On The Wheels of a Dream: David Gregory on Directing ‘Ragtime’ at Arts Collective@HCC

Director David Gregory.

Director David Gregory.

Come hear the music of something beginning, an era exploding, a century spinning! And it’s all happening at the Howard Community College’s Arts Collective as they present Ragtime! Take a gander behind the scenes in this four part interview series to see just what life is like for the actors and director of this incredible show. Sitting down with visionary Director David Gregory, we get the first inside look at his concept approach to the sensational musical known as Ragtime.

Let’s start by introducing the readers to you, tell us what you’ve been up to in the Baltimore Washington area before jumping into this project. 

David: I just finished performing in a production of Spring Awakening at College Park, I played the adult male and back over the holidays I was performing in the ensemble out at Olney Theatre Center for their production of The King & I. I’ve done a lot of work with Toby’s Dinner Theatre, most recently as a costume designer alongside Shannon Maddox for their production of Les Miserables, but the last thing I did on stage there was the role of Usnavi in the regional premier of In The Heights (for which I received a Helen Hayes nomination.) I can’t even remember the last project I directed. Oh yes, I directed an MFA project at University of Maryland, an evening of original works. It’s great to stay involved in that process. But really before that I think the last two things I directed were BKLYN The Musical at Teatro101 and then Dreamgirls at Toby’s of Baltimore before that, and those were both back in the fall and winter of 2011.

How did this opportunity to direct Ragtime at HCC’s Arts Collective present itself to you?

It’s actually really awesome, I got this opportunity while I was doing In The Heights. I was working with Santina Maiolatesi (who plays Mother in Ragtime) during that show, and it was after the show one night out in the back parking lot— you know where shady deals are struck— she mentioned that the Arts Collective was looking for a director for Ragtime for the following spring. Sue Kramer, the producer of the Arts Collective, had actually seen the production of Wild Party I’d directed for Teatro101 and through all the mysterious, subconscious connections of these wonderful people in my life Ragtime came to me.

I’ve been familiar with Ragtime for a while. I’d seen it back in its original days (’97 or ’98?) because that’s how old I am. I also knew that I had wanted to get back into directing. I think either the opportunities are not always there or the opportunities to do work that you find interesting or challenging don’t always present themselves. When they do you just have to go for them. Ragtime is definitely one of those challenging and not very frequent opportunities.  I’m flattered Arts Collective thought I was up for the challenge.  To many folks out there and decision makers, I am a little too unconventional when it comes to directing…so Ragtime is not something that would normally present itself to me.

David Gregory with the Cast of Ragtime (left to right) Brandon Love, Katie Tyler, Diego Esmolo, Erin MacDonald, Caelyn Sommerville, Todd Joseph Zachwieja, Alexandria Richards, and Rachel Bailey. PhotoArt by Cheri.

David Gregory with the Cast of ‘Ragtime’: (left to right) Brandon Love, Katie Tyler, Diego Esmolo, Erin MacDonald, Caelyn Sommerville, Todd Joseph Zachwieja, Alexandria Richards, and Rachel Bailey. PhotoArt by Cheri.

Why do you feel Ragtime is more on the challenging side of things for you?

I know the show inside and out, but I think any director should first and foremost have a passion for the piece they are directing. I absolutely love the show, but Ragtime is so epic on many levels. It’s epic in its cast size of over 30. It’s epic in the diversity of its cast.  It’s epic in production scale. It’s epic in music. It’s epic in choreography. You see the running theme-yes? I’m OCD when it comes to directing so I like to think about all obstacles way before I encounter them. I say to myself “Am I going to be able to find not just one stand-out performer or one person who can carry a show but am I going to be able to find all the people who make this show work?” The way the show is written means that there are many, many characters with different tales to tell.  So they ALL really have to be strong and carry their own weight. So for these obvious reasons, I was really hesitant at first.

Luckily I changed my mind. I had a moment and thought, “You know what? Bring it on.” I’d seen the Broadway show and one of the things I remember the most about that production was actually its “over the top” production scale in terms of all the sets. There were dozens of settings going in and out; in a sense it felt very cinematic. Looking back at that experience and those memories, I thought, “Can I do what I want to do with the piece on a non-Broadway budget?”

