After working twenty nine days straight, I finally had a day off yesterday to recuperate. By recuperate, I mean a day doing laundry and cleaning. Now it’s on to the final month of school: concerts, meetings and award programs. It will most likely take me several months to feel like my self again.
Six months of planning and rehearsing resulted in an epic production of Ragtime that I hope will have a lasting impact on the cast and audience that got a chance to see it. When you begin the process, you never quite know how it will turn out. For me, three days before we opened I was a little more than fearful we had missed the mark. Each day brought us closer and the cast, orchestra and tech became a cohesive unit, resulting in a fine production.
How do you get there? How do you take the known challenges, combined with many unforeseen factors and reach the end result? Vision. You have to have vision and trust and belief in yourself to make it a reality.
The trust and support of those around you are crucial as well. When it’s not there, it doesn’t mean you can’t fulfill your vision –but it’s definitely easier when you have it.
Ragtime was our choir director’s bucket list show. She spent years building enough interest in our small African American population at school to bring it to fruition. BHS has an African American population of less than 120 students and she was somehow able to get 30 to participate. It was no small feat. For those not familiar with the show, Ragtime must have three equally-sized groups to stage the opening number: New Rochelle (white, upper-middle class), African American, and Immigrants. There are individual stories that come from within those three groups that build the overall framework for the musical.
In spite of all its challenges, the success of the production laid in the hands of the directors, volunteers and support staff that so willingly gave countless hours of dedicated labor to make it all happen. Without all the wonderful support, I’m not sure how I could have successfully survived my double duty as stage director and tech director.
In visualizing our production, I had to take into account the large size of the cast (116), the layout of the stage and how best to use it to tell the story and elements that would make our production unique. After spending many hours with the script and score, I returned to E. L. Doctorow’s novel for guidance to connect the dots.
When it came to staging the show, I added in bits of business that reflected on the novel but were not present in the musical script. For instance, in the novel, Evelyn Nesbit was obsessed with Tateh’s Little Girl and she returned time and time again to have silhouettes done. In the musical there is no interaction between them at all. So in a scene where Tateh was working and confronted by Emma Goldman, I had him producing a silhouette of Evelyn and had her sneak out when they were distracted to avoid having her identity discovered by Goldman.
In another instance towards the end of the show, when Mother finds out Father is returning to New York, I had Tateh and Little Girl enter with her and Little Boy to establish their growing relationship. Again, reflecting on the text of the novel.
One of my favorite staged moments in the show was Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit’s Atlantic City routine. Instead of separating the two as it appears to have been written, our choreographer and I made them a team and created a beautifully executed vaudeville number.
In the Henry Ford number, as opposed to having Coalhouse’s car simply driven onstage at the end, I envisioned a giant ‘puzzle car’ being assembled on stage with the pieces being held by the workers in the scene. At one point, I was afraid we weren’t going to be able to make it work but it came together quite well.
From the outset, I pictured an Act Curtain (Show Drop) that was a giant quilt with RAGTIME in large letters. I thought I might have to build it myself, but we were fortunate to find a wonderful woman that, after some begging and pleading, was convinced to create the 20 foot by 36 foot finished product… and it only took her five days! I wanted the quilt because it represented the piecing, or coming together of smaller units to create a whole, much like the melting pot of people that represent America.
There were many challenges associated with the production, as there are with most productions. One challenge was getting the cast to understand the historical significance of the material with an even bigger challenge being the way the show is written. Ragtime has many small vignette scenes that intertwine making it difficult for the young actors to develop and understand their characters. A lot of time had to be spent filling in the blanks– another way the novel was helpful.
The biggest challenge was the size of the cast. Normally a high school production has somewhere between 40 and 60 performers but in recent years, BHS has cast 100 to a record 150 performers in last year’s Hairspray. This year’s cast featured 116 performers and along with the size of the cast came the issues of synchronization, rehearsal attendance and eligibility. Most of our leads were active in other school activities such as sports, clubs and competitive academic teams, requiring many changes to the schedule to accommodate productive rehearsals. Combine that with the added expenses of a large cast and a very tight budget and it is a wonder we were able to do what we did.
Hold On To Your Vision
I have to say there were a number of times I wanted to throw up my hands and give up on certain aspects of the production. Exhaustion and frustration begin to cloud your vision and make you question your original goals.
About a week before the show, after a series of frustrating rehearsals, the choir director and choreographer approached me with solemn looks on their faces. I said, “Oh no, now what?” And they simply told me, “Don’t let go of your vision.” I hadn’t, and I didn’t– but a partly due to their never-ending support for my vision.
You have to visualize and set your goals. You have to believe in your vision. Even though it may be a rough road with lots of bumps and curves, you can make it a reality. You must have faith… trust… and believe in yourself and the abilities of the others around you in order to succeed.
Realize your vision.
Make it happen.