Were he not the consummate classical and contemporary actor that he is, Ken Ruta would be an actor's actor just for the backstage stories he can tell. Now 67, the San Francisco-based performer and director has exquisite recall of an artistically (if not monetarily) rich life in the theatre: at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre under Tyrone Guthrie; at American Conservatory Theater in the early days (when he turned down Ellis Rabb's invitation to join a New York classical troupe that included Nancy Walker, Uta Hagen, Will Geer, and other luminaries, in favor of joining Bill Ball in the nascent company's move to San Francisco), and in fact all over the country—at San Diego's Old Globe (where he's an associate artist), Seattle Repertory Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum, the Arena Stage, Utah Shakespearean Festival, Arizona Theatre Company, and elsewhere.
And that hectic life in the theatre continues apace. The large, appealingly shaggy, and sleepy-eyed Ruta, who always reminds me of Donald Sutherland, recently toured in the one-man Oscar Wilde: Diversions and Delights, and now he's fantasizing about eventually creating a solo piece about the French novelist Honoré de Balzac, a "weird, fascinating man." Next up, he'll direct Taming of the Shrew in Walnut Creek and appear in David Hare's Amy's View at San José Repertory Theatre.
Currently, he's appearing as Falstaff in both Henry IV, Part I (for the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's matinees in Golden Gate Park) and Henry IV, Part II (at SF Shakes' indoor Gershwin Theatre). Although he's acted in or directed 27 of Shakespeare's plays, this is his first time as Falstaff, a character he considers "amazing, an anti-hero, not just a fat man with funny lines, but a huge man."
In Part I, looking not unlike Alice in Wonderland's Tweedledum in a bottom-heavy fat suit (which he says he's grown to love), he is the comical delight of the show. His blustering, swaggering, red-nosed Sir John is every bit the amoral hedonist with a whole tool kit of manipulative tricks, from his trademark air of injured pride to his wheedling, wheeling, and whining. Yet Ruta effortlessly captures the errant knight's vulnerability—the intense, fatherly love for young Prince Hal, the loneliness beneath the clownish mask.
In short, Ruta is the kind of actor who elevates every play he's in by his sheer virtuosity and humanity. Even if you don't remember the play, you remember his character: his supremely foolish, foppish Sir Epicure in The Alchemist; his slimy, focused Cardinal Inquisitor in The Life of Galileo; his crusty, tender Captain Shotover in Heartbreak House (all at one of his favorite companies, Berkeley Repertory Theatre). To each of his characters he brings a sublime sense of the absurd, plus an enviable gift for expressing the text's language with clarity and precision. When Ruta is onstage, every word and every intention is crystal clear and somehow inevitable.
A director once told me, "In Japan, they have living treasures, and San Francisco has a treasure as far as acting is concerned—Ken Ruta. Working with a man of Ken's capacities, I feel I've been given a Stradivarius."
Ruta would probably crack a joke about that praise. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor and prefers to talk about anything but himself. In fact, he confessed to never being interested in being himself onstage. "When I was young, I wanted to be Laurence Olivier," he said laughing. "A director said, 'Oh, very good imitation of Olivier.' But I got away from all that stuff… At this age, you don't know where your life leaves off and the people you play begin. Why do we become actors? There's such an abundance of life in you that you want to live all these lives. There's so much you put in the coal bin of your mind over the years."
Having taught acting at A.C.T., he believes that you either can or can't act, but a teacher can show you how to go deeper and how to not forget about the audience. "Talent is power, but power is not talent," he cautioned. "That's forgotten a lot."
Of his own methods as an actor, he noted that when preparing for a role, he reads and re-reads the play many times, but he doesn't try to memorize lines before the first rehearsal. "When you learn lines in advance, you're taking it for granted that the other actor is going to say the lines in a particular way. I've seen actors die because they're not really listening. I don't know what it's going to come out like at the first reading. It surprises me most of the time."
He considers Tennessee Williams (whom he met) the greatest American playwright. "His love for all those broken people and fading flowers is too gorgeous," he sighed.
He told me a story about one of his earliest theatre memories: When Ruta was about 10, in Chicago, he sneaked into a tiny theatre and wandered backstage, where he stood, mesmerized, watching the performance. "It was so mysterious. I saw a golden light around people onstage." Years later, he discovered he'd seen the legendary Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie. So it's no wonder Ken Ruta is such an inspired actor.