Working in the Theatre: Ragtime on Ellis Island

[Music] I’ve talked to so many friends who say, Ragtime is so timely, I’m so glad you’re directing it right now. So I think there was something special about us doing it in an election year, in a year where immigration is an incredibly charged topic, in a summer where Black Lives Matter
is tragically relevant. I think Ragtime is beyond relevant always, but there are so many ways, that in particular this year, it should be in the public view. We basically applied to the National Park Service for a license I think almost two and a half years ago now. And figuring out how to stage something in a room
like that that is so historical kind of allowed us to have really special moments
in the piece where we were acknowledging and saying, we’re here, we’re on Ellis Island. [Music] That, to me, is so shockingly relevant not only now, almost twenty years after it opened on Broadway, but it’s also so relevant for the over one hundred years after the story is actually set. Ragtime deals not only with the immigrant issue. It deals with the racial issue in this country. The issue of women’s rights. It’s essentially the story of three families trying to pursue their version of the American Dream and each of those families has a unique obstacle. In Mother’s case, it’s the obstacle of being a woman who’s supposed to be subservient and have all of her thoughts given to her by her husband. In the case of Tateh, it’s the immigrant trying to get to a new place and make a better life, fleeing from trouble and destruction
in the pogroms of Eastern Europe. And in Coalhouse Walker’s case, a black man dealing with the deep-seated racism in this country. And it’d be lovely to think that a story
that takes place in 1906, we have transcended those things but we are still dealing with these issues on a massive scale today. [Music] When I was a sophomore in college, I directed a production of the musical Violet on a moving bus and it really got me turned on to
the form of site-specific theatre. I started thinking about what else could be done in that form with musical theatre and site-specificity and basically made a list of my favorite musicals that could be performed site-specifically. Ragtime paired with Ellis Island
was on the top of that list. [Music] There are infinite challenges of working
in a space like Ellis Island. The biggest challenge that we encountered was sound. The hall is built with these incredibly
beautiful red brick tiles that basically complicate sound
in the space to an enormous extent. And it’s not built for theatrical performance. When you bring an audience to a site where they’ve never seen a theatrical piece before, the audience is already asking a lot of questions about what is going on? Why are we here? Why should this be here? How am I supposed to interpret this? I really appreciate being able to reset
an audiences’ frame of mind because normally, when an audience member
walks into a theater, maybe they’ve seen some shows before, they more or less know what they want to expect from it, what they want to get from it. But when you bring them somewhere like Ellis Island or when we did Violet on buses, an audience member doesn’t necessarily
know what they’re going to get out of it and I think it creates this fresh,
level playing field for everyone to have their own new experience of a story they may know but in a new way. [Music] [Singing] In Harlem, men and women of color forgot their troubles and danced and reveled to the
music of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. This was a music their own, and no one else’s. One young woman thought Coalhouse played
just for her. Her name was Sarah. It was kind of magical, going out to the island. First we got on the ferry and they took us by the Statue of Liberty. What was great about that was when
I had done the role on Broadway, as the character of Tateh is coming into New York, he and his daughter, The Little Girl, are standing on a boat, looking out during
the number Journey On and I used to imagine every night that we were seeing the Statue of Liberty right before we went to Ellis Island. It was kind of great to get on this boat,
go by the Statue of Liberty and then come to Ellis Island to actually do the concert. [Singing] Here in America, anything you want,
you can be! Do what you do, and the world will come to you, guaranteed! It’s a place where the history is very palpable. If you stop and think for one second about what happened there and how many people came through that island, and not the wealthy, ‘cause the wealthy got to go straight to Manhattan. The poor immigrant, the poor huddled masses,
would come through Ellis Island all in the hopes of making better lives for themselves. [Singing] Come meet the artist, big shot, oh, yes! Red, white and blue! Hooray and God bless! I’m a success! I’m a success! Success! Success… Instead of pretending to look out and see the Statue of Liberty, you could see the literal Statue of Liberty. It amplifies all of the emotions and all of the feelings that are coursing through myself as the character. [Singing] I promised you America, and little one, we will find it. [Applause] Because the musical is, first of all, this glorious painting of America at the turn of the century but also includes these stories about immigration and the American Dream, which lives so naturally
at Ellis Island. That pairing kind of just jumped off the page to me and to be able to work with
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the geniuses and heroes of mine who created this beautiful musical was incredible. [Singing] His head was spinning! [Ensemble singing] People feathered and tarred, my friend! Unions broken, and why for? Children laboring, women still enslaved! Leave your little backyard, my friend!
