"I felt I was having a nervous breakdown in rehearsal yesterday. You know those moments where you’re like, ‘I’m not sad, but I think I’m going to start weeping in a second’?”
Ryan Beil is laughing, but it’s fair to say what he’s describing could easily be something out of a David Sedaris story—which is fitting. The young actor and improv comedian is taking a quick dinner break from rehearsals for the Arts Club’s staging of Santaland Diaries, the one-man show based on the acclaimed humorist’s time as an elf at Macy’s.
The play isn’t so much a play, per se, Beil explains. Think of it as the longest monologue in the world, with the character arc showing a man pushed to his breaking point during an often humiliating (though hilarious) journey through the worst of our Christmas culture: consumerism, crazy parents, and spoiled kids. The fictional indignities are many and Beil’s numerous real-life demands have caught up.
Beil likens the last few months to running a marathon, and it’s easy to understand why. A recovering perfectionist (he credits therapy with helping him live by his current borrowed mantra: “It’s just a play”), he’s just come off a short stint in the tragedy The Sorrows of Young Werther at UBC. It was another solo show, but much darker: unrequited love ending in a suicide. On some levels, the two productions couldn’t be further from each other thematically, but both require Beil to get inside the minds of desperate men. Despite often being cast as the comic relief (countless Bard on the Beach productions) or the weird guy (Ryan the Trainee in those A & W commercials), Beil concedes he has a certain knack for accessing “mad” characters.
“It is an easy place for me to go,” he says. “I’ve always been good with ‘Alright, that’s rehearsal, that’s the show, done.’ I feel like I’m able to go to those places, but I feel like I don’t have to stay there.”
Where he does need to stay is in the spotlight. Born and raised in Vancouver, Beil says whether it was at Shaughnessy elementary or Prince of Wales secondary, he always played to the back of the house.
“I’m quite shy when I meet people one-on-one and I often don’t know what to say to people until I get to know them a little better, but I’ve always been starved for attention and just demanded it,” he says. “I don’t know why. When I was little, too, anything I could do to get in front of a crowd. I was a little freak that way.”
The duality has served him well professionally. Beil has worked steadily on-stage and in film and television since graduating from the theatre program at UBC. Unlike his Santaland character, he’s never had to work a Christmas-specific job, but he’s had his share of self-esteem-compromising positions that parallel his character’s experiences.
“I worked the morning shift waking people up to sell them the Vancouver Sun and Province and just hating myself,” he says, laughing again. “People love to abuse telemarketers....I’m also just not a very good salesman. The whole idea is to wear them down and agree with them, but present them with another reason why they should buy the paper, but people would give me a reason why they didn’t want it and I’d be like, ‘Okay, yep, that makes sense! See you later.’ I was more or less fired from that job....I also worked at a now-defunct soup-only restaurant called Soupspoons. There was some significant Christmas rushes involved with that. People want soup when it gets cold. And they want it now.”
Post-Santaland, Beil will get a chance to reacquaint himself with the demands of customer service when he takes over Little Mountain Gallery, the small, freshly rezoned space just off Main Street on East 26th Avenue.
“It’s a real performance venue now and there are so few spaces like that in Vancouver: legal, small, hole-in-the-wall performance spaces,” he says, envisioning comedy and theatre programming, as well as daytime events like workshops and rehearsals. “I don’t want to bring a jinx to it, but I can’t believe it’s still there and not a fancy furniture store or something like that, as Main Street is wont to become.”
Then it’s back to solitary endeavours. He’ll travel to Kamloops this spring to perform in a stage adaptation of Mark Leiren-Young’s book Never Shoot a Stampede Queen, based on the writer’s adventures as a young journalist in Williams Lake.
“I’m going to get some horrible reputation, like ‘What an egotist,’ ” Beil says with another laugh. “I miss having a cast, I really do.”
Santaland Diaries is at the Arts Club Revue Stage from November 28 to December 22.