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The Face in the Reeds in Santa Monica - John Ruskin Interivew

By Ester Benjamin Shifren

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RUSKIN GROUP THEATRE is a hidden gem that is located right across the runway from the Santa Monica Airport. Though it's become a favorite of locals, many people from all areas of Los Angeles and Orange County journey to Santa Monica because they love the plays this group offers. Now, over ten years old, the company has garnered a well-respected reputation nationally for the quality of the work they do. TheWorld Premiere of Rex Pickett’s Sideways The Play, was picked up by the La Jolla Playhouseand is now slated to run in New York and other cities. Last season’s Paradise-A Bluegrass Musical Comedy written by the team of Bill Robertson, Tom Sage, and Cliff Wagner was scouted by numerous theaters for upcoming regional productions. It feels like "home town" there, with topnotch talent.

In addition to their main stage entertainment the group offers Ruskin’s Healing Through The Arts program, Outreach, that brings their actors into the Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA to work with, and entertain the children. The CAFÉ PLAYS, created by RGT and produced monthly are the culmination of writers, actors, and directors who meet at 9am, where they are given a theme. They then write, produce, and perform a show by 7pm the same day. When celebrating their anniversary, RGT supporters Ed Asner, Dylan McDermott, Chris Mulkey, Olivia d'Abo, and other industry celebrities joined to produce the Best of Café Plays (both shows sold out within hours). Anthony Hopkins, Anthony Franciosa, David Mamet, Ed O’Neill were just some of the noted guests who have taught at the Ruskin School master classes. Seems like something is ALWAYS going at their building and it was interesting to find out how this came about, from founder John Ruskin. Here's my interview:



Ester: Has the Ruskin Group Theatre and the School of Acting evolved into what you had envisioned when you founded it?

John Ruskin: Way beyond. The Ruskin School was founded in 1986, with my hope that I could pass on the teachings of Sanford Meisner because his work had changed my life. It is, I believe, the single most important work for any actor…or really any human being. It’s become my life’s work to pass it on and I take the tradition and the responsibility of having been one of the few chosen by him to teach very seriously. Meisner asked me to become his apprentice and teach under him at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City where I had first been his student in 1983. Years later he promoted me to start my own school, and then theatre company, out here in Santa Monica. When I started here it was just me in a tiny garage with a small group of new actors/students. The garage was so small you had to wait for all the actors to arrive and then close the door to begin, because otherwise the swinging door took up too much room to work. Almost thirty years later I feel very blessed to be doing the work I love, both in the school and theatre. The quality and passion of the actors/students and our teachers has been beyond my dreams. I would not have imagined that we would have such incredible artists coming to the school to teach and work with us. I would not have believed that people like Anthony Hopkins, Ed Asner, David Mamet, Dylan McDermott, Ed O'Neill, Jim Belushi, and more would be coming on weekends to teach in our school. Many of these guys were my idols and inspired me when I was a young actor. I am truly grateful to them, the students, and all the others that I feel blessed to do this work with. RGT is a non-profit theatre company, separate from the school, and that’s been another incredible ride. We started in an empty airplane hangar in 2002 with the idea and dream that we could create a place for great artists, writers, directors and actors to come together and work, but we had no idea how we were going to make it happen. We’ve taken it a play at a time and have just been really fortunate that so many deeply talented and passionate people want to come here to work and through the amazing support of our patrons, our Board of Directors and the City of Santa Monica, that we’ve been able to keep the doors open (and seats filled) for 12 years now…

Ester: Did your studies through the Yale School of Drama, British American Drama Academy, and the University of Colorado in Boulder lead you to a more eclectic approach when it comes to theatre, or has it strengthened your commitment to following the Meisner technique? 

John Ruskin: I attended those places before I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse. This was the work that changed my life, and that is why I continue to teach it now, more than thirty years later.  To be frank, none of the places I studied before or after studying the Meisner Technique in New York had much to offer comparatively and that’s why I’ve dedicated my life to teaching Meisner’s work. Sandy Meisner defined acting -   

“Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”  

That is what we focus on in our work in the school and in the theatre company, to work in a truthful way. Working with many other people, who also trained in the Meisner Technique gives us a great bond and commonality.

