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Ian Ruskin brings Thomas Paine back to Britain
The Transatlantic actor has toured the UK and US inspiring people with his stage production exploring the life and story of Thomas Paine. Ruskin is now returning to the UK with the show. We spoke to him about bringing Thomas Paine back to Britain.
Thank you for your time Ian. Our traditional opening question, where are you from?
I was born in Epping, Essex. My family roots are the East End of London and I still support West Ham United, often to my chagrin.
Your acting career began in London having studied at RADA, but it's taken you to both sides of the pond - can you tell us a little about your Transatlantic life?
I had lived in America as a child. We returned to England when I was 13 and I attended RADA at the ripe old age of 16. I decided, in 1985, to return to America, to Los Angeles, where I have lived and worked since. Five years ago I was invited to perform my first one man play, From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks about Harry Bridges, an Australian who became a leading and visionary figure of the American labor movement, for the English and Scottish Parliaments. I was invited by Labour MPs! At the same time I was completing my Paine play which I am now bringing to England for the third time. I plan more trips home!
What sparked your interest in Thomas Paine?
His extraordinary vision and passion for equality and true democracy, at least 100 years ahead of his time, his genius with words, the roller-coaster path of his life with its incredible highs and lows, and the fact that I believe he is one of the most misunderstood men in history. It was an irresistible combination.
You must have conducted a lot of research into Paine's life - is there anything you've learnt about him that few others know?
Most people are not aware of the magnitude of his influence on our world today, including his participation in the American and French Revolutions and the formation of democratic governments (although there is still work to be done) and his clear championing of Reason as the basis of our morality. I also discovered that, in the end, he was optimistic about the human race.
How did that interest translate into the stage productions you perform about Paine's life and work?
I have always been an actor and, nearly 20 years ago, began writing one man plays. Once I "discovered" Paine, his life, with its ups and downs and moments right out of what would be the most fantastical Hollywood script, poured out into this play.
What do you perceive as the core reasons for the stage production? Is it entertainment, education, or a bit of both?
My strongest hope is that audiences leave the theatre inspired. This is a man who gave everything to make the world "a better place at his death than it was at his birth". In these times of division and conflict as to the purpose of our lives, I have seen that Paine’s vision can inspire us to "live our own lives a little better", as an audience member said after the filming of the play (it has aired on the PBS network in America).
As an actor, what is it like to step into Paine's shoes on stage?
My feet hurt. Truly, the shoes are not comfortable. Other than that, I am inspired to inhabit this man and when I hear soft gasps from the audience as they hear his words, gasps that these ideas were formed over 200 years ago, I cannot imagine more thrilling moments for an actor.
As well as performing in the UK, you've toured the production across the US. At what kind of memorable locations have you performed the show, and do you have a particular favorite setting to have performed the play in?
My first performance was at “Grand Performances”, a magnificent open air space in downtown Los Angeles. Harvard Law School, Conway Hall in London, and American Community Colleges, where at least half the audience are immigrants, just like Paine. Above all, the Benjamin Franklin Hall of The American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, of which Paine was a member. On the other hand, this upcoming tour, that will have me treading floorboards that Paine, literally, trod, and standing in his classroom, will rank very high!
How do American audiences react to the story and to Paine as an individual?
Most Americans see Paine as a hero, sometimes based on misunderstanding. Paine was very close to a modern day European Socialist and a critic of organized religion, so it is ironic that many American Evangelicals and Libertarians see him as a hero, but my American audiences especially value his vision and determination to speak the truth as he sees it.
You're bringing the production to the UK during April and May - what do you hope UK based audiences take away from the experience?
A greater understanding of the man and of his philosophy so that they can agree or disagree with his ideas based on facts! I also hope that the audiences in these three towns that were so important in his early life will feel a sense of pride in their famous citizen.
Finally, in your view, what makes Thomas Paine such an important figure in Anglo-American history?
Paine’s “Common Sense” literally sparked the American Revolution and that alone makes him a very important figure in Anglo-American history. He also challenged the morality of slavery and voter suppression, believed that the “Common Man”, and woman, could and should play an active part in their own life and in the life of their country, and that we should use our Reason to navigate our lives. Important issues for both countries, then and today.
Ian Ruskin will perform his production, "To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine" at the British Association for American Studies Convention, Attenborough Center for Creative Arts, University of Sussex, England (April 25), the All Saints Center Lewes, England (April 27), The Corn Hall, Diss, England (May 9) and a special performance at Paine's home town of Thetford, at Thetford Grammar School (May 10). For booking information, go to www.thelifeofthomaspaine.org