Thursday Spotlight: Ryan William Downey on creating theater that’s “slapstick comedy, abject horror, and pure existential dread”

Photo of Ryan William Downey by Jose Miranda
The experimental theater group Title:Point has been bopping around Brooklyn (and beyond) for well over a decade, and Ryan William Downey has, in many ways, been at the center of its zany, beating heart. As co-Artistc Director of the company, Ryan is a consummate multi-hyphenate theater artist: an actor, playwright, and all-around theatermaker. Now, he prepares for the world premiere of his new play, Sleeping Car Porters, a “pitch black comedy that explores western masculine myth through a phantasmagoria of power, violence, and mystery.” The play comes to The Brick December 5–14, a venue helmed by Theresa Buchheister, a former Thursday Spotlight artist and an actor in the play. (She portrays Billy the Kid, which should be worth the price of admission alone.)

Here, we catch up with Ryan the week of the performances to learn about Title:Point, his playwriting path, and more.

Greenpointers: For those unfamiliar with Title:Point, could you describe that theater company a little? And how did you come to be involved?

Ryan William Downey: Title:Point is the type of theater company that frightens you into laughter. A Title:Point play should be equal parts slapstick comedy, abject horror, and pure existential dread.

I’ve been involved with Title:Point for about a decade, but its history precedes me. It was started by Theresa Buchheister and Samara Naeymi a few years before that. Theresa and I met while working at The Strand bookstore. She invited me to join her writer’s group and from there I joined Title:Point as an actor/writer. Over the years we earned each other’s trust where now we run the company together and have expanded to many other creative endeavors (Exponential Festival, ?!: New Works, Vital Joint, and beginning in January 2020, The Brick).

What was the genesis of Sleeping Car Porters?

I began writing Sleeping Car Porters in 2015, though it took a long time for the ideas to crystallize into something resembling where the play is now. I originally conceived it to be an intimate two-person show that would be easy for us to tour and present in any space. Which is hilarious given where we have ended up. Our production at The Brick has as big a creative team and as ambitious a technical design as any show Title:Point has ever produced.
Poster artwork by Mark Toneff
This piece plays on American myths and Western masculinity, incorporating Billy the Kid. Why use that figure, and is the other main role, Zodiac, an original character?
Billy the Kid and Zodiac are both based, rather loosely, on their historical counterpoints. In this case, Zodiac is some version of the Zodiac Killer who terrorized Northern California in the 60s and 70s. History is a tricky thing with both of them. Folks can’t seem to settle on where Billy the Kid was born or buried, for instance (he has two graves!), and the Zodiac remains un-apprehended or definitively identified so he has become a kind of black hole in the damaged American psyche for the last 50 years. They both provided a jumping off point to delve into the themes I was interested in exploring with this script, how killers become folk heroes or confounding mysteries, how they change in our collective memory over time. Sometimes the more you read on the subject the further you get away from the truth of the thing. Our take on both characters is prismatic and kaleidoscopic in nature. They are at times unrecognizable.

Talk a little about your work and trajectory: we get a lot of creatives in our Thursday Spotlight series, but it’s rare we get to speak with a playwright!

I’ve been writing drama in one form or another since I was a teenager but most of the work we have produced in the last decade has been collaboratively written. A typical Title:Point show may have two to ten writers on it, depending on the development process. I wanted to write Sleeping Car Porters all by my lonesome to get back in the practice of climbing the mountain and telling the story. I am working on a play that operates like a slasher film and have several screenplays in development, mostly working in the horror genre for the foreseeable future.

What has your partnership been like with Theresa?

Theresa drags me into every bad idea she’s ever had and I just keep hopping in the hand basket headed straight to hell. We can out-argue any creative team in the American theater. Don’t believe a single word Theresa says about me.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to say that the creative team behind this production have been invaluable to its coming into existence. In most cases the parts were written with the actors in mind and the technical team has exceeded all of my expectations profoundly. I am so proud of the strange thing we have built together. If it’s a failure it’s my fault because they have given the production everything it needs to be successful. I love them all to death.

About Billy McEntee

Billy McEntee has been fortunate to work for arts non-profits in Boston, Denver, Berkeley, and now New York. His writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Vanity Fair, American Theatre, HowlRound, Observer, and others. He's usually getting wine at Dandelion or eating cookies at Archestratus.

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