I wasn’t afraid of working with a new company. Though I had never worked with the HCC Arts Collective before, it’s always a little unsettling to come into a new company because you don’t know what resources are available to them. But after several great conversations with their producer Sue Kramer, I had a good vibe about it and trusted my gut.  I also figured I could hopefully use the networks I’ve established over the years to make it all work out. I just went all the way with it.

The show is so big and it tries to cover so much; the complicated structure of the piece also really appeals to me as a challenge. As a director, you either put your own spin on it and make it your own vision— and you know me, I like a good vision or two – or you do it like it’s been done before, and I like the path that challenges you to put your own spin on it. I think we succeeded. I hope we’ve succeeded.

What are you doing to ‘put your own spin’-as you say-on this musical?

Actually, a lot of people who know me ask the same thing and also jokingly prod, “What’s your ‘concept’ for Ragtime?” And I think the part that makes me giggle is that to many the word ‘concept’ means you’re going to twist it or bend it so much out of shape that the meaning and content are lost. I think people might be a little afraid that I might outfit the cast in punk clothes or try to make it 80’s style or do something so far off that the show no longer makes sense. Or worse – that something is different just for the sake of being different.  Honestly, it’s not really about doing that so much as it is about working with a different style in which we’re narrating the story. It’s ok to bring a new perspective to a familiar piece.

People like to recreate. I mean, it’s certainly OK to do that, and a lot of directors do that. They recreate what they’ve seen on Broadway or what they’ve seen of the original versions. This is especially true in an era of YouTube and access to endless Broadway recordings.  Certainly there are shows that really do lend themselves to that cookie cutter approach and truthfully audiences have certain expectations for certain shows. But I certainly think that there are ways you can communicate the intent and bring it to the audience in a different way that makes it more relatable to that audience with the resources you have. With Ragtime I knew I wasn’t going to go in with a ten million dollar budget to accomplish everything, so you have to find ways to make things work to generate the same amazing audience reactions.  I am fortunate enough to be working for a company that gives me the flexibility to try something new for what many consider a traditional musical. If I had to narrow it down my concept to a single phrase, I would call this,“America’s living museum.”

Can you tell us exactly what you mean by that?

Hopefully it will all make sense when you come to see it. This show is full of tales of tradition, history, tales of different races, of people, of history of music, and even bits of history about manufacturing where they talk about the Model-T. There are so many different facets to this and I think that is what you’ll see even in some of our advertising. There is an image or this idea of a collection of items a sort of “Lost and found of American history.” I think I would backtrack and say that is probably my overarching concept. I try to use the Little Boy in Ragtime as the lens through which to set up this approach.  My job is to make sure audiences can follow it all the way through the show.

It is interesting that you choose the wording ‘lost and found’ because ‘lost and found’ comes with the connotation of things that people have discarded or left behind or kind of carelessly misplaced. Why choose that particular phrasing?

I think the truth of a lot of what happens in this story has been misplaced. We tend to easily forget our history. Certainly that is a part of why society is the way it is today. Without going to deep into this, even with certain things like racial tensions it’s very easy to forget what generations before us have gone through to get us to where we are now.

We had such a tremendous moment the other day at rehearsal. Raymond Chapman (who plays Booker T. Washington) was doing his speech before Coalhouse sings “Make Them Hear You,” a song about rising up against adversity and passing on our histories to future generations.  He has really lived firsthand through some really dark moments in our country in terms of civil liberties, especially difficult for an African American.  As he delivered his lines about the proper ways to demand justice, the whole cast just sort of sat there dumbfounded and listening with such an intensity.  He lived through it and experienced things firsthand.  I think a lot of youngsters forget about that or don’t even know about it because they didn’t experience it. That’s where the lost and found comes from in our discussion. You see something that reminds you of a time past.

The overall design of the show really supports this idea of a ‘historical lost and found.’ Let me just say that this concept really doubled the workload for my actors. It took a while to get them thinking differently about the piece and its unconventional staging, but they stopped hating me after awhile! Look, you’re just going to have to come and see it. I can’t have spoilers. I hate spoilers. Think along the lines of walking into storage, antique storage, something that hasn’t been opened in a while. Seriously, that’s all I’m going to say about it.

