In The Spotlight | ‘Life’ story: Johnstown native’s one-man play explores ‘roller coaster’ life of an NYC bartender
- By Mark Pesto
- Feb 2, 2019
Johnstown native Dan Ruth wrote and is performing his one-man play, “A Life Behind Bars,” in Pittsburgh.
After he graduated from Bishop McCort High School decades ago, Dan Ruth moved from Johnstown to New York City with big dreams.
“I wanted to pursue a career I couldn’t find elsewhere, so I went to New York, looking for acting work,” Ruth, 53, recalled during a phone interview on Tuesday. “That’s where my story starts. Things didn’t quite turn out the way I thought they would. … You think you have it all planned out until you get here.”
That experience is reflected in the tagline for his one-man play, “A Life Behind Bars,” which describes what happens “when you reach for the stars and grab the bottle instead,” according to its promotional materials. The black comedy draws on Ruth’s experiences working and drinking in the dive bars of New York City in the 1980s and 1990s; it focuses on the “roller coaster” nature of a big-city bartender’s job, he said.
Ruth portrays 18 different characters – including an overzealous health inspector, an Andrew Lloyd Webber-loving piano bar regular and a “Brooklyn man-bun guy” who lives in an expensive high-rise building and “loves to snap at the bartender when he orders drinks” – during the play.
The audience is “going to be meeting people they may not meet in their everyday lives,” he said. “There’s life lessons in every one of these characters. They’re a lot of fun to play.”
“A Life Behind Bars” won the 2018 Producer’s Encore Award at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in Los Angeles, the 2018 New York City MAC Award for Spoken Word and the 2018 New York City Bistro Award for Outstanding Solo Play. Ruth performed it on Thursday and Friday and will perform it again at 8 p.m. Saturday at Carnegie Stage in the Pittsburgh area.
Being the only actor on the stage, the sole focus of the audience’s attention, for the duration of the one-man play comes with some unique challenges, according to Ruth.
“You, the actor – it’s your job to be able to differentiate, to create different personas that you can snap into and out of in a millisecond,” he said. “There are moments in this play when I’m two or three different people, and I have to make sure the audience knows who I am at any given moment. That challenge is the invigorating part of the show.”
The minimalism of the play’s production presents another challenge.
“I do the show with a bar towel,” Ruth said. “No other props, no nothing, just me and a bar towel.”
Ruth said “A Life Behind Bars” “covers a lot of the history of bars in New York.”
It “explores the bar culture in Brooklyn before cellphones showed up, before everything was on camera, before everything started getting monitored to death,” he said. “It examined the choices people make when they’re not being scrutinized.”
Going to a bar in the 1980s and 1990s, Ruth said, was often a much more social, “communal” experience than it is today. Over time, groups of bar regulars often formed what he called “micro-families.”
“It wasn’t about the drink special,” he said. “It wasn’t about what you had on the cocktail menus. It was about the fact you couldn’t wait to see your friends to tell them you got a new job, or something. … It was about enjoying yourself in the moment.”
Ruth was a full-time bartender and bar manager for years, letting his dreams of an acting career lapse.
“You wake up 15 years later,” he said, “and you’re still doing the same thing. ‘What am I doing here?’ ”
Recently, however, he got back to his roots, dipping his toes back into the water of the business for which he’d first moved to New York City. He “hadn’t written a show since 1997,” he said, when he began developing “A Life Behind Bars” in 2014 as part of a theater workshop. He first performed it in 2015 to a sold-out crowd in New York City.
“I … took back my life after 15 years in the bartending industry,” he said.
While he’s still tending bar in Times Square “as a way to afford the luxury of being an artist in New York City,” he’s also booking the play, which is directed by Tanya Moberly, in venues and festivals throughout the United States and internationally, writing a new solo play and directing performances by other actors.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “I’m just so grateful I finally remembered that there’s something else I know how to do besides tend bar. I’m just really grateful that I’m back in the driver’s seat again.”
That gratitude is reflected in “A Life Behind Bars.”
“The overall message of the show is that life’s not over when you think it’s over,” Ruth said. “Never give up hope.”