Jessica Ryan’s goal has always been making connections through art, though the path for her wasn’t always clear. “I’m pretty sure I was never meant to be in the arts,” she recalls of her Kansas City, Missouri, USA, childhood. “My parents told me I was without a doubt the worst kid in dance class at 3 years old, but apparently I just refused to give up.” Jessica’s persistence served her well; she went on to dance professionally until her early twenties, at which point a knee injury and a painful surgery signaled the beginning of the end. Jessica remained undaunted, however, and simply shifted her creative focus to theatre. As a kid, she’d often join her grandparents at their theatre jobs to watch rehearsals, so once her career in dance was nearing its end, Jessica instantly knew what her next step would be. She was soon thrown into the spotlight during a production of A Chorus Line after the actress she was understudying fell ill. “She actually got sick while the show was being reviewed,” Jessica remembers. “I had to jump in without any rehearsals.” As a further testament to her talent and tenacity, Jessica’s performance was favorably critiqued, which she notes, “is a miracle when [the reviewer] is expecting a Tony Award winner and gets a 23-year-old unknown instead.”
Today Jessica engages in a variety of creative work—writing and directing for theatre, doing voiceover and digital content work, even singing the occasional jingle—but above all this, her chief pursuit has been to use the theatre to help people make meaningful connections with each other. One day, Jessica heard a podcast about how online crowdfunding was changing the video game industry, and she began thinking about technology’s role in theatre. “My brain started wandering…thinking about how isolated theatre communities are, how technology has the ability to connect and empower us, and how interactive tools could give us the ability to come together around live theatre and impact change.” With this in mind, Jessica put together the first live-streamed, interactive Broadway benefit concert, one in a series which has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars for survivors of violence.
“My brain started wandering…thinking about how isolated theatre communities are, how technology has the ability to connect and empower us, and how interactive tools could give us the ability to come together around live theatre and impact change.”
As a result of that first benefit show, Jessica began receiving messages from theatre-makers around the world, asking her about how they too can connect to people in this way. “I learned that our industry suffers from an immense lack of access to tech innovation,” she remembers. “Because we are largely non-profit, we don’t scale (by design) and we can tend to be a little technology-averse.” This realization was the impetus for Jessica’s founding of Broadway Unlocked, a non-profit organization “devoted to reinventing the way we strengthen the arts by gathering and activating the people, resources, and ideas needed to make tech innovation accessible to all theatre institutions.”
Broadway Unlocked gave Jessica a vehicle to impact a wider range of people through theatre, but true to her girlhood instincts, she remained open to other possibilities. “I woke up one morning, went to read through my Medium digest, saw [Idealist Founder] Ami’s essay about the sock sharers, and hunted Idealist down immediately. I read that and instantly knew I wanted to create an Idealist Day for the theatre community.” Through Idealist Days, Jessica saw an opportunity to put her skills to use for the common good. “I am a serial volunteer-er, and I believe wholeheartedly in the power of giving even the smallest of your time and talents to those who need it.”
In January of 2018, Jessica joined the Idealists of the World Facebook group and planned her first Idealist Day activity. “I knew from the beginning that I wanted to make our Idealist Day a community affair and use it to expose artists to all the amazing art-based organizations I had contacts with, in the hopes that it would make it easier for artists who don’t volunteer to find an organization they align with and start working with them.” Taking the Idealist suggestion to use games as an icebreaker, Jessica reached out to notable artist-activists in her community—Andrea Prestinario from Ring of Keys; Rachel Berger of The Artist Co-op; and Bill Coyne, producer of MuseMatch—to co-host a Theatre Game Night for Good on the first Idealist Day, 3/3/2018. “Playing games turned out to be a beautiful way to break the ice with all the new people that were coming through our door, and we’ve continued to use it as the center for a lot of our organization’s get-togethers!”
Putting their theatre chops to good use, Jessica and her co-hosts also created videos to spread the word and encourage people to sign up.
The first Theatre Game Night for Good was such a success that Jessica arranged one every Idealist Day for the next eight months—each time with new co-hosts. “We began to either be introduced-or were proactively reaching out to-other organizations and change-makers we wanted to invite,” she says of her widening circle of Idealist colleagues. The Theatre Game Night events have had long-lasting effects, both for attendees and for Jessica’s growing list of creative projects. “We’ve had tons of connections come out of Idealist Day,” she notes. “We’ve used Ring of Keys [another theatre organization] when we needed to make sure our online news show had a proper diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints. One of our Idealist creators had a life-changing moment as a result of our Idealist Day with Rick Cowley, the founder of VisionQuest. Another Idealist we met is now one of our lead volunteers for The Giveback Concert through Broadway Unlocked. Our community director, Sam Disney, who is largely responsible for the success of our Idealist Days, has strengthened her relationships with some really cool theatre companies doing groundbreaking and community-driven work.” Jessica knows that these connections are the key to fostering real, lasting change in our communities. “As artist/activists, we have a sense that we are all in this together and we are so much stronger now that we all know each other and have formed strong relationships.”
It’s been a long road since those early dance classes, but Jessica has lost none of her gumption. “Artists have such a long history of impacting cultural and political change around the world,” she says. “My hope, as our organization grows in the next few years, is to be able to develop a technology-based tool geared at strengthening and elevating the profile of arts organizations making a difference.”
Looking to the future, Jessica and her team at Broadway Unlocked are aiming to continue making meaningful connections in pursuit of effecting change—even teaming up with the Idealist office in New York City to do it. “We’re really excited to now be bringing our extensive network and all the things we as artivists have to offer to the larger New York City Idealist population,” Jessica says. “We’ve been collaborating with the Idealist team on an organizer series, and we’re excited to continue to be leaders in helping folks turning intentions into actions!”