How I Came to Play Mark Twain

Have you seen MEET MARK TWAIN?   Thanks to the Virginia Stage Company, thousands of Hampton Roads residents have experienced Ryan Clemens’ endearing one-person-show and gotten to know one of America’s most famous authors.  For the past seven years, Ryan has served as a Resident Theatre Artist with VSC, and has traveled to schools, libraries, community centers, and theaters around the area and around Virginia.  With an old steamer trunk full of costumes, props, wigs, and rubber frogs, Ryan brings Mark Twain and Mark Twain’s stories to life.

For our blog today, we asked Ryan where his interest in Twain comes from and to tell us a little about how he developed this acclaimed VSC touring show.


Well, I can recall bedtime when I was a kid, and one particular evening after my step-brother Bill and I had gotten all tucked in.  My stepmother took out this old, tattered, Mark Twain book that she’d begun to read the night before.  

“TOM SAWYER?!”  Bill cried, “You’re gonna read Tom Sawyer AGAIN?!  That stuff is, like, from 100 years ago!  It’s so OLD!”

“Just try a little more of it, Bill.  You might like this next chapter.  Besides, it was written by Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens.”


“So, Samuel CLEMENS?  He’s a distant relative!”

“He’s only RYAN’S distant relative.  Make Ryan read it and I’ll read my Ninja Turtle comic book!”

But my stepmother prevailed and read aloud more of Tom’s adventure.  It turned out she was right.  Bill did come to like it.  So did I.  Perhaps because Tom offered ideas for the mischief we boys could try out the next day?  At any rate, that’s how I first became acquainted with Mark Twain and my familial connection to “Cousin Sam” - through bedtime stories.    

Fast forward thirty-some years, and I’m still listening to Mark Twain at bedtime.  Well, at all times.  Sometimes it’s via audio books, but oftentimes it’s via my own voice.   I spend a lot of time thinking, working, and reciting Twain-inspired performances.  In the car, in the rehearsal hall, and in all kinds of theatre spaces, I’m regularly listening to – and still enjoying - Mark Twain.  Fortunately, most of my audiences –even my middle school audiences -  are enjoying Mark Twain, too.  Once they - like my step-brother - get over how “old” it all is.

It is thanks to the Virginia Stage Company that I’ve found a means to revive Twain’s stories here in Hampton Roads.  When I came to join the Virginia Stage Company’s Education Program in 2010, I had just finished my Masters of Fine Arts degree at Regent University.  Prior to coming to Virginia, my wife and I were living in Washington state, where I’d been working at a jewelry store, auditioning for plays, studying theatre, fronting a rock band, and dabbling with the notion of creating a one man show about Mark Twain.

“I’m a relative and a trained, imaginative actor!”  I said to my young, ego-driven self, “Who better than ME to bring Sam Clemens back to life?”

Well, the answer to that question was easy:  Hal Holbrook.  If you don’t know Hal’s name, you’d know his face and gravelly voice.  Holbrook is the legendary, Academy Award winning, Mark Twain master performer who came to prominence by his Mark Twain Tonight!    This was the one-person show that would set the bar, not just for Mark Twain performers, but for all actors who dared to create their own one-person production.   Did you know that, between film and television roles, Holbrook, now 92 years old, still tours the iconic show he created back in the ‘50s?

And Holbrook’s show, captured in audio and video recordings at my local library, became the next inspiration to my dream of creating my own show.   I wanted to captivate and delight the audience the way Holbrook’s Twain did.  And, to be honest, as I performed the first incarnation of my one-man show, I was playing Hal Holbook playing Mark Twain.

But time, experience, and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of higher education gave me some new performance ideas.  And so, as I found myself looking towards life after graduate school, I returned to thoughts about Mark Twain.  I still believed there was something special that I could bring to a Twain interpretation.  And now I was better prepared to give the white suit, wig and mustache another go -round.

That’s when I met Patrick Mullins, then the Associate Artistic Director at Virginia Stage Company.  He saw me as a performer with skills and qualifications, and he saw in my enthusiasm for Mark Twain a win-win opportunity for me and VSC’s Education Program.  Virginia Stage allowed me the opportunity to rework my Mark Twain show, creating an exciting, theatrical, and personal 60 minute show to offer some of the best of Twain’s history, humor, and exceptional writing.

As I sought the right material for this show, I had a lot of wants.  I wanted bits that could be fun, funny, and fast-paced enough to keep the interest even of restless sixth graders.  I wanted characters that would run the gamut of Twain’s collection, from lovable, whimsical, scatterbrains to off-putting, dark and dangerous types.  I wanted full yet short stories – adventures, travelogues, lectures, even ghost stories - that I could “animate” in varied, interesting ways.  

I’d need selections from “Life on the Mississippi,” interwoven with some of Twain’s various musings about boyhood, to paint the picture of his halcyon dream of Hannibal.  I’d need some “wild west” stories from his salad days in the gold and silver lands of California and the Nevada Territory.  (A certain bucking horse story fit the bill for this, as did that well-known tale of the “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” )  I’d need quips, maxims, family anecdotes, and nudge-and-wink, religious and social “advice” from the white-haired, white-suited, best-beloved, grandfatherly Twain.  I’d need the right section of Huckleberry Finn, so that I might offer young people an inlet to this important and ever-controversial book, a way to help a modern audience understand what the book meant, what it still means, and what Twain is teaching us about race in America.  I’d also need to study, and study, and keep in memory all sorts of Sam Clemens jokes, quotes, and biographical tidbits, so that I might give my Twain the freedom to step off the stage, engage in improvisational chat, and truly, personally meet members of the audience.

Since 2010 when I first presented my MEET MARK TWAIN, I’ve continued to add new ideas, new materials, even a song or two to the show!  It has been a great gift that the Virginia Stage Company has given by allowing me to develop this show.  And it’s a great gift that I’m able to give through VSC in bringing this show to our community.

See a video trailer of MEET MARK TWAIN below:

For more information on how to book Meet Mark Twain for your school, library, service club, fundraiser, or other event, contact us at 757-627-6988 x331.