When John Ruddy was about 14 and a student at St. Eunan’s College in Letterkenny, he started drawing this wee character in his French book. The little guy had stick legs and arms, a short round body and expressive eyes that were nearly bigger than his head.
“I just started drawing him on every page doing something different – hanging from something, jumping up and down,” John recalled. “There’s always been this stick man that I have drawn.”
Later, when John studied Shakespeare’s “King Lear” for the Leaving Certificate, he thought a comic-book version of the play would help reinforce the themes – John is a visual thinker. There was nothing available, so he created his own. Only by now, the wee guy had a name: Manny Man. And Manny Man began appearing in more and more of John’s copybooks.
“That’s how I studied for the Leaving,” he said. “I still have the copybook where I studied King Lear.” He created labelled diagrams of poems. “I did that with a lot of my study,” he said.
John said he has been drawing for as long as he can remember.
“It’s just a thing I do, and really if ever I have a pen and paper, something inevitably will be drawn,” he said.
The wee character really came to life when John entered St. Pat’s in Drumcondra, where he earned his teaching qualifications and studied English. Manny Man “started to grow all over my notes,” John said.
John’s creation is now helping other young visual thinkers make their way through secondary-school Shakespeare. He has so far published three study guides, Manny Man Does Shakespeare for Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth, and he is working on another guide for Romeo and Juliet. All three books are selling well and St. Eunan’s has also bought 30 copies of each of the three for their students.
“It’s great that the old alma mater was very supportive,” John said.
St. Eunan’s principal, Chris Darby, said the study guides have proven very popular with the students. He said it can sometimes be a challenge to motivate boys to be interested in Shakespeare.
“When John, who is a past pupil who studied it himself, came up with booklets that made it interesting and attractive they certainly complemented the work of teachers here in the school,” he said. “We purchased class sets and I know they are being used extensively by teachers to get the students motivated and enthused, and to spark their enthusiasm for Shakespeare.” The students enjoy working with them as well, the principal said.
While John’s drawings will be familiar to many – Manny Man has his own Facebook page – John’s face will be familiar to many more. He works as a youth development officer in the Letterkenny Youth Information Centre; plays the trumpet with the popular band, Heads of State; and was on stage most recently with the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group’s productions of “Calendar Girls” and the spectacularly successful “The 39 Steps”.
Theatre was a great influence in John’s upbringing. His mother, Kathleen, was a central figure in the Rainbow Theatre group, a company that put on variety shows in primary schools during the 1990s, and whose work influenced many people who are active in Donegal theatre today.
“I grew up in that kind of atmosphere,” he said. “I always got that sense of the buzz off the stage so I suppose it was in my blood.” John also performed with the Drama Society in St. Pat’s – with a range that could accommodate not only the role of the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz” but also that of Father Flynn in “Doubt” – and in a couple of Letterkenny Pantos and a Butt Drama Circle production of the musical, “Caisleáin Óir”.
He loves acting. “It’s the buzz on stage and just that ability to explore another character, to explore somebody else’s mannerisms and the way a character would react,” he said. “To entertain, the ability to make people laugh, make people cry, get a reaction from the audience – it’s just beautiful.
“I feel it’s a gift to be able to make people feel that,” John said.
He said it was a privilege to be part of “The 39 Steps,” which LMDG first opened in 2011 and brought back this year for the festival circuit, where the production scooped 55 awards at festivals around the country, including the All-Ireland.
“As an actor, being able to get up and play about 20 different characters, as soon as I read that I said, ‘Oh, I want this’,” he said of the role. “We had an idea that it was funny and it was something new, something fresh.” The production finished in September, where they played before two sold-out audiences in Dublin.
“They even had to bring in an extra row of seats that second night,” he said.
Though John wants to make his career in acting, his focus now is Manny Man.
“What I do now while promoting the book is go into the classrooms and perform the plays – I go in and give a down-to earth rundown of the play.” He has given his one-man performance at Coláiste Ailigh and is offering it to other schools.
The economic crisis forced John to be more creative about his career plans. He and his classmates were studying at St. Pat’s when the economy collapsed.
He began at St. Pat’s in 2006, “and the world was great,” he said. He finished in 2009, “and everyone was going” – here John puts on a trembling voice – “What do we do now?”
“Initially it was very tricky to get work. I got good subbing but it’s difficult to find anything full-time or part-time and so I kind of thought, well, what’s another way?” he said. “I thought, why don’t I make myself some work. I came up with this book. That was the idea and so far, so good.”
“Heads of State” will play alongside “In Their Thousands” and other big Donegal bands in the Green Room at Voodoo Letterkenny on New Year’s Eve, but John expects his travel may take him to Dublin in the new year.
“Dublin, I think, is the next big step some time in the new year to go and take on the world between Manny Man, schools and acting,” he said. “So any schools that want to book me between now and Christmas, get in there quick.”