Friday, April 4, 2014
Society • Guest Contribution by Don Huntington With Dazzling Interview
I have written previously about the extraordinary young actor, Ryan Lehfeldt. This follow-up story that just broke in the April Issue of 110% Magazine is Ryan’s personal story as he told it to Editor Don Huntington, who shares Ryan’s words below. Mr. Huntington put this together unlike any writer I know. This has all the qualities to become an award winning story. Those who are not moved by this probably do not move at all. This is republished here by the permission of Mr. Huntington and 110% Magazine.
Confessions of an Overcomer
Moving Past Difficulties On Stage And In Life
By Ryan Lehfeldt
I seem to have been born with a highly developed stage presence. I draw energy from an audience. The more people; the more energy. I get excited about performance. Never once have I had a single moment of fear while onstage; no stage fright. Last month I played the lead role in the Stage Right production of Phantom of the Opera. It was the high point of a stage career that began when I was only four years old and playing the smallest orphan in a production of Annie. Since then I have been in more plays and on more stages than I can remember. But I am only getting started. I am a junior in high school, but have signed up to be represented by a Hollywood film agency.
The role of Phantom struck some chords with me. The themes of darkness versus light, disability versus genius, and isolation versus public performance speak to me. Like the Phantom, I have had to cope with physical issues that might have forced me to live a reduced and solitary existence.
I spent my entire childhood and youth learning to deal with a rare and potentially debilitating condition called Russell-Silver syndrome. At birth I was doll-size — only a foot long and weighing under two pounds. I never grew to a normal height and even now I am barely over five feet tall. The word “syndrome” means that the condition has more than one symptom, and I manifested a number of them. One is a lack of appetite, which meant that I had to take in nourishment through a feeding tube until I was six years old and could finally force myself to eat food that I had no interest in. The condition causes low muscle tone and a lack of subcutaneous fat (which some people might imagine to be an advantage).
Unlike the Phantom, I refused to let my physical disorder drive me into isolation. Quite the opposite, Russell-Silver has had some wonderfully positive outcomes because my need to overcome my condition served to sharpen my intelligence. My physical issues forced me to spend my conscious life in an ongoing quest to acquire skills and abilities that would enable me to thrive in spite of my limitations. Someone said that a positive mind creates a positive life and that’s exactly what happened with me.
My mother, a great booster and motivator, is the head of an ad hoc fan club who have supported me and encouraged me at every point. She deserves much of the credit for the personal triumphs that I have enjoyed. A challenge that loomed over my childhood, of course, was the cruelty that children seem to naturally express towards anybody who doesn’t fit into their rigid standards of appearance and conduct. Mom nipped that problem in the bud because on my first day of kindergarten,
I showed up looking like a four-year-old and could have expected some teasing and even bullying from the other children, who loomed above me. However, Mom staged a public meeting with the teachers and students in which she explained my condition. Mom has a fundamental belief that a bully isn’t an evil person; he’s not even stupid. He’s simply ignorant. The right message delivered with clarity and appropriate moral force can put an end to the impulse to tease and to torment another. At least in that instance, Mom’s principle worked to perfection.
When she finished with her brief “seminar,” it seemed like my classmates absolutely lined up to become my friends. Rather than being an object of scorn and derision, they understood that my life is difficult and realized, if only dimly, the role that they could play in helping me overcome the challenges I was facing. Many of them hugged me and told me that I could be their friend. The event could have been a subplot in a Hollywood movie because those young children not only followed up with their friendship, a number of them have remained close friends until this day.
The episode had an even more wonderful effect in that it strengthened my own attitude towards the challenges I was facing. Fears I might have otherwise entertained about my self-worth had lost their power to harm and diminish me. Through that event and many others that followed I learned the powerful lesson that a support group of people who “have your back” can create an impenetrable barrier against the “slings and arrows” of malicious people who intend to torment you and make you feel low and ashamed of yourself. If people call me “little man,” “runt,” or “dwarf-kid” I am able to simply smile and understand that they only behave like that because they don’t know any better. I am actually on a mission of helping people like that come to the place where they “know better” than to mock me and tease me.
My first contact with the theater occurred when I was three years old and my mom and older sister, Taylor, took me to see The Wizard of Oz. Mom said that I just sat there on her lap, never moving a muscle, and with mouth agape at the unexpected wonders that were passing before my childish eyes. Following the performance I said, “Mommy, I want to do that.” At first she didn’t pay any attention but during the subsequent days and weeks I kept insisting that I should have the chance to be onstage.
Finally, Mom began searching for a performance opportunity and learned that a local children’s theater group, called New Stars, would accept actors who were four year old. When I finally turned four I auditioned for a role in Annie and was accepted for the role of the smallest orphan. The rehearsals were long but I always loved associating with the other actors. I was the only boy in that particular “orphanage” and was absolutely captivated by my onstage experience. The traditional “fourth wall” between players and audience didn’t exist for me. During performances I would make binoculars with my hands and give the audience thumbs-up gestures. Mom said that everyone always went nuts over my unpracticed behaviors and were enchanted my obvious comfort with the theatrical experience.