There are causes to die for! Strike! [Still singing] In the gutters of the city, I have tried to find some meaning… Strike! In the arms of fallen women, in the thought of suicide… Strike! Like a firework unexploded, wanting light but never knowing how! My brother, life has meaning! I’ll show you how! My brother, you are with us now! [Still singing] He was calling out her name, shouting what? He did not know, and he found that he was standing on a chair. With a heart as clean and new
as the freshly fallen snow… When we put together the song list, we realized that it wouldn’t make sense to try to put the songs in chronological order in the show because we would end up with a truncated version of Ragtime, which is really just not
what the authors intended. Instead, what was created was groupings of twelve songs that touched on different themes in Ragtime. We realized we really need some connective tissue in narration to string this together and wouldn’t it be amazing to have a narrator who can actually speak to the relevance of Ragtime? So we thought, let’s just reach out to Brian Stokes Mitchell and see what he says! [Applause] Thank you very much. Good evening, everybody!
How are you tonight? The way that we put together the narration
was he called me, we had an hour long conversation about his experiences with Ragtime and where our set list was and we took bits out of that conversation and stories and wove them into narration that went in between the songs. So now we will turn our attention to two characters who seek freedom to ensure a bright future for their baby boy, as they confront racism and bigotry. In this next song, these two young parents sing of the hopes that they have for their child’s future. That was one of the most special parts to me, to be working with the original Coalhouse Walker, to craft how to introduce people to this story or reintroduce people to this story. [Singing] Well, when he is old enough,
I will show him America. And he will ride on the wheels of a dream. When we first began work on Ragtime in 1995,
it was apparent that many of the issues that Sarah and Coalhouse encountered were still issues almost one hundred years later. Now in 2016, that struggle still goes on but movements like Black Lives Matter
and shows like Ragtime remind us that we must continue to seek a way forward
and speak up against injustice. We must move beyond our differences. This is the power of the theatre and
the promise of our country, so beautifully evident here, on Ellis Island. The great possibility of getting together a team who’s excited to do things like this and in some ways, we were surprised to learn that yes, we could do this concert. And it happened and people enjoyed it. It went relatively smoothly and I think we learned that this kind of thing is possible. Sammi did a lot of research in the early stages to figure out how do you do anything on Ellis Island? I think we were working with Ellis Island
for about two years, leading up to August 8, 2016 when we had the concert and every step of the way was a new question. Where is the backstage? Are there dressing rooms? What are the sounds like in this massive hall? [Singing] We can never go back to before! [Applause] So it was an ongoing process of figuring out
what does theatre look like in a space that has not been used for theatre before? [Singing] We’ll never get to heaven
’til we reach that day… I think working with a young director
is always very exciting, because where a more experienced director has come up against things and might already feel like we can’t do this or we can’t do that, young directors tend to think they can do anything. And that’s really thrilling to work with; someone who thinks nothing can stop them. I’ve never run a room of forty seven actors before
and that was daunting, let alone running a room with Tony
and Olivier award-winning actors in it and they just came to the table and said, we trust you and were willing to take this leap of faith
and just go for it. To a young director, that is the most amazing gift. [Ensemble singing] Oh, Lord, I pray! We’ll never get to heaven ’til we reach that day! [Applause] [Music]


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