You’ve spent a lot of time talking about how you don’t have the big Broadway budget but you love the idea of the big sets. Is this going to be a set-heavy production?

This set has been our joy and our nightmare at the same time. I had to literally block the show before the design was approved for the build.  It’s so complex and very specifically detailed.  It also gets shifted around non-stop, directly relating to wheel references throughout Ragtime: Wheels of a Dream, Wheels in Motion, they talk about Henry Ford and it just keeps moving and moving and moving. I have layered a conceptual wheel into the set in a way that you’ll just have to come and see. I have 42…or maybe 43 different set arrangements, all of which the actors had to learn as a part of their choreography. In addition to learning all of this music (40ish numbers or so?) they now have all these set locations to learn. And that’s the problem. No, not the problem, why did I say problem? The challenge. That’s the challenge. Musically everything is big and grand, dance-wise there are these big dance numbers that involve the whole company, plus there are what seems like hundreds of characters in this piece. So the challenge to generate the same impact as those big set productions, but within a more intimate world that fits the unique concept for this production.

David Gregory with Caelyn Sommerville and Todd Joseph Zachwieja. PhotoArt by Cheri.

David Gregory with Caelyn Sommerville and Todd Joseph Zachwieja. PhotoArt by Cheri.

You’ve brought a variety of talent forth in your creative team. What has that been like for you throughout this process? 

In the notion of evolving traditions, which is the core of this show in every aspect, I wanted to do that somehow with the designers I’m working with on this show. Plus, we have a very talented and supportive production and tech staff here at the Horowitz Center. It’s a fabulous collaboration. Jeff Harrison, who did Wild Party and BKLYN with me, is my set designer. We’ve worked together a lot. I really enjoy his work; he’s really an creative genius and he really gets my bizarre ideas almost all of the time. I’ve worked with Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin before so to have her illuminate this show makes me a very lucky director. Working with familiar faces lets you use short hand a lot. It makes articulating this vision a lot smoother when there are people around that get out.

Have you been evolving traditions with other members of your creative team? 

Starting new traditions as well as evolving them, yes. I purposely sought out new artists to work with on this project; mostly to bring new perspectives to my approach. I had never worked with my Musical Director Mayumi Baker, but I had heard she’d done Ragtime before so I called her up. She’s helping to make moments very different. The show is called Ragtime so it’s also very much about music and the tradition of music so our orchestra is going to be a visual and possible physical presence throughout this production.  Aysha Upchurch, who works here at the college as adjunct faculty, is bringing in new dance styles as choreographer. We’re keeping the show within the time frame of where it is set but you might see some different elements that are a bit more modern.

I’m also bringing in a projection designer to add even more dynamism and motion to the production.  I think for me symbolically it shows the evolution of theatre as an art. Working that in with a piece that speaks so much about history it becomes this juxtaposition of history and technology, which is what the show is about anyway. However, a lot of what I’ve seen with projection designers is very static; boring background images that look like a power-point presentation. And again, going back to the wheels, I wanted something more dynamic and exciting to go along with our concept. I needed someone not traditionally involved in musical theatre, so that’s where Riki Kim came into the picture. Ricky works a lot with Synetic so her projection movement is really fantastic and very different from what someone might expect in a show like Ragtime.

Are you concerned that you have these enormous moving sets, with a participatory orchestra on stage, and is that going to impact or detract from the telling of the story? 

Ragtime on Broadway was very spectacle and production heavy. Every new scene was a new set, requiring what seemed like hundreds of set pieces flying to and fro. Our concept is more intimate because aren’t getting caught up being literal with our sets. We’re actually asking the audience to engage a lot more with the story so that they can transport themselves into the story. We’re giving them the markers; these moving set pieces are the hints of what they should be constructing in their minds. If we are creating a house, we’re rearranging our set to create the feeling of a house. The audience is going to visualize a house however it is that they see a house.  I think people are going to be walking away saying “oh my, that’s a different way to interpret it.” Hopefully people will walk away saying “this is great, this is such a grand production.”

So you are keeping the traditional costumes?