When the Annie run ended, we learned that Wizard was coming back. I began begging to be part of that. I finally wore Mom down when she asked, “Why do you want to do this, Ryan?” And I replied “Mommy, I just love making people in the audience smile.” That comment was prescient because from those earliest moments onstage, acting was never “all about me.” It was about giving something back to the audience. It was about making them smile and laugh. Probably, at some level, it was especially about my delight at revealing to them the beaming happy boy that was the real me beneath my obvious but superficial physical differences. I joined the Wizard troupe as the smallest munchkin in the Lollypop Guild. They gave me an enormous lollypop to hold during each performance that, as I recall, was like carrying around a giant sledgehammer.
Those two earliest productions were the beginning of a lengthy theater résumé that included a number of roles in children’s theaters such as Chief Running Bear and one of the Lost Boys in a production of Peter Pan, the butler in Sleeping Beauty, the dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland. Mr. Badger in Mr. Toad’s Adventure, and the lead role in a production of Pinocchio. That was a particular triumph and gave me my first taste of being a celebrity because people would come up to me in the days following and ask, “Weren’t you the kid who played Pinocchio? That was so great!”
I distinguished myself by acquiring the knack of being able to invest a role with qualities such as accent and mannerisms that I imagined my character might have used, but resisted any impulse to be overly gratified by the enthusiastic praise that was being showered down on me. I didn’t want fame to go to my head. My sense of joy and satisfaction from being onstage will be seriously diminished if I ever reach the point where any performance becomes“all about me.” True onstage happiness only comes about as I attempt to focus on the positive effects a performance might have on the lives of others. If I can only make them laugh and forget about the stress in their lives for a couple hours, I will have achieved my goal.
I went on to play more roles in children’s theater productions including Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Tom Sawyer, Charlotte’s Web…. (I could keep going). When I was 13 I wanted to begin playing adult roles, so auditioned for Antioch’s Stage Right’s production of It’s A Wonderful Life and landed the role of George Baily’s best friend, Mr. Martini. I had met the director, Bryan Anthony, when we were at Ballesteros’ Children’s Theatre and he knew of my predilection for expanding on a character I was playing. “You have to be drunk,” he said. I worked with my mom on adding characteristics that we imagined would make Mr. Martina seem wonderfully inebriated.For no particular reason, except for the guy’s name, I played the character with an Italian accent. The performance turned out to be a memorable success. It seemed a particularly gratifying triumph that I, a seventh-grade American, could create the convincing image of a drunken Italian adult. I broke some ground, I guess, because after that, Stage Right actors began speaking in accents in subsequent plays.
Wonderful Life was followed by other adult roles in Fame and in The Wizard of Oz. This time I was the Wizard. There were some major starring roles during that period of time but if a minor role were the only one available, I would jump onstage and couldn’t have put any more energy or heart into the minor character than if I had been playing Macbeth. I never cared if I wasn’t the lead; I was going to make the small character big; magnify it; make it better. People weren’t going to forget the few minutes that I might spend on the stage.
Maybe acting is my true calling. Perhaps God will be pleased if I continue to get on stage and lift hearts and imaginations, make people laugh, and inspire them to be positive and happy. In the 2011 Stage Right production of It’s a Wonderful Life, I landed the role of Mr. Potter, which I reprised during the next two years. Last year one of the audience members, Rev. Austin Miles, who had Hollywood movie credits himself, advised us to sign up with an agent. Others agreed. “You should be on television,” they said. We began sending packets to cinematic agents. Now we’ve got a contract with an agent who is looking for roles in film or television that might take me to the next stage of my career.
Life is all about hard work and intense dedication to achieving the goals you set for yourself, together with self-confidence and an assurance that by the grace of God things will work out the way they are supposed to. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare said and, in fact, a stage performance and a life are both exacting and difficult. They require discipline so that you do the right thing in the right moment. There’s no second take. If you fluff your line or an entrance, you just have to go on. When things go wrong, you learn from your mistakes. The show and life itself“must go on.”
Playing the lead in The Phantom of the Opera production was a high-water mark in my budding career. By the grace of God and the encouragement of my mom I’ve been able to avoid the isolation that might have resulted if, like the Phantom, I had succumbed to the temptation of defining myself by my physical issues and seeking the safety of isolation and obscurity. Unlike him, however, I have chosen to burst through limitations and boundaries and to leap into the spotlight while reaching for the highest level of acting and the most enlightened conduct of life that the grace of Heaven will permit me to achieve.
Ryans photo can be seen on this website at: http://revaustinmiles.com/index.php/more/520
Don Huntington who transcribed Ryan’s interview for this story does speaking engagements which are delightful. He could be considered as a present day Mark Twain.
110% Magazine distributed in Northern California is an excellent area-regional publication that spotlights local people and their businesses. Hopefully it will spread to other communities.