Mrs Ryan’s Drama Class is one of the first films I made in my time as a documentary director at the National film board of Canada. I’m not sure how I became interested in children improvising drama. It might have been because I’d gone to Czechoslovakia to see some of the great children’s films made there at the Barrandov Studios and had been struck by the naturalness of the children in those films, not looking like they were acting at all.
Then I heard about Toby Ryan in Toronto who was running improv classes for kids after school to get kids remarkably freed up and natural, even the stiffest of children. It was decided that I would follow her class through a term and see if what she said was true. Toby is such a warm and engaging character, and whilst the results are interesting but not amazing, she holds the film together. She’s the sort of Canadian that at the time at least assured you that Canada was a wonderful caring and empathetic country, reminding me why I was making my life there rather than back in my native Australia.
Early in the production Elizabeth Knight came over from Australia. I didn’t know Elizabeth but she came highly recommended and she organised the shoot as well as if not better than any of my subsequent productions. She still a very good friend, both of us now back in our native Australia.
Mrs Ryan’s drama class lead to two spin-offs. One was a film called Sir Sir which was shot in an afternoon when two of the boys decided it would be fun to get a reversal of roles happening, they would be teachers in the classroom and their teachers would sit in their desks and act up on all the outrageous ways that they were accused of doing. This movie used children who were in Mrs Ryan’s drama class.
There was a second spin-off called, Here’s to Harry’s Grandfather, the idea was to use the same improvisation principles to make a short feature drama set in the woods. It really didn’t work at all. I took it to a festival in Iran and the young audience virtually booed it off the screen.
I think now that it failed mainly because the story simply wasn’t good enough and I didn’t know how to plot the scenes to effectively bring out what little story there was. These were hard lessons I learned, which stood me in good stead years later when I made children’s films with Rock Demers. Whilst they weren’t improvised, the auditioning always involved improvisation in the freshness of that carried through into the productions. I have a lot to thank Toby Ryan for.