Rider Strong is a lot of things. A screenwriter. A producer. A director. A dad. A poker champion (who won the recent Theatre Unleashed Poker Classic!) At times, a he’s even a generous supplier of delicious tacos. And, yes… back in the 90s, he was a child star. Now he joins forces with Theatre Unleashed for his first production as a playwright.
Don’t sleep on this multitalented wordsmith, because his play is about to awaken some serious contemplation — and genuine emotion — in the audience for the world premiere of Never Ever Land. Rider dug in with the Theatre Unleashed team to discuss his play, his time in the spotlight, and how the latter affected the former.
Theatre Unleashed: What compelled you to pursue your writing career? Does it stoke your creative fires any differently than your other work?
Rider Strong: I actually started writing as a kid, right around the same time I started acting. In third grade, my teacher asked me to help her find a play for the class to perform, and I just went ahead and wrote my own — the epic, A Fish Story. It involved a talking fish, an evil king, and enough speaking parts for 30 eight year-olds. I think if acting hadn’t turned into a career that took over my teens, I would’ve pursued writing much more aggressively earlier. Acting is an incredible art, but a lot of my adulthood has been coming to terms with the fact that I prefer writing and directing. I don’t want to say “acting derailed my writing” but uh, acting derailed my writing.
TU: What draws you to the subject matter? You never name “the white whale” celebrity at the core of this family’s conflict, but… are you a fan?
RS: I don’t think it’s a surprise that Hollywood and the entertainment industry is one of my favorite subjects. My life made that pretty much inevitable. But I gravitate towards the forgotten, unsung, or unseen. So yes, you can say this play is about “a celebrity,” but he’s unnamed because it actually centers the family that was ruined by encounters with him. Walking to my car from rehearsals tonight, I passed about 15 homeless people on Hollywood Blvd. Those are the actual humans who, right now, are trodding the “walk of fame.” That fact interests me way more than say, the biography of a given star.
I have a complicated relationship with the unnamed star: as a kid, I was swept up like everyone else. I appreciate his talent, obviously, but I think “idols” are dangerous, in general. I’ve never understood Elvis, The Beatles, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe — artists where the persona begins to eclipse the work itself. That’s strange to me. Not to say they’re not talented, or people don’t genuinely appreciate their work, but when they’re elevated to iconography, I believe it reduces them, and the fans. A windblown skirt has meaning? Sparkling shoes on point say what, exactly? A small mustache under the nose, an orange face with a combover — human iconography is all about the erasure of nuance and interpretation.
TU: Has your own experience with celebrity informed the play? Did you discover anything about that during the process of developing Never Ever Land?
RS: Definitely. I set out to write a play that didn’t have anything to do with me, personally, but then, dammit, I found myself quoting conversations from my childhood, and soon the whole process turned into mining memories and feelings. If you’re a successful kid actor, there’s a huge shift in power balance: maybe you suddenly make more money than your parents, maybe your fame means girls pay more attention to you than your friends. That can give you a warped view of the world, or hopefully, it can offer its own kind of wisdom. I always knew I wanted Never Ever Land to be about the two values America cherishes most — fame, money — and how they can be sources of trauma. They can tear a family apart, turn them against one another, and turn decent folks into monsters.
When people ask, “Why would any parent let their child spend the night alone with a rich, famous person?” — to me the answer is obvious: because by the standards of our culture, that’s the BEST person! That’s a person who’s won, who’s proven themselves. Of course we should trust them, because if we don’t, then we have to question our entire culture, not to mention sacrifice our own access to their power.
TU: Tell us about the production process for the show. How did this collaboration with your team come about? Has anything surprised you?
RS: I’ve been friends with (producer) Andrew Carlberg for a decade, and when I saw his production of Rotterdam I knew he and that show’s director, Michael Shepperd, were my dream team. Luckily, they both responded to the play, and it’s elevated everything. Shep is incredible with actors, and he creates a flow that keeps the audience engaged at all times. I’ve burdened him, and the actors, with an ungodly amount of words and scene changes, and he’s made it seem effortless. Well, almost effortless.
Andrew brought the script to Theatre Unleashed and it was a perfect match. When Jenn and Greg Crafts decide to do something, it gets DONE — they are tireless and supportive. I can’t believe how quickly this show became a reality. And once this was a Theatre Unleashed project, that meant we were part of a community, not only of great actors, but people were suddenly available and willing to help with everything from finding props to operating a boom mic on our video shoots. In an industry that can be cutthroat and self-obsessed, this whole experience has been a jolt to my heart of the kind of kinship theater can create.
TU: What else would you like us to know?