A Hoosier, author, illustrator, and stage performer – and a big fan of Batman, Animaniacs and armadillos
By Kristian DePue
Ryan Felton was raised in Trafalgar, Indiana – a small town twenty miles south of the Hoosier state’s capital, Indianapolis. Initially named Liberty, the town’s designation was changed to honor The Battle of Trafalgar – a naval engagement during the Napoleonic Wars fought by the British against French and Spanish fleets. Today, the rural Indiana town has a population of 1,300 – but during Felton’s childhood, it was a community of 800.
Felton’s father was a used car salesman while his mother taught pre-school in the basement of a church. Still today, the three warmly talk about the quirky characters of their quaint community – balancing a respect for truth and persons against entertained assumptions.
Today, Felton lives in the Irvington Historic District of Indianapolis – named after Washington Irving, author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Coinciding with the latter story, the Irvington neighborhood celebrates the largest and oldest Halloween festival in the United States – founded in 1947, and encompassing the week leading up to October 31st.
At a young age, Felton was cautious. “I was scared – imagining scenarios to their worst possible conclusions. I relied on structure and rules, lest anything terrible should happen.”
Eventually, at the threshold of his apprehension and imagination, a burgeoning writer and insightful creator emerged – with published works, an author profile on Amazon, and live productions rivaling the quality of live entertainment you can find in Los Angeles. These live performances are fashioned by Know No Stranger – a collective of artists who work to uplift, engage and entertain the community of Indianapolis.
“Ryan is a lot of people’s favorite collaborator,” says Know No Stranger’s multimedia artist, Rachel Leigh. “He nails the balance of enthusiastic authorship and openness to others’ ideas. He’s a hard worker both on stage and behind the scenes … trustworthy and caring.”
“Ryan has impeccable taste in humor and timing, and his voice work is unmatched,” adds Know No Stranger’s puppeteer and illustrator, Emily Gable. “Ever had trouble finishing a story or creating an ending that brings it around full circle? He’s never faltered! He’s a wonderful friend and collaborator who sees the strength in others and pushes their skills to the front in whatever project we are working on. He’s a humble leader who has found his passion in life, and Indianapolis is proud to have him!”
Below, is a conversation I had with Ryan Felton over video chat – during which, I noticed a Batman Returns figurine displayed on a shelf (but more on that later).
Growing up, what did you picture yourself being?
Ryan: I was always going to be a cartoonist. As far back as I can remember, I was drawing and writing stories about characters that were nothing like me – I fantasized about being fantastical. When I was six, I got into Calvin & Hobbes. In high school, I was asked to create my own comic strip for Trafalgar’s newspaper. Quickly, I realized I was fabricating elaborate storylines beyond the capacity of a four-panel strip. I would fashion long stories no one could follow between prints.
With that realization, what did you do?
Ryan: I went to IUPUI for creative writing … rather than Herron [School of Art and Design] or the Chicago Arts Institute.
What and who has influenced your writing?
Ryan: I have an interest in folklore and a curiosity about the animal kingdom – those elements emerge in subtle or not-so-subtle ways in my work.
I’m notorious for concepts without an easy elevator pitch—they’re always convoluted—maybe that comes from watching Seinfeld.
Bill Watterson—the creator of Calvin & Hobbes—and Kurt Vonnegut … living in Indianapolis, he’s inescapable.
Going to a small school with kids interested in football or John Deere Day, having unique interests helped me get recognized. I was lucky to have a few teachers who invested in me – who were very encouraging. One even allowed me to create a holiday and take over our classroom for a day. That was Armadillo Day.
Comic books were a major influence … still are. As a kid, I got sucked into the lore of Batman … and watched Batman: The Animated Series. I had an insatiable appetite for stories. A lot of writers I admire create comic books: Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Mark Waid – and today, I really like what Tom King is doing.
Do you have a favorite Batman movie?
Ryan: My favorite comic book movie is probably Tim Burton’s Batman Returns; it’s not beholden to the rules of its mythology. It’s not thumbing its nose at continuity, but starting its own bizarre thing – and I love that. Batman Returns brazenly did what it wanted.
