From Audience Member to Auteur: The Ridiculous Beginnings of Ryan Landry

Playwright Ryan Landry remembers the moment he knew where he belonged as an artist. He had just moved from a trailer park in Wallingford, Connecticut to New York and started art school to study painting. One night, a friend invited him to Le Bourgeois Avant Garde at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in the West Village. “I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about,” Landry says. “I couldn’t even understand ‘bourgeois,’ let alone ‘avant garde.’”

Ludlam’s play mashed up the Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme with a satire on the middle class embrace of avant garde charlatans (the main character, Foufas, is patron of artists so far out in left field they are called “avant derriere”). Visiting the Ridiculous on a lark was a lifechanging event for Landry. “I went, and I never left after that,” Landry says. “I went every night — eventually they didn’t charge me, they just let me in. I completely understood where I was supposed to be.”

For Landry, Ludlam’s aesthetic — bold, gender-bent, genre- breaking, simultaneously heady and bawdy — was a revelation. Landry worked with the company for a brief period after Ludlam’s death. During this period, he also began performing original drag sketches. (“Not because I thought I looked like a woman,” he says, “but because there was money in it.”) Landry performed in contests, and intuited that the way to win was not to have the glitziest performance but the most inventive one. “I would build sets and props out of cardboard and paint them,” Landry recalls of these early performances. “Some girl would dress as Batgirl and I would be Catwoman. I’d sing ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face,’ and I would saw the girl’s face off.”

Landry spent his summers on Cape Cod — “I grew up in Provincetown,” he says, “even though I was eighteen when I got there.” After a particularly ugly breakup, friend and collaborator James P. Byrne encouraged him to put up a play himself. On the front porch of the big gothic house where Landry lived, they staged a version of Ludlam’s Medea. On opening night, the ex-boyfriend showed up. “I caught his eye — I couldn’t believe this, he was there with the guy he was dating,” Landry remembers. “This bolt of lightning went KER- CRASH just as I caught his eye. And I shouted, ‘WOMEN OF CORINTH!,’ and the whole audience screamed! I knew I had them from that moment forward. I remember the power I felt. It was a marker, ‘This is what I should be doing.’” Soon after, Landry began writing his own original plays, owing a debt to the Ridiculous work that Ludlam pioneered but also firmly Landry’s own delirious vision.

— Charles Haugland


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