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Interview with Caleb Ryan

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Caleb Ryan Photo by Anne Seeler

Caleb Ryan Photo by Anne Seeler

Caleb Ryan Photo by Anne Seeler

I recently met an inspirational man, Caleb Ryan Forlong (he uses Caleb Ryan professionally) who was the Producer and visionary behind the new A Broadway Smile benefit concert series which had their inaugural launch a few weeks ago. When I followed up with Caleb after the show about what he had planned, I found out that he needed to leave the country for several months as his student visa was expiring. He is hopeful that his application for a green card will be approved. We arranged to meet so I could interview him for our readers. We met one night last week in Bryant Park.

TS: What is your background?

I come from two different backgrounds. There is the producing and the performing.  I’ve been on a journey from overseas, from a small town in New Zealand. I grew up essentially on a farm with no family connections to anyone in the entertainment industry. Now to try to make a name for myself here and create opportunities in New York City, not only as a performer but as a producer without knowing anybody when I got off the plane has been one of my proudest achievements.  I’ve had the vision to create Broadway Smile as an emerging charity that will hopefully become a staple on Broadway’s calendar of events. Your readership should be seeing my name coming up in playbills in the future and I’m looking forward to the next event for A Broadway Smile to be in January 2015, we’ll be turning into a repertory cast performing in cabarets to keep our name current.  I have to leave the country this week and hopefully my visa will process and I’ll be back in January 2015 and another gala in September 2015 to benefit Operation Smile

TS: What is your motivation? 

I’m the kind of person who always needs a project on hand. It has been the same way since I was very young. Although I never thought I would end up working professionally within the performing arts I have been performing consistently since I was about 13. I would volunteer to be part of any music group or concert that excited me. By 15 I was playing violin in the Sydney Opera House and an International Music Festival. At 17 I was in London singing in Covent Garden touring with a choral group that had received multiple national awards. I was living performance to performance always waiting for the next chance to be on stage. Like I said I never envisioned pursuing performing as a career path, I had already begun down a path of international politics and business studies but I was just not satisfied with what I was doing with my life. So the question ‘what is my motivation?’ is best answered by saying that there is some inner need and desire for me to create and perform. Producing has recently come into my journey as a means to have directorial control for my own shows after years of sitting on the other side of the equation. It’s very satisfying to see everything I have learned from observing other directors over my life has rubbed off on.

TS: Where do you see yourself in five years?

As for the next five years, wow, that seems like such a long way away. I would say that I would like to have continued producing, mainly for charity causes, as I love how everyone comes together when they know a good cause is involved. When I can legally work in the states I will begin to audition for theatre, film and tv roles. I want to continue growing in my own performance crafts. In five years, I think I will make it onto Broadway. It’s a dream now, but in five years I know I can make it happen.

TS: Operation Smile / A Broadway Smile

The whole production for A Broadway Smile on June 10th came from an initial love of Rodgers and Hart music and wanting to stage a revue. It grew from there into being a charity concert. At this point I reached out to Operation Smile with details on what I was hoping to do. We obviously peaked their interest because the next thing I knew I was signing forms to be an official third party event, we received permission to use their logo and Courtney Kass from Operation Smile ended up sitting on half of my committee meetings. Our aim was to raise awareness for the debilitating effects of cleft and support the work of Operation Smile that are ganging the lives of children affected by the cleft conditions. Pulling together my Broadway contacts and staging a show was really the only means by which I knew to accomplish this. What a great success it was as well. We raised money enough for 24 surgeries for the children and we have a name that people are now starting to recognize, A Broadway Smile. We’ll be setting up our own 501C3 for A Broadway Smile so we can work independently as our own charity but we will continue to support the work of Operation Smile as they are close to my heart. To me, a Broadway theatre is the perfect place to be giving smiles, not only to audiences but to children around the world without a smile.

TS: What are some role models growing up and people you are emulating here in New York:

One of my greatest artistic role models growing up in New Zealand was David Squire. He started off as my singing teacher at school and by the time I was heading to New York he was the artistic director of the New Zealand Youth Choir, a singer in our national ensemble Voices New Zealand and a significant member of the New Zealand Choral Society. He had a love and passion for what he did and a very humble ambition that I really admired. He was like a theatre dad to me, I very thankful for him adopting me into his world and inspiring me.

Here in New York City I’ve had some great role models, especially since I had never had anyone advise me on charitable operations before. I really looked up to a couple of people. Andrew Stern who produces a yearly gala for ProChoice New York met with me and talked about his journey building a charity and how to connect with people and let them know the difference they could make for your cause. Similarly, I was introduced to Danny Whitman from Broadway Cares who gave some great advice on keeping focused on what is really important. The support of Broadway Cares really made a huge difference for me personally, I felt like the Broadway community had really stepped in to help us out at this stage.

