This year’s mainstage musical, Ragtime, based on the novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, is being staged by Tomé Cousin with a large collaborative team of School of Drama student performers and designers. The novel was adapted for the stage with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Pittsburgh native, Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. The message of acceptance, defiance and solidarity rings true amidst the current political climate. Cousin, along with set designer Kathryn Fetrow and actors Clay Singer (Tateh), Nathan Salstone (Mother’s Younger Brother), and Jordon Bolden (Booker T. Washington) spoke about the process of bringing this text, ripe with parallels to today’s America, to a modern audience.
Why did you decide to direct Ragtime now in 2017?
Tomé Cousin: We choose the plays based on the senior class and it just so happened that Ragtime had been a title that had been floating around for several years to try and do and it hasn’t been feasible, because of class size and roles. It’s also topical, because of what’s going on socially in the world and everything.
What did you do to prepare to direct this piece?
TC: Three things: The book is quite long and gives a great deal of historical material. And then there’s a film of the book. And then there’s a musical of the film and the book so it kind of elaborates on itself as far as the documentation and the dramaturgy. It’s so easy to compare the action of the story with events of the modern day—all you have to do is check a news feed. For example, Evelyn Nesbit is a scandalous showgirl/model from the musical, and what happened to her, a lover kills a husband so it’s kinda soap-opera-esque. You can twist it and turn it in certain ways and go here’s a reality TV show, because everyone followed her story in the newspapers.
Even more so you can review the racial issues that are happening like what happened in Ferguson, MO and continued police brutality over just the past year. That’s what happens to two of the characters in the show. It was very easy to find ties within the story to almost every aspect of the current political climate. What I found through the musical is a creation of what we have begun to believe is the American Dream even though it hasn’t formulated itself yet. It is germinating and I think that’s what Ragtime is all about.
Kathryn Fetrow: While looking for a common thread that could link all the people and places in this massive show we were drawn to further research the Industrial Revolution. Textile factories, train stations and automotive production were some of the key inspirations for creating our own working machine on stage. The three towers stand individually much like the social groups they represent at the top of the show, however, as their lives unfold media and motion begin to weave these poignant stories together.
Clay Singer: In preparation for Tateh, I dug back through some family history. I found out that my great grandfather came over to America in 1907 as a Jewish Immigrant from Russia, the same time that Tateh came over from Latvia in Ragtime. He was six or seven at the time and got very sick on the boat coming over. He was so sick they were going to throw him over, or so the story goes. The health inspections were very rigorous coming through Ellis Island, some immigrants were quarantined for weeks upon arrival. Before rehearsals started I was able to visit Ellis Island and learned a lot about the terrible circumstances these immigrants faced.
Jordon Bolden: I bought Booker T. Washington’s book, “Building Character,” which focuses on how to be a student in an institution you don’t necessarily agree with. The issues in the book focus on learning the humanity within yourself and gaining an overall respect for the people who will ultimately influence your walk in life. I needed his words more than ever, and it really helped me get into his skin for this role.
What has been your vision for the musical in terms of design?
TC: Well, we are working with the smaller version of the script which has been given to us in a special arrangement. Because this is a technical design school, my idea was for the design team to create a bed that all these stories can fit into and shift quickly from one plotline to the next. It is faster than the traditional staging and my overall design and style of directing has a transitional flow to it so it’s about the audience feeling movement and moving with the story instead of sitting back and having the story come to them. They have to be engaged, and swept up into the world.
What is the message you would like the audience to leave with?
JB: The message left is one of self-reflection, moral duty, and sadly, hope for a future that seems to still be in formation, over 100 years later. There really isn’t a solution proposed, but it is a beautiful, reflective layout for a cathartic America. I think this show presents an opportunity to see through privilege in order to understand the margins. I just hope the audience takes this show as ground zero.
Nathan Salstone: I hope this musical leaves audiences with a new found hope for this country and that they will then start a conversation with someone else. All I can hope for is talk; talk of change and talk of hope for a better and more equal future. I also hope this show leaves people with a respect and understanding for artists telling a political story and not just expecting us to “leave that in the character” or “on the stage.”
KF: Aside from the spinning towers that are constantly in flux, the deconstructed American flag is a big visual gesture we hope the audience will link to our political landscape. We hope it symbolizes the pieces of a broken society that continue to be transformed and changed by the most unexpected people.
TC: That we, all of us, are immigrants. It’s that simple. That no one has a clear right to say this is my country. It’s everybody’s. Whether they come on a boat, they came here and created a life for people so I think when they get in positions of they don’t belong, or I’m better than, or my race is better than, when all that stuff starts, no one has claim to that. There is no dominant race, or dominant culture. The characters go through major journeys, they start one place and end up in another and that’s what life is. Not that it’s gonna change anyone’s mind, but just that it makes someone go “Oh. Maybe if I see something on television, or read an article, I can look at it just a little differently.” I think theater can do that. Film we love, but theater’s immediate. It’s right in your face.