late spring, a seventh- and eighth-grade drama workshop collaboration is planned.
"We try to showcase everyone's strengths and abilities," O'Neil said. "It's not about who you are, but finding a way to feature all of our strengths and talents."
During the summer, he directed the plays, "Rent" at Staples High School and "Into the Woods" at Bedford while working for Westport Teen Summer Theater.
"There's nothing more rewarding than helping kids from all walks of life and helping them take their fears and create and ensemble," said O'Neil. "They don't forget the lessons they learn."
Directing kids at Bedford is a role reversal for him because he once was a student actor at the school. His first acted in a production of "Anything Goes" as an eighth grader. O'Neil also performed in bands while attending Staples, before graduating in 1996.
"I'm a singer, songwriter, actor first and I put myself out there at a young age," O'Neil said.
After graduating from Staples, he did a national tour performing in 84 cities in 90 days.
"I knew what I wanted to do after high school and I did it," O'Neil recalled.
O'Neil also performed as lead singer for a group called the Ryan O'Neil Project after graduating from Staples. He had many gigs locally, including weekly at Dunville's in Saugatuck.
"I did the music thing so rigorously, three to four times a week and I got tired," O'Neil said. "Sometimes, I take my guitar out because I enjoy playing it, but I don't miss the baggage [that comes with playing in a band]."
He also performed with pop star Michael Bolton, who lives in Westport, rehearsing with him Bolton for NBC's "Clash of the Choirs." "The Bolton gig was a great experience," O'Neil recalled.
He was featured over four nights as a lead vocalist for his team on "Clash of the Choirs," featuring five choirs assembled by celebrities from their hometowns. According to O'Neil, the singing competition finished second in the TV ratings to "Monday Night Football" in its time slot last fall.
"Being on for four nights on NBC was pretty cool," O'Neil said. "It's an experience I am grateful for being apart of."
At the beginning of the fall, he played the role of pro-slavery aristocrat Edward Rutledge of South Carolina in the play, 1776 in Darien and Stamford. Playing this role was a test for O'Neil but being the talented individual he is, he met this hurdle head-on.
"Anytime you do a piece on history is exciting but my role was challenging because of the context of my character," O'Neil said. "He's a bad guy who is pro-slavery." When a friend told him about the audition, O'Neil decided to go for it. This was his first play he was casted in seven years. Before taking this seven-year hiatus, he performed in tons of plays.
"It was a lot of fun and I'm back in the groove," O'Neil said. "I've always been an actor and singer [he sang in 1776 as well] and it was just the right opportunity for me. For whatever reason, this clicked in my head and I went for it."
Next month, O'Neil will perform the role of Perry in Noel Coward's play, "Waiting in the Wings" in Stamford. Perry is a facilitator for retired female actresses who live in a home.
Once "Waiting in the Wings" begins its run, O'Neil still plans to direct other shows.
"It's what I do for a living," O'Neil said. "Making sure I have my act together is the hard part."
He will also take auditions for Bedford's play that will take place in the spring and rehearse with the cast. The span of three to four months between plays may sound like an eternity, but nothing could be further from the truth, he said.
"It sounds like a lot of time, but when you have so many kids [to direct], it's not," O'Neil said.
Although most of O'Neil's work has been local, he hopes to expand his horizons.
"I'd like to take things I do now and work on it at a more professional level on a more professional stage," he said. "I hope to create songs and sell them."
But for now, he's happy with what he's doing.
"In the meantime, I like working with kids and inspire them and I like being inspired by them," he said. "They give me motivation to work with them and build them up. It's about waking up and do what I do. I work very hard to do what I love."