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Enterpreneur finds successful niche within live entertainment industry

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The next time Connecticut residents visit Six Flags New England Amusement Park in Agawam, Mass., or Lake Compounce in Bristol, Conn., they may want to consider how the shows and live entertainment at those venues have improved from back in the days of your youth, or at least from 10 to 15 years ago.

You can probably trace some of that change back nearly ten years to the day when a then-23 year old with an unusually large amount of experience in amusement parks and commercial production companies acknowledged his personal frustration with the quality and scope of live entertainment offered at such venues around the country. “I remember calling my father and saying, ‘I can’t stand this job,’ he relates. “It’s frustrating to see how much better it could be done.” At that point, the burgeoning entrepreneur decided to chuck his job and the next day printed up some business cards with his initials as the name of the business and set up an office in a corner of his living room in an apartment in Astoria, Queens, in New York City.

Today, from his office just steps away from Broadway, Ryan W. Stana, the lanky, confident 34-year old Chief Executive Officer of RWS & Associates, presides over a business that makes it apparent that he did know how much better it could be done. In an example of classic business development, he discovered a niche market and created products and services that meet its needs. In his case that market has grown to include amusement parks, cruise lines, and corporate special event planners.

What these clients appreciate about RWS & Associates, Stana indicates, is the company’s ability to handle all aspects of such productions, from the scripting, designing and scoring of shows through their ultimate casting, rehearsing and staging. Set design, costume design and special effects are all accommodated in house, along with ongoing supervision of the shows to assure that they remain as fresh and exciting for audiences as they did at their opening performances.

Although Stana claims that he could never have predicted that his career would have led him in this direction, it’s hard to believe that anything less would have satisfied the ambitious young man from Pittsburgh, Penn., who discovered a love for amusement parks as a young teenager and who had early dreams of being a performer himself. “When we went on school trips to the local amusement parks,” he says, “while the other kids would run for the rides, I’d go off and binge on the shows all day." He dreamed of being in the shows himself one day, and once he went to work in the parks, he began dreaming about being on Broadway, while, in his words, “doing nine shows a day in 90 degree heat.”

While working at the parks he began immersing himself so much in their operations, that he impressed his bosses with his ambition and interest. He soon found himself involved in nearly all aspects of the parks’ live performances at the ripe old age of 17. “I can’t believe the responsibilities that they gave me at that age,” he recalls. “I would find myself writing shows and then between classes I’d find myself on a cell phone booking talent.”

Stana still can’t believe his good fortune in getting a ground’s eye view of production at such a young age. He also found time during his high school years to take college-credit dance training at Pittsburgh’s Point Park University and subsequently worked at Pittsburgh’s renown Civic Light Opera which served as a training ground for many a young performer who would go on to success in New York or elsewhere.

After graduating from Point Park, he moved to New York, realizing that he enjoyed the production end of the business more than performing. He worked for a number of different production companies before jumping out on his own. In the subsequent ten years, Stana has built up an impressive array of clients that include Six Flags and Hersheypark among the amusement parks, Hard Rock Resorts, the television series “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race,” and one recently acquired client, Holland America Cruise Lines, for which RWS & Associates is responsible for all on-ship entertainment on all of their cruises.

RWS & Associates also handles all of Macy’s Christmas programming and the store’s “Macy’s Stars on Broadway” for which RWS won an Emmy Award in 2009. They have designed and produced special entertainment events for such corporations as Kohl’s, Cover Girl, and even for the launch of Jennifer Lopez’s clothing label. The company has in recent years become the largest producer of licensed properties, creating shows for the likes of Barney, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Bob the Builder.

With well over 150 new shows every year to plan and produce, RWS & Associates is also the largest full-service agency offering complete production services, with a year round staff of 30+ professionals from all aspects of production and performance that swells to over 500 folk during the summer season.

