He has no trouble being on a stage – he is, after all, an actor. But that’s different because when he’s playing a part, he gets to hide behind the character.
Talking about himself, well that’s another matter altogether.
“I’m a private person,” he says, adding that he hopes he can come up with at least one interesting thing to convey about himself.
Ben, lean and despite what he says, loquacious, didn’t come to the stage by a conventional route.
When he was growing up in Bournemouth, a coastal resort town in England’s County of Dorset, he took a fancy to music, teaching himself to play the drums, the harmonica, the guitar and the saxophone.
“I fell in love with the blues,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I moved to the States.”
By 19, he was playing in a local band, and after studying media and communications at Bournemouth University, he followed a good friend to New Orleans. He was 25.
“The day after I arrived, there was a hurricane scare, and I had to evacuate,” he says. “It didn’t hit, but a year later, Katrina did.”
The flooded city dried up his music work, so Ben joined a landscaping crew to earn money. He also worked with a construction crew gutting houses that had been savaged by the storm.
“I did a lot of other jobs, too,” he says. “I wrote music reviews for the local paper, I was a bouncer – not a very good one – for a cigar bar, I was a cook, I was a dishwasher, I loaded and unloaded equipment for Jazz Fest musicians, and I even was a stand-in actor for films.”
He also picked up music gigs whenever he could.
“I played sax in a reggae band and harmonica in a blue-grass band,” he says.
At some point, he decided he wanted to take the stage. Not as a musician but as an actor.
Acting runs in Ben’s family: His maternal grandmother acted and directed community theatre productions.
“I grew up watching people on stage,” he says. “I had a dormant interest; I wanted to learn the craft.”
So in April 2012, Ben came to New York City, taking up residence on the Lower East Side. A year later, he moved to Astoria.
“Six months later, Hurricane Sandy struck,” he says, adding that it felt like New Orleans all over again.
Two weeks after his arrival, he got his first big break: He met Mel Williams, the artistic director of Theater For A New Generation, a non-profit company.
Since then, Ben has had a steady job playing roles in its productions, which this year will include the Sam Shepard play True West.
“I’m not interested in being a celebrity,” says Ben, who is 39. “I do acting purely for the craft; it’s a noble art form. I doubt I’ll ever make a proper living from it.”
Speaking of making a living, to fill in the financial gaps between productions, Ben works as a bartender at various Astoria venues.
What he’d really like to do, though, is teach acting to working-class children in England, where the rest of his family is.
“These kids have a lot to say, and they can’t express it because arts funding has all but gone away,” he says.
Sometimes, though, Ben thinks about going back to music.
“I’m very rusty,” he admits.
In his studio apartment, there’s a guitar crammed in the corner of the tiny kitchen. It’s still in its case.
“I bought new strings for it, but I haven’t had time to put them on,” he says.
Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling