Hal Ryder has been teaching and directing at Cornish College of the Arts for 33 years. He is the last faculty member from the 1980s. In honor of his long tenure, the college is holding a Roast, May 4th, that will be a vehicle to establish their first Theater Endowment and will be the largest alumni gathering Cornish has ever attempted to host.
Hal says, “As of today, $22,000 has already been raised for the endowment. We’re hoping for $100,000.” His roast is bringing some famous alums back to roast and remember him. They include Brendan Fraser and CS Lee, who haven’t been back to Cornish for a while, given their busy schedules.
Hal is eager to connect alums and current faculty and students. “Almost every past Chairman of the Cornish Theater department will be there. Alumni will attend from 1982 through 2015. My mentor from my training in Britain is coming from Wales, theater friends from many different companies are attending.
“This event is about me being able to accept them saying thank you to me. It scares me a little. My toughest thing is to accept other people’s love for me.”
Hal hasn’t just taught at Cornish, he’s also taught for years at Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio and worked with Robin Lynn Smith on their Engaged Theatre Program at Monroe Correctional Facility. The program began 2003 with a traveling production of The Tempest at Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor and A Winter’s Tale at Monroe and developed into a residency.
Hal says that work is some of what he’s proudest of, along with, “the work I’ve done in terms of social justice and theater. I ran Open Door Theatre (based in Arlington, WA) for 12 years which helps prevent child sexual abuse.
“I’m proud of the work I’ve done internationally through my own companies in Pakistan and Yemen and South/Latin America. Youth radio drama. Young people would connect with and make dramas that were broadcast on the radio on socially relevant topics to them. In Muslim countries where people came to see our work, they would say they had never seen women and men working together like this.”
Hal grew up in Coral Gables, Florida, and went to school in acting, with an eye to teach, as well. While at the University of Arizona, nearing his degree, he had a disagreement with the department chair and quit school to teach at the local Navaho Reservation. “I was hired to teach creative dramatics pre-school through high school with a classroom teacher to help make transition between two cultures and two languages,” Hal says.
His quest to be a consummate actor led him to study in London in an intensive conservatory-style course he says was equivalent to a Masters in Fine Arts. When he arrived in Seattle, after acting, directing and teaching in many different places, Cornish hired him to teach based on his professional experience.
Hal says, “Fewer colleges do that now. 15 years ago someone with my experience would not get the job, but someone with an MFA with no world experience would get that job.” Hal believes that the best teacher for the arts is, “someone who practices the art and has a methodology for explaining that to people who are just beginning.
“Cornish had wonderful faculty then who were all professional actors and we were a real family. We focused on the students. I’ve been impressed with Cornish’s student-focused education. (They’re still working professionals, just not all actors.)
“You have to tell the students the truth, otherwise you’re cheating them, but you don’t have to reduce them to tears. I do that in a way they feel supported. We’re trying to create an art form where believability is truth. I’m asking students to be truthful. So I have developed a vocabulary that applies to different people so I can convey truth without it being personal, it’s about the work.
“In perspective, over the years, the college has developed into a college. I have learned a lot of academic things I never knew I would learn. Bob Sandberg (Robert N. Sandberg, playwright and former chair of Cornish’s drama department) would say, ‘Your growth as an artist and growth as a human being are the same thing.’ The last 33 years have been richer than the first 32.”
Hal has also gone through major personal challenges, as one might expect. He had a partner for 22 years who died a couple of years ago of cancer. Hal, himself, is HIV-positive, though he reports that he has never, ever taken any kind of standard medical regimen.
Hal says, “When I was diagnosed, I thought, ‘This is a wimpy virus; it dies within 30 seconds in the air. I’m not going to let a wimpy virus get me.’ Part of it is mental attitude and part is the health protocol I do including oriental herbs and acupuncture, naturopathic advice and supplements. My problems aren’t HIV, they’re ‘getting old.’”
Hal notes that retiring from Cornish gives him options to say “yes” to other opportunities that might crop up, now that he has less rooting him to Seattle. He’s not planning to move, but, “It’s an opportunity to go forward and live the next quarter to third of my life any way I like. It’s a grand adventure and I don’t know where it will be. I really want to interact with people and continue to make a contribution to make the world a better place for whoever comes next.”
He continues to teach for Freehold and will direct in Juneau, Alaska, next year. He says, “I’m going to investigate acting, I’m definitely doing some writing. I want to have (more) fun.”
Hal acknowledges that many students who have attended Cornish might not have become professional actors, “or loved Shakespeare, but everyone has turned into a wonderful, caring person and I’m just so proud of that. To me, that’s what it’s really about.”
Tickets for the Hal Ryder Roast available here!