Recent Grad Takes Leading Role in Memphis

Man with short hair in a black shirt and tie

Recent MSU graduate Ryan Duda, who received his B.F.A. degree in Theatre in May, is now preparing to play the lead role in the upcoming production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which runs September 21-October 7 at Playhouse on the Square in Memphis, Tennessee. 

We recently caught up with Duda to find out how his experience at Michigan State University helped prepare him for this role. 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has a lot of ties to the projects you were involved in at MSU. Can you expand upon how the two are related?

At MSU, I was an instructor for 4th Wall Theatre Company, which is an organization that teaches performing arts to students with intellectual disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome. With this experience, my professor, Dionne O’Dell, and two other students, Kathryn Stahl and Evan Phillips, and I wanted to know what other kinds of theatrical outlets exist for persons with intellectual disabilities. We found one company in New York City that was creating new theatre specifically for kids with autism. So, we took a trip to New York City to meet with them. During our first trip in 2016, we saw the Broadway production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is about a 15-year-old boy with autism who goes on a quest to find out who killed his neighbor’s dog. Fast forward a few years and my professor, friends, and I created the first university-produced musical for kids with autism, entitled FARM! A Musical Experience.The story at its core aims to teach the audience to empathize and accept individuals with autism and their families, and that is a message that means a great deal to me.

What has been your most challenging task throughout all of this?

I set the bar really high for myself because I care so much about the story. Knowing how much of an impact the Broadway production had on me, I want Memphis audiences to walk away feeling the same way I did when I first experienced the production. I actually reached out to the actor who played the lead on the national tour, which came to Wharton Center in 2017, and have been asking him questions about the role. Aside from memorizing all the lines, I want to portray someone who has autism in a respectful, non-stereotypical way since I am a neuro-typical person. The role is also very physically demanding. I get a full ab workout by the end of the first act from planking on blocks, and some of the emotional territory I have to travel to is mentally draining. I’d have to say self-care outside of rehearsal has been the most challenging task.

“I think, especially now, we as a society need to be more empathetic to things and people that we don’t understand.”

What are you most looking forward to in your upcoming role as Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time?

I am most looking forward to making accessible the experience that someone with autism might have in interpreting everyday life to audience members who may know nothing about the autistic community. I think, especially now, we as a society need to be more empathetic to things and people that we don’t understand. By sharing the story of this show, we can help start the change that is needed to create a more understanding, accepting world for individuals with autism and their families.

What advice do you have for people wanting to get into theatre?

I’m biased because theatre is something I love more than anything else. The bottom line is this: if you have a passion, no matter what it is, follow it. Even if you’re unsure of how the journey will play out, I promise the stars will align. Hard work always pays off in the end and know that the journey will be tough, but what a blessing it is to work so hard for something you love. 

What other upcoming projects are you working on? 

After I finish Curious Incident, I will perform in Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook through November and December, and then I will play the lead role in Tuck Everlasting in February, all at Playhouse on the Square in Memphis. I’m also collaborating with Dionne O’Dell, Kathryn Stahl, and Evan Phillips on developing a second original musical for young audiences with autism, with the goal of writing a book about the process at some point in the near future. And, I want to start a vlog series. I like to stay busy.

poster of a man wearing a red ip-up sweatshirt and cargo pants who is looking up at a starry sky
Poster for the Playhouse on the Square production of “The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time”

How did your MSU education help prepare you for your career?

MSU gave me the courage and skills necessary to turn a passion into something I could build a career out of. The Department of Theatre faculty supported me even when I doubted myself and provided so many opportunities to grow and learn new things about myself. 

What should students take advantage of while they attend MSU?

MSU is huge, but I think that is one of its biggest advantages. There are so many clubs and extracurriculars to engage in that span across all interests and becoming part of these organizations can really help you develop a lifelong career. I knew that I wanted to combine my love for theatre with my interest in teaching; that’s how I got involved with 4th Wall’s outreach opportunities on campus. I had no prior experience working with kids with disabilities, but now I’ve begun to build a career around creating accessible art for their communities. Life is crazy and you don’t know where it’s going to take you, but the only way to find out is to follow what you’re interested in. Join those clubs!

Did you have any internships and/or study away or abroad programs that influenced your career and/or life?

I interned my senior year at Wharton Center for Performing Arts in their Institute for Arts and Creativity. I was able to help administer many incredible arts education and outreach programs such as Disney Musicals in Schools, Act One Arts Educators, and the Sutton Foster Ovation Awards, all of which greatly influenced my career. Not only did it provide me with teaching experience, but it allowed me to develop my arts administration skills, which I believe to be incredibly important when going into an artistic field. I use the skills I learned at Wharton Center every day at my current job at Playhouse on the Square, and I work in their education department when I am not performing or in rehearsal.

“We as the next generation of world leaders have to strive to become the change we see in the world.”

Why did you choose to come to MSU?

My friend talked me into auditioning for MSU’s theatre program. I was actually planning on going to Grand Valley as an education major. But when I got accepted into MSU’s theatre program, I talked my parents into letting me give it a try for a year, fell in love with it, and the rest is history.

Did you have any mentors at MSU that you would like to mention and how did they help you in your career?

Dionne O’Dell took me on as her research assistant my sophomore year and kept me along for the ride that was developing ‘FARM!’ My life would not be the same without her. Rob Roznowski, Deric McNish, Mark Colson, Christina Traister, Brad Willcuts, Dave Wendelberger, and Alisa Hauser were all instrumental in training me as a performer. I’m so thankful to be performing for a career and I could not have done it without them. And Tina, Amy, Ann, Dan, Angie, Kirk, Brian, Shannon, Lex, KKP, Jason, Mark thanks for fostering my knowledge of all things theatre.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about MSU and your time on campus?

We as the next generation of world leaders have to strive to become the change we see in the world. Whether that’s something small like helping someone in need, or big like becoming the next President, we are in too privileged of a position to not be agents of change. So, I would encourage everyone to just follow what makes you happy because you have no idea how following your passion will inspire others to do the same. MSU is a wonderful place to take risks, learn, fail, and grow. But it’s not forever so please take advantage of the incredible opportunities you are presented with.