September 2017 - Behind the Scenes: Jonathan Ragsdale
If you are a fan of New Mexico theater, you’ve heard the name Jonathan Ragsdale. Although Ragsdale established himself as a performer in local productions, he is currently experiencing life in New York as a cast member in Mama Mia! Ragsdale took a moment out of his schedule to talk about his love of theater, inspirations, and upcoming projects.
Where did your love of theater come from?
My love of theater came from my parents, I guess. I grew up in a home that watched a lot of musicals. My mom would take us to plays. At that time, I thought it was something everyone did and that everyone knew and loved these plays and musicals as much as I did. It's only now I realize that theater isn't really something most kids get exposed to. I'm very thankful to have parents who enjoy the arts.
What is the first musical you saw that you fell in love with?
The first musical I remember seeing was Into The Woods. My mom took me to see it at the Sinclair College in Ohio. I was mesmerized. The show still ranks as my favorite musical—I still learn something new every time I see it. I wish I could find the folks at Sinclair and say, "Thank you."
Who are your inspirations when it comes to the craft?
Well, as a performer, I'm always inspired by strong, triple threat performers. I like to watch and learn from the people who can do it all. If you're looking for names, I'd definitely say Patrick Swayze, Hugh Jackman, Gene Kelly, Michael Jackson...the list goes on, but actually I look up to a lot of my colleagues in the shows I'm doing now. Artistic living isn't an easy life, so anyone who commits their lives to excellence in the theater is an inspiration. As a choreographer, I love the innovators: Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Twyla Tharp, and some of the newer trailblazers like Andy Blankenbuehler and Peter Darling. Peter Darling's choreography for Matilda is my absolute favorite work.
Ragsdale and the men of Mama Mia!
You've been working in the local theater scene for quite awhile now. Do you feel local productions should have the same level of performance as what is seen on Broadway? Is that a goal for you with productions you either choreograph or perform in?
I grew up in the Albuquerque theater community! It’s such a rich scene here, with over 60 independent companies, all producing shows year-round. We're a very privileged city to have so much local live theater. That being said, I don't think I would ever hold local theater anywhere to the same standard as Broadway. New York is the birthplace of musical theater. Broadway is the best in the world, with shows that are fully industrialized and make enough money to pay the best actors in the world. I think local theater has its own standard, and it usually amounts to how much the local performers care about what they're doing. Just because theater in Albuquerque isn't Broadway doesn't mean it can't be excellent. And as artists, I think we all strive for just that. Whenever I get the chance to choreograph a show here, I always try to make my choreography pretty challenging. You get to work with such an array of experience— some performers here have decades of dance training and others have never taken a class. I love seeing performers who rise to the challenge and push their limits, and if I'm the choreographer to push you there, even better!
What's the feeling like when you step on stage and perform in front of an audience?
How to describe that feeling? I mean it’s always exciting—every time you perform a show is the audience's first time seeing it. I've always thought that theater doesn't happen on stage or in the audience, but in the space in between. It's the connection between the performers and the audience that really makes it. And every connection is different, different reactions, different energy levels. I love sharing a show with an energetic and receptive audience. The energy is contagious.
What upcoming projects do you have?
I am currently finishing up with the run of Mamma Mia! at the Gateway Playhouse in Long Island, NY. After that, I'm taking the rest of the year off from performing...I'll be here in Albuquerque teaching and choreographing for some great programs here and in Roswell, and you might catch me onstage in Festival Ballet Albuquerque's Nutcracker in the Land of Enchantment this Holiday season! If anyone wants details on where I'll be performing or teaching, they should check out my website at jonathanragsdale.simdif.com or on Instagram @JRags.
For those looking to enter this craft, what piece of advice would you give them?
I would say do lots of theater. Do as much of it as you can fit into your life. If it's right for you, you'll make more space. There are so many opportunities to perform here in Albuquerque and hone your craft. Do shows and learn how to connect with an audience, learn how to audition and rehearse effectively, and learn how a show comes together. Every show won't be a gem, but you'll learn something from each of them, and you'll be around some very kind, open-hearted people while you do it.
You've had the opportunity to explore your talents outside of the state working with some amazing performers. What has the experience been like?
It's been really great! I've been very fortunate to work with some amazing people and perform on stages all over the world in the last four years. I learn so much from my colleagues, all the time. Its definitely taught me patience, it’s taught me empathy, and I've also learned some much-needed humility. With the amount of talented, passionate performers in this country, I consider myself very lucky to be employed in this industry.
If there was one musical you could perform in on Broadway, what would it be and why?
Just one? Well, I'd really like to play Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It’s such a cool, quirky, and hugely demanding role. And obviously I'd love to dance in Hamilton.