One of my biggest role models is another young person, Bryan Carter, musical director for our show. I met him very early on when I moved to New York City and he’s been one of my close friends ever since. He has been a great encouragement to me. He lives a fast paced life four years ahead of my journey where he meets and works with truly amazing musicians as a Jazz musician and yet he still had time for a young person like me. The night of the show he leaned over to me and asked if I remembered a conversation two years ago where I had said I would like to one day produce shows and be performing on a stage in New York City with Broadway people and followed that with ‘well, you’ve done it kid’. I might have had a little teary moment, but not surprising knowing the stress I was under with the show.

TS: How did you choose the performers for the benefit?

Bryan was involved from the start, he orchestrated the music and it was the obvious choice to have his quintet play for us.  A lot of the other people were acquaintances that I knew from performing at cabarets at places like 54 Below, or people Bryan knew.  We did cast on Backstage we had 200 submissions and the only person we booked from that casting was Morgan Reynolds who had just moved to NYC after working on Disney stages.  I enjoyed working with him. He fit in so well with all the people who had Broadway credits and I see him going very far.

TS: This was your largest productions of the three / what were some of the lessons you learned to apply to your producing career going forward?

It’s very stressful to do a tech rehearsal on the same day as the performance. We made it though, everything pulled through. Despite some hiccups like someone accidentally pressing the bubble button, we were using the Gazillion Bubble stage at New World Stages and mid rehearsal a flood of bubbles covered the stage, it was a great moment for the cast to have a laugh and distress a bit.

TS: That’s a more granular lesson, but as a producer, what lessons have you learned?

Setting the vision at the start, knowing the limitations of the vision, and checking back in to your original goals and make sure you are sticking to them. My goal for the event was really decided about three weeks before the show went up. We hadn’t secured the financial sponsor we had hoped to raise as much money as we originally set out to do. Our vision then became to create for A Broadway Smile a launching platform from which we could build for future events. We wanted to do everything right and put every energy we had into the event. For all involved it was a great success, in the weeks that follow I’ve been introducing myself as being involved with A Broadway Smile and people are saying they’ve actually heard of us! I’m pretty happy with that. I think next year I will dig deeper into the Broadway community, onwards and upwards.
TS: How did the idea of producing come to you?

I’ve been in the city since 2012, I had been regularly performing at home and very quickly had the itch to get back on stage. I came on a student visa and knowing I couldn’t work or audition had to find a way to perform. Many of my new friends at the Lee Strasberg Film and Theatre Institute where I had been accepted for two years of method acting training were finding themselves in the same situation. So the idea of producing benefits took hold. We all wanted to gain experience performing using everything we were learning at the school. My first show was last Christmas, a very good friend of mine had written a book for a Christmas show and come to me to find the music to put to the show. I pulled together a number of the performers I had met and set music from various Christmas standards and some others you wouldn’t have expected.

From there, I kept creating opportunities for my friends and I to perform; the cabaret night at The West End was very similar. Everyone was a young emerging artist in need of exposure and a chance to perform. We titled the show Crystal Method, a play on the method of acting we had all been studying and set the stage for one night to a full house.

Then came the A Broadway Smile concert. This time I was no longer a not-for-profit production but actually wanting to raise money for the benefit of a charity. I had to step up to another level, to put on a show people would want to come to see it and donate money to do so.  To this end, I wanted to bring in artists that had Broadway credits, which were more accomplished than people I had necessarily been working with beforehand.

And that sums up my journey with producing so far. I’ve also held a number of master classes where I have invited my Broadway friends in to the Lee Strasberg Institute to work with the promising musical theatre students there. We’ve had some great people including Jason Gotay, Nick Blaemire and Carmel Dean come and work with the students.

TS:  How are you similar and dissimilar from every other young person with a dream to perform?

I feel like my journey is somewhat similar to many of the youthful performers arriving in New York City to chase their dreams. I never thought I would have a career as a performer and never really believed I could do it until I was in college and there was such a strong growing desire to leave my study desk behind and chase a dream that a younger me had once had, a dream I had tried to suppress because no one ever would think that a small town kid from half way across the world would make it here in New York City. Nevertheless I came here with the vision of being a successful performer and the vision evolved into being a non-profit benefit producer. I have had many people in my life that have tried to tell me I couldn’t do it, don’t bother trying and some who have held me back but what was special about this gala we just did was that there was no voice in my ear telling me that it couldn’t be done. I had this faith that it would all come together and it did. Hopefully soon I will be on the stage performing alongside the many great people whom I have come to know. I know my dreams of performing are very self involved, this is why I so enjoy producing charity events. I have worked for charity and community groups in New Zealand for a very long time, having something else that is more important than yourself is really the best way I know of being self fulfilled. I don’t think that in a future gala I will be one of the performers. You can be so lost in your own ego as a performer and I think it will be humbling to step back and let others take the stage for the charity next time. I’ve already had some offers from some performers who are interested in being involved next time, I’m blown away by the support I have been receiving even now that the event is over.

Final Comments

I would like to just encourage people to have faith in themselves and their abilities. To surround themselves with people who speak truth and encouragement into their lives. Its not all red carpets and glamor but the hard work is all worth it. There will be moments that you truly feel proud of everything you have done and you just have to keep reminding yourself of that feeling, cause in those moments you know anything is possible. And of course I hope to see you all next year’s at A Broadway Smile gala.

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