By Armand Butera
James Rana, adjunct professor, sits center stage of the Russell Ratsch Theatre on an old wooden chair, with the heat from the tea he’s holding to his right sneakily climbing up his hand.
Wearing mint colored slacks and a plaid button down with a light brown sweater, it’s apparent that he takes pride in his appearance. As for his work on stage, film and as a writer, the situation is no different. The drink he holds in his hand is less for pleasure and more for keeping his vocal cords from any unneeded harm.
“Acting is an athletic thing, you give so much of your body to your work. We have to constantly be in the best shape that we can be,” Rana said.
Rana grew up a few miles away from campus, and was facing obstacles with his voice worse than the sore throat he has now. As a child he had a nervous stutter – something he still wrestles with today. But he found his comfort through a flashing screen in the living room.
“Growing up I watched a lot of T.V. shows,” Rana said. “I was obsessed with the comedian Peter Sellers, who could play many different characters. I liked that he could put on different voices, and it was something I think I became very good at. I don’t even remember how I talk anymore, but I don’t think I put on a voice.”
What may have seemed a distant dream at the time, Rana would follow in Sellers’ footsteps in a sense, becoming a performer in his twenties. With preforming came vocal training and further study of classical theater, an interest that stayed with him through the years.
But even though Sellers’ acting captivated him as a child, he said his first true moment of inspiration came when he first got noticed as an actor, setting him on a course that he did not think was possible.
“I think the fact that I could get some attention and the idea that I could be good at something, because when I was younger I never thought I was that good at anything, was important to me,” Rana said.
It wasn’t long until the young actor took on promising roles in television and theater. Between sips of his tea, Rana spoke of a time when he was considered an upcoming star in television and the future seemed brighter than ever.
Then suddenly everything stopped.
Work wasn’t coming in as frequently and Rana and his peers found their themselves in a creative rut.
“There was a great deal of sadness I was going through, and I was asking myself ‘what happened?’” Rana said.
The “urge to want”, as Rana said, abandoned some of his peers, as the young actors he worked alongside dropped out of the entertainment business entirely.
However, Rana did not choose to take the final bow himself. Instead, he found solace in writing seven years ago, creating original material at times but also transcribing stories for the stage. It was not only a move that saved his career, but potentially his life. Though writing is no easy feat, it brought a sense of joy to his career that he likened to playing outside during his childhood.
Rana leans in and for a split second the room goes completely silent. The air ducts wheeze outside in the hallway, but the loudest sound heard is of the gears turning in his mind.
“It is frustrating,” he said. “I’m forty years old and I’m feeling a little confident, and I had a long time of dry spells and frustration. My twenties were all about being frustrated and feeling bad about myself, thinking that I wasn’t getting anywhere. But that’s what it’s like to be human. Failure is a wonderful thing to go through.”
What Rana has in spades, aside from talent, is passion. It’s what kept him going – even in the trying times of his twenties. Though he concedes that “walking away from it all” is tempting, he also notes the importance of always fueling the passion that he has for his profession. Because of this, Rana is currently in one of the most interesting and engaging periods of his career.
Currently, Rana is the co-director for the Actors Shakespeare Company of New Jersey, and is preparing for a “brief but lovely” off-Broadway role in the stage show “The Government Inspector.”
Rana is also showcasing his writing talent with his play “A Year in the Trenches,” focusing on America’s involvement in World War I, as 2017 is the United States’ centennial year of being involved in the conflict.
The source for the play revolves around the journal entries of a WWI engineer, yet Rana chose to include the stories of little known players in the conflict hailing from New Jersey. The characters range from poet Joyce Kilmer of Mahwah to Amabelle Sharf Roberts, a Morristown native who was the first nurse to die overseas in war.
Rana delves deep into the lives of people who would otherwise be unknown, exposing their interesting stories and the roles they had during the conflict.
Like the people who hired him in his youth, Rana is giving these people a chance to be heard through his storytelling.
“There’s so many eccentric people out there in the world – very interesting people – who either we don’t talk about or that history has forgotten,” Rana said.
It’s enough to catch the attention of any theater fan and, as Rana’s story proves, that one moment can mean everything.