Ryan Robbins on Project Limelight: “They offer a creative environment, but within a safe construct”

Ryan Robbins on Project Limelight: “They offer a creative environment, but within a safe construct”

Performing arts programs save lives.

Ryan Robbins knows this statement to be true, because he lived it: when he was a kid growing up on Vancouver Island, performing arts programs served as a kind of lifeline.

“I owe everything to arts programs and extracurricular activities that kept me, for the most part, out of trouble,” says the award-winning actor, who recently wrapped on the second season of WGN America's Pure, a crime drama about drug-running in a Mennonite community.

“For me, growing up the way I did and how I did and needing an emotional outlet more so than a physical outlet – my physical outlet was martial arts – somehow, in the context of a character, it was easier for me to socialize," he says. "It was easier for me to connect with others when I was pretending to be somebody else, and it steered me in the right direction.”

Which is why Robbins is now an ardent advocate for Project Limelight, the free performing arts program for kids ages 8 to 15 living on Vancouver's Eastside that was founded by sisters Maureen Webb and Donalda Weaver in 2012 – and for which the organization and PLAY Management will co-host a derby-themed fundraiser at Hastings Racecourse on August 10.

 Project Limelight kids

Project Limelight kids

Project Limelight is built on a foundation of profound love: The sisters wanted to do some good in East Vancouver – where they’d been raised – following the death of their mother.

Typically, the Project Limelight kids work with industry pros (volunteers all) towards a show that's ultimately performed to sold-out crowds; this term, they're making a short film.

Project Limelight counts numerous local film industry professionals among its champions, for a bounty of reasons, says Robbins: the sisters' roots within the community (both Webb and Weaver work in casting; says Robbins, “Maureen is someone who cares very deeply about our community and the people in it”); the fundraising events that bring the community together; the keen awareness, on a cellular level, that programs like Project Limelight equip kids with the tools they need to thrive in life – tools like empathy, self-confidence, the ability to work with others to create something bigger than themselves, and discipline.

(Glee actor Cory Monteith was one of its earliest and most enthusiastic supporters; when he passed away in 2013, his family identified Project Limelight as one of two charities to which fans could donate funds in his memory.)

 Ryan Robbins. Photo by Dennys Ilic

Ryan Robbins. Photo by Dennys Ilic

“I didn’t realize I was learning discipline [when I was a kid in arts programs] because I was enjoying it, but you need that,” says Robbins. “You need that discipline. Kids want guidance and they want boundaries, and they’re happiest when they don’t realize those boundaries are being presented to them. They just feel safer. That’s what these sort of theatre programs do: they offer a creative environment, but within a safe construct, and that’s what I love about Project Limelight.” 

One of Robbins’ favourite Project Limelight moments occurred in 2014 when he was volunteering at a rehearsal for The Chocolate Factory. It was his first time working with the Limelight kids, and he found himself deeply moved by their “sheer joy.”

“The floodgates opened for me,” recalls Robbins. “I vividly remembered the moment when I knew I wanted to do this for a living. I remembered where I was on the playground. I remembered exactly the moment, and it was from seeing the joy and enthusiasm and fire in these kids. It was, selfishly, really good for me to remember that this was something I’d wanted to do since I was 12 years old, and remember that feeling of why I love this so much. I want that for other people.”

“It’s so cliché: that whole, ‘Children are our future,’ but it’s the truth,” adds Robbins. “We live in a crazy world, and we grown-ups aren’t getting it done. There’s too much fear and uncertainty, and we need to help our kids have an environment for themselves where there’s less fear, and less uncertainty, and help foster their confidence. These kind of programs, they foster that confidence.”

Project Limelight and PLAY Management present Off to the Races, their first annual fundraiser, on Friday, August 10 at Hastings Racecourse. Derby attire is encouraged; appetizers will be served; minors welcome; cash bar only. Tickets are $50 at https://www.canadahelps.org/en/charities/project-limelight-society/events/off-to-the-races-2018/

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