How did you get involved with Know No Stranger and their live Optical Popsicle shows?
Ryan: My roommate … around 2008, Alan Goffinski—one of the founding members of Know No Stranger—often had the players of the first Optical Popsicle over. I became enamored with the sneak peeks into their work. I recall wanting to ask to be involved but was too bashful and introverted to broach the subject. Alan had a video … and I ended up helping him film that short – and consequently had a part in their first show.
Over the next couple years, I’d do things here and there to help – set construction, mostly. By the fourth Optical Popsicle, I finally made it known I wanted to be more involved. That was the first year we had a narrative through-line threading the sketches together over the entirety of the show – from then on, I was writing content. The following year, I expressed interest in being a performer.
We talked about yours, but what are some of Know No Stranger’s inspirations?
Ryan: A lot of what we do on stage is heavily influenced by anarchic comedy, like Tim & Eric – Kids in the Hall is another. When developing our earlier stuff, we all rallied around this documentary about Wayne White who did a lot of work on Pewee’s Playhouse. The Muppet Show is another big one for us.
*Wayne White won three Emmy awards for his set and puppet designs on Pewee’s Playhouse. He’s also credited for production work on Shining Time Station, The Weird Al Show, and Beakman’s World. He was also the art director for two significant music video’s: Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” and the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight.”
Personally, what I am bringing to the table is time obsessing over The Simpsons, Animaniacs, and early Conan Obrien. Conan Obrien blew my mind – some of the hardest times I’ve laughed was watching Conan. He also wrote some of the best episodes of The Simpsons. Animaniacs is where I discovered an obsession with pop culture references as a conduit for humor. It taught me that you could be in awe of the entertainment industry while also recognizing how dopey it can be.
What are some of your favorite Know No Stranger sketches?
Ryan: There are two camps. First, the skits I can’t believe I got away with – ones the team got on board with, amazingly. There’s one called Gravitas – it’s one of the more ridiculous things I’ve written. Last year, at our show, we did a Hercule Poirot-like detective skit where the investigator only solved cases related to public bathrooms. I leaned hard into silly and ridiculous. Also, Ghostcrusters – where a guy is haunted by all the pizzas he’s eaten. When I think of something insane like that and pitch it – there’s no thrill like having everyone banding together to make it happen.
As for the other camp: I’m so very impressed with other members of Know No Stranger with abilities beyond mine. Like when Alan Goffinski made a giant Rube Goldberg machine that produced hip-hop beats … or other players with the ability to tell stories without spoken word.
We did a three-part skit in 2013 called Childhood Memories I’d Like To Forget. That one was very relatable. It was made up of vignettes recreating something that happened to us as kids … both endearing and traumatic – but not too dark or raw. It as very cathartic – everyone cried in rehearsals. The response was very special – a lot of solidarity. My story was the day my best friend in 2nd grade told me he didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I came home and told my mom about it, but it just so happened that same day my pet lizard died while I was at school.
What are you working on right now?
Ryan: I’m developing a stage play, and I’m also working a young adult novel.
Anything you’d like to plug?
Ryan: My armadillo book, Little Armored Ones. When I was eight or nine years old, I was obsessed with armadillos but couldn’t find a book that explained all the different species. A few years ago, I was feeling nostalgic and wondered if anyone made a book quite like what I wanted, and it still didn’t exist. So, I decided to make it myself. Over the course of two years I created it – including the illustrations. I got in touch with an armadillo researcher in South America, named Mariella Superina, and she shared her journals with me – which helped get the book completed. I donated money from the first year’s sales to her work. I’m really happy how it turned out.
Finally, I’m curious—being from Indiana, myself—what are some places you like to patronize in Indy?
Ryan: Black Acre Brewing Co. in Irvington. I’m a fan of Duke’s, a bluegrass bar with great comfort food and shows nearly every weekend. Twenty Tap is also one of my favorites.
The White Rabbit Cabaret is great for shows, and whoever does the booking for the Hi-Fi in Fountain Square is really good.