Ester: What do your duties entail as an Artistic Director/Founder of a successful theatre company and acting school?

John Ruskin: First and foremost, I am a teacher. That is what is most essential to me. I get to pass that work, that magic of Meisner’s work/technique, on to other actors each day in the school…and then I get to work with many of them again in the theatre.

As Artistic Director of a small theatre, it’s really everything. We produce all our plays in house, so there’s all the work that goes into finding new plays and choosing old ones to revive, raising the money and then producing the plays. Trying to plan and look to the future of the theatre is a constant role/duty, but our hardest job is fundraising.  A non-profit theatre has to raise money every day or it will not survive. Most do not survive because you can usually only raise a small percentage of your budget from ticket sales, especially when you have a small and intimate venue like ours.

Thankfully Mike Myers, who is the Managing Director of the theatre and the Associate Director of the school (as well as a wonderful teacher of acting) does an incredible job and is my dedicated partner who has been there since day one of the theatre. It is really a labor of love for both of us. No matter how difficult and stressful it becomes, Mike and I feel a deep need to continue. The great poet and writer, Rainer Maria Rilke once said, “A work of art is only good if it has risen out of necessity.” We feel that the work we do in the school and in theatre is necessary, so we have no choice but to continue.

Ester: Can you identify for us, some of your biggest challenges/frustrations in keeping your business running and vibrant in the community and beyond?

John Ruskin: Anyone who has ever run a non-profit theatre company knows that the greatest challenge and frustration is raising money and reaching out for donations both private and public.

Mike Myers and I love teaching and love producing theatre, we love working with actors, writers, and directors and other theatre artists, but we need to spend so much time reaching out to friends, family, the community, and to donors both public and private that it becomes difficult sometimes. 

We believe deeply in the power of theatre and the arts, so we are always inspired to push ahead no matter how difficult or frustrating it becomes. We are both people who love to do things ourselves, so it’s hard to depend on others for help, but we must if we are to continue. We are very grateful to all of the people and patrons who have supported us for the past 12 years and allowed us to do what we love. Hopefully we will keep you entertained.

Ester: In what ways do you see Ruskin Group Theatre expanding within the next few years?

John Ruskin: We are exploring ways to expand our space and renovating the present theatre to accommodate more seats/audience.  We are developing some very exciting shows that we think will move to New York as well as travel to other larger theaters. We now have a great track record with the successes of the original shows that were developed with us. One of those shows is “Sideways the Play,” which moved to La Jolla Playhouse with Des McAnuff directing, and it’s now heading to London or New York. Another is “Paradise-A Divine Bluegrass musical Comedy” which will hopefully run in New York as well. So, part of the dream now is to continue to develop shows that can move and go nationwide or worldwide. Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago has always been the model that we looked to for our company. Similar to us, they started as a tiny company in a little church basement in 1975 and now they have cultivated and produced some of the greatest plays and artists of our time. 

 Our goal has always been teach people the magic of training in the Meisner Technique and to produce world-class professional theatre.

That is what we hope we have done and will continue to do in the next few years…and way beyond!

WHAT"S PLAYING NOWTHE FACE IN THE REEDS - running Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm through October 11, 2014.

While Passover is a celebration of freedom, it is also a quarrel about the meaning of freedom, the value of life, and the shadow of death, which symbolically “passes over” the house. During the course of the evening, conflicts emerge about the merit of faith over conversion, the truth in religion, and the nature of parental responsibility. This night is different from all other nights and of course, this being a Jewish family, it is also a comedy. We're all going to die--but first, you should eat.


Ruskin Group Theatre

3000 Airport Road

Santa Monica, CA 90405

(Ample free parking)

HOW: For Reservations call (310) 397-3244 or book at Ruskin Group Theatre


Follow the Ruskin Group Theatre on Twitter @RuskinGroupThtr, and like us on Facebook.com/RuskinGroupTheatre.

Published on Sep 19, 2014

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