Zoology professor stars in Fiddler on the Roof

Dr. Matt Ramer probably has the best headshot on the UBC Department of Zoology website. In a directory full of hesitant smiles, Dr. Ramer is bearded and ascotted while belting a show tune in a local production of The Pirates of Penzance. By day a scientist, by night an actor – this professor is an excellent model for following one’s dreams in a practical, balanced capacity.

In addition to his position with UBC, Dr. Ramer is a primary researcher at iCord, a Vancouver-based research facility that specializes in spinal cord injury. As though these two jobs weren’t enough, Dr. Ramer also spends three days a week rehearsing to play Mordcha in Royal City Musical Theatre’s upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof

First produced in 1964, Fiddler is one of the most popular musicals in Broadway history. The show is set in pre-revolutionary Russia and focuses on Tevye, a Jewish dairyman, who grapples equally with his daughters’ romantic entanglements and with the inchoate political tension that hangs in the air.

As Mordcha, Dr. Ramer acts as the town’s innkeeper and main “social convenor.” The part awards him the opportunity to work on his Russian accent and to partake in some excellent chorus numbers, including the boisterous pub song, To Life (L’Chaim!).

“[It’s] a big bar number at the inn and it’s a celebration of an engagement between Tevye’s daughter and a butcher. That engagement does not come to pass of course, but it’s a party scene and it’s a wonderful tune and great dancing," he said.

The Royal City staging of Fiddler promises to be a straightforward production that doesn’t depart much from its original staging. Although the show’s politics have some contemporary parallels — particularly with regards to the Syrian refugee crisis — Dr. Ramer said that it’s worth seeing primarily because it’s a classic. 

“There’s a slight similarity in that this is just before the Russian Revolution and Jews were being evicted from all the villages in Russia and having to find other places to live,” said Dr. Ramer. “At the end of this show, we find many of the characters being displaced from their village, Anatevka, and finding new homes elsewhere in Europe and in North America.

“Perhaps there is a tiny bit of timeliness. But, at the same time, it’s just a really great show,” he continued.

As a cast member, Dr. Ramer might have a bit of a biased perspective, but it's easy to take his recommendation at face value. He has, after all, been at this for a while with an amateur musical theatre career that’s spanned over 20 years. 

Active in musical theatre throughout his Bachelor of Science and PhD at Queen’s University, Dr. Ramer hit the ground running Far From the Home He Loves in Vancouver’s theatre community after coming to UBC in 2001. As a scientist and an artist, you might say that Now He Has Everything, which currently includes a wardrobe-mandated mustache (an occupational hazard for amateur actors).

“I’m not normally furry,” he said.

Between the research, the rehearsals and the facial hair, Dr. Ramer is admittedly a busy man. Performing in eight shows a week while working two separate day jobs is a pretty impressive feat of endurance. As with anything though, he said that mastery comes with practice. 

“Things get quite busy. Balancing everything would be really challenging if I hadn’t been balancing everything for 20-odd years now. You figure out how to fit things in.”

Furthermore, Dr. Ramer believes that theatre is a useful antidote for the isolation that often comes with academia. 

“It’s good to get out in the community and speak to real human beings,” he said.