At only two years old, Summer Ruyle, a freshman in the Musical Theater Conservatory at the California School of the Arts, had memorized the entire score to the musical “Annie.” Growing up, her parents would play the soundtrack, but it was Ruyle who kept it playing on repeat for hours. She was in love. Obsessed.
“No, it wasn’t an obsession,” Ruyle remarked. “It was a lifestyle. I had an ‘Annie’ journal and wore an Annie costume for five years.”
Although Ruyle didn’t know it at the time, this lifestyle of “Annie” originated from being a part of the foster care system where her family would provide a temporary home for foster kids. Ruyle’s childhood consisted of intimate conversations with children who had been abused or neglected.
“As a kid, I knew about child abuse, teen pregnancy, and drug abuse. Some confided in me about what they went through,” she said.
Like the characters in “Annie,” those children were searching for a home, and a chance to start over.
“I remember once a girl came into our home and she really loved ‘Annie’ too,” Ruyle said. “I talked about it with her. She asked me what my favorite song was. I said ‘Maybe.’ She said, ‘That one’s too sad for me, I love ‘Tomorrow.’”
Over the connection that “Annie” seemed to bring them together, Ruyle was even more inspired to play her dream role to as Annie. She would write in her Annie journal, “Please let me be Annie. Please let me be Annie.” Ruyle practiced and practiced, knowing every line and verse by heart until she received what she considers, her first “professional job.” It was in LAX.
There, Ruyle sang a song from “Annie” in front of a crowd for no particular reason but for passion. It was all fun and games until pedestrians walked by and dropped change at her feet. Pennies, quarters, dollars. However, as the years passed and Ruyle developed a love for activism, that wasn’t the type of change she wanted to see coming out of her art.
Activism had always been a part of Ruyle’s life. She’d raise money and start drives for West Side Children Center, the foster care center her family was a part of. However, after Ruyle’s family adopted her sister from the center, they had disconnected from the foster care system.
It was only until Ruyle’s first lead as Tina Demark in the musical “Ruthless” in a solo scene, did she truly understand why “Annie” and many other musicals resonated with her activism heart. It wasn’t only because she had a personal connection to the foster care system, but because of the universal message “Annie” was able to convey to an audience, impacting those who may have never cared about the foster care system to begin with.
“Theater opens eyes to revelations. It gives the opportunity to better examine yourself and the other people around,” Ruyle said. “The reason we do this is to advance the way people see things, to push boundaries in social issues. That’s activism. Through my art, I want to tell the story that is supposed to be told the best way I can. As performers, we are just conveyors of the bigger picture. The story.”
Looking up to the ceiling, dead center stage, all alone, and singing to enlighten the crowd, Ruyle at that moment playing Tina Denmark, knew she wanted to perform in musical theater for the rest of her life as long as it made a change.