Using Performance to Create Community
Ryan Rebel '14 is one of the four founders of Shoe Box Company, one of Philadelphia’s newest theater troupes, and the director of the recent Fringe Fest play WILD: A Clown Western.
On stage, a clown is moving to and fro on a rocking horse while another clown approaches, shyly, with a lasso and a love note in hand. When the scene ends, director Ryan Rebel '14 offers the actors some advice.
“Have you ever gotten a note or a letter from someone you had a big old crush on, or have you given one?” he asks “Tilly,” the clown with a note to present. “This piece of paper, it has such immense importance to you at that period of your life, your entire physical and emotional well-being is tied into it. You really want to pass this note, but your body is telling you not to. You’re like a rubber band—this way, that way. Try to feel those forces.”
The actors nod, and each time they run through the improvisational WILD: A Clown Western, the scene gets tighter, funnier. Rebel laughs with appreciation. “The least helpful advice a director can give,” he says later, “is ‘Just do things better.’ ‘Be more angry.’ Or, ‘Do it with more energy.’ I think, ‘How can I frame this to this person’s experience, so [the actor] can more readily and enthusiastically access what they need to make this scene really pop and come to life?”
Rebel is one of the four founders of Shoe Box Company, one of Philadelphia’s newest theater troupes. Based at Manayunk’s Venice Island Performing Arts Center, Shoe Box was formed less than two years ago but has already put on a festival of short plays and a production of Macbeth, set in a contemporary corporate office instead of medieval Scotland. Its clown western was presented as part of the 2017 Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
“Venice Island is new, and even people who work right up the street don’t know we’re here,” Rebel says. “We’ve had some success connecting Venice to the larger theater community, and we’re hoping more people come out now that we’ve been in the Fringe guide.”
Rebel was introduced to acting in eighth grade and was part of the drama scene in high school. Still, he didn’t think he would continue in theater in college and beyond. He found his personality—slow, thoughtful, deliberate—was better suited to directing than acting.
“I’m a good listener, and that’s the main skill you need to have in directing,” he says. “It’s not really about imposing your will on others, but being sensitive to all in the process. The best ideas will always come from the other people you’re working with, and if you’re not listening, you tend to miss it all.” Like many people who make a living in theater, Rebel has multiple gigs. He’s taught theater workshops at Philadelphia rec centers in partnership with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, teaches summer sessions at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts, and recently worked as a zombie in an escape-room game. But his primary job is doing freelance tech work for Venice Island; in fact, that’s how he met the other Shoe Box founders.
“I’m very slow to anger usually, and I don’t eally get mad, but it really gets me when people say the arts aren’t important,” Rebel says. “It’s not that without theater programs children’s imaginations will shrivel up … but when someone says, ‘This is an important way to see the world,’ it shows that there are other paths. I think we’d have a healthier society if we embraced the arts more.”
One of the many members of the Haverford community who attended a Fringe Festival performance of WILD: A Clown Western was Associate Professor of English Laura McGrane. She really enjoyed it, she says, noting how well Rebel was able to pull poignant, funny, and pointed performances from his actors (including Jo Vito Ramírez '13).
Rebel was McGrane’s student, and at one point her research assistant. He was, she says, “playfully experimental and gently independent.”
“I knew that he would be out there in the community using performance to make a difference.”