The company is now in the midst of one of its more important yet most painstaking of its efforts, holding auditions for its shipboard and amusement park productions. During March and April they will be conducting auditions in New York, the Boston area, Alabama and even by Skype, 23 in total since the beginning of the year. The company makes it very clear upfront what it expects from the performers and what they can expect in each performance venue. “Our performers,” Stana says, “have come to learn that if they do well, we can take care of them,” meaning, he adds, giving them a leg up in the industry or pointing them in the right career direction. Approximately 50 per cent of each years’ performers are returnees who have spent at least one season working on an RWS production. Many clearly regard this experience as a stepping stone, he acknowledges, but as the level and quality of these productions continues to grow, the experience that the performers receive is even more valuable and marketable. Since RWS & Associates handles all aspects of production, the company also bring on musicians, technical staff, builders and costumers during the season to supplement the year round staff.

“Performance is everything,” Stana says, referring to high standards the public is now expecting from their live entertainment, after seeing shows like “Glee” and “American Idol” on television. Plus he indicates that the rise in social media offers little room for error. “We are constantly trying to elevate the live stage experience,” he adds about his philosophy on working with clients, especially cruise lines. “We just don’t want to put on a show. We want to make sure that any type of entertainment we install gets remembered as the main attraction.” As a result, RWS & Associates incorporates the latest in visual and auditory technology, including kinetic electronic screens that can capture movement from screen to screen, to provide a continuously attention-grabbing experience.

In addition to providing an outstanding entertainment experience for audiences, Stana seems equally excited by the longer term benefits of his firm’s work. “We are trying to excite people about the performing arts,” he elaborates, “as our clients put more focus on the entertainment aspects of their operations. Audiences will come to understand the importance of a live theatrical experience and we hope this will encourage them to be supportive of children going into the performing arts.” To that end he has also been invited to serve on Point Park University’s Board of Directors which maintains one of the larger performing arts programs in western Pennsylvania and is currently engaged in an expansion of the local Pittsburgh Playhouse.

It’s also important for the firm to keep abreast of the popularity of certain trends and activities in popular culture, he continues. “Once a month, we hold a brainstorming session with various members of my staff,” he explains, “where we try to define the latest fads and fashions not only in the entertainment industry, but in the culture as a whole, whether it be in sports, gaming, clothes, or whatever is fascinating people. What I may think is cool as a 34-year old, may not be cool anymore. Then we have to figure out how to implement it into our various productions” in order to capture its currency. For example, texting has been incorporated into some of their live shows and the video game Rock Band has been adapted for the stage in a way that allows for audience interaction.

In order to assure that each production remains fresh and exciting, Stana and his top management team spend a good deal of their time visiting the various venues where they are producing shows, visiting nearly 98 per cent of all of the company’s product during any given year. In addition to both announced and unannounced site visits from the firm’s management team, Stana also has a cadre of secret shoppers who may visit a park or go on a cruise and experience the live productions as any tourist or audience member would and share their feedback.

His team also keeps track of what is exciting audiences around the world by regularly attending productions in Las Vegas or China or catching the newest Cirque du Soleil shows or seeing extravaganzas celebrating major events around the world, such as an Olympic opening ceremony or a country’s anniversary. “We can’t focus just here on Broadway,” he reiterates, gesturing out his window to the theatre district just beyond. “Live entertainment is world-wide.”

One of the projects of which Stana is particularly proud is a live production they designed for Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, which is performed nightly during the park’s season to providing excitement, color, music and special effects to enhance the experience of evening and night-time visitors to the park. With over 100 cast members dedicated specifically to this production, “Luminosity” is billed as “the biggest, grandest and most expensive night show in Cedar Point's history". The result is an expansive nighttime extravaganza that morphs into a nightly dance party attracting up to 12,000 people a night.

From an awestruck kid visiting Idewild Amusement Park in Ligonier, Penn., for the first time to an entrepreneur responsible for over 40 unique live shows each year, Stana has clearly carved out a niche for himself that serves as a one-stop shopping site for parks, cruise lines and corporate entities that provide live entertainment as well as a formidable casting agency for performers and other talent looking for opportunities in such venues.

For information on upcoming auditions being conducted by RWS & Associates, visit their website at http://www.rwsandassociates.com/auditions.

To keep up theatrical activities in Connecticut and western Massachusetts, please consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner and/or the Springfield Art Examiner by clicking on the word “Subscribe” near the byline at the top of this article. A copy of each new article will be sent directly to your inbox.

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