Mostly. You will see ideas that look similar to what opened on Broadway, like I said we are keeping it in the same era as the musical was written because there are just certain things that really work. I think where we get to be somewhat creative are in these numbers that I’m calling “Historical Snapchats.” Trust me, I’ve broken this show down so much in my head. There is the intimate story, you know Mother and Father and Coalhouse and Sarah. They keep you involved in the plot. But throughout the show we have the sprinkling of the “snapchats” as I’m calling them. They are the historical moments, the big numbers that are just commentaries on America’s big historical moments. “Crime of the Century” focuses on Vaudeville, there’s one where we talk about Henry Ford, which is the commentary on the Industrial Revolution. There’s baseball as a national pastime. All these songs just become “snapchats” of historical moments.

I’m taking the opportunity to really push design-wise where we go with those numbers. I’m treating them as performances within this whole historical piece. When you see “Atlantic City” it’s going to make so much sense to you, it literally goes from a frozen moment in time to a living moment…that’s what a snapchat is. It’s such a historical piece but it really covers so much that when it tries to be very realistic it gets difficult to make sense of all the “historical leaps”. I think the minute you broaden what’s happening and leave room for interpretation, people buy into the jumping around and what’s happening.

Now we’ve heard you talk about the concept and the design work, everything but the people who are performing in the show. Can you tell us what it’s been like working with them?

I think for me working with them has been one of the most impressive things about this process. I’m working with about 30 people that are not paid. To find 30 people that are doing this just for the love, passion, and dedication of what they’re doing, that’s just so amazing to me. We rehearse four to five times a week. It’s different, we have the evening hours, we have to put in what we can when and where we can. What’s making this experience unique for me is working with 30 people that just span the spectrum of performers. I have worked with some of these performers professionally, there are people that have done hundreds of community theatre productions, and then there’s another third that have never done a show. To come into a show like this and say, “this is my first production” even for a pro, Ragtime is a difficult show. There’s a lot of music, it’s a musical beast. I crack the whip a lot, hopefully in a nice way. I come in and say, “learn 15 minutes of music because we need to choreograph it next week.” That can be overwhelming for anyone, but especially for someone who’s never done a production before, but they have all just been so dedicated and committed that it really is impressive.

We did a designer run five weeks into when the cast first met. It was fully staged. It’s mutually awesome to be at this point already. I feed off of their enthusiasm and their wanting to be here. And hopefully at the same time they feed off of my enthusiasm in the way that I concern myself with every detail in every facet of everything. I’m very detail-oriented for everything that’s going on with it. I think if I care, then they care.

You mentioned earlier that the show has in the upward of 100 characters, but you don’t have 100 actors. What were some of the challenges for casting this show?

You always go into auditions just praying, “please, let me find somebody that is going to make my vision work.” And in this case it’s not just “somebody.” I think the caliber of people that we found to be in the roles is just fantastic. We had a fairly large turnout for auditions, more than I’m used to anyway. It was big for the area, I guess, but when you think about it it’s not really that many people. When you need 30 people to fill your show it suddenly doesn’t seem like quite so many came to auditions. In comparison to say something like Songs for a New World where maybe 60 people show up to auditions but you only need five of them. With Ragtime you need 30 very specific people. We’re dealing with historical figures and you need a very specific fit for those characters all across the board.

I don’t think I’ve ever directed a show where I’ve ever needed to find such a wide range of actors. We had little children auditions to needing people that can play older characters like grandfather. Then add on the ethnicity, everybody can’t be Anglo, so this is a casting director’s nightmare, a huge nightmare. You need people who can be immigrants but also other things. So during casting it was a process of trying to fit everyone into all the right places. I discovered how difficult it is to cast this show, mostly after the fact. It’s during rehearsals that you unfortunately make these discoveries; I’d block an ensemble member in a bit part in one scene and the following scene I’d think “I need another white person to do this role, but this actor just did this in that scene,” and I was faced with a lot of that.

Thinking about it now I think the Broadway production was probably a cast of closer to 40 or 50 people. Logistically we’re doing it with the bare minimum and that means a lot of doubling up. The opening number has a lot of that going on.  We get all these characters like Sanford White and Harry K. Thaw. You never see them again, but they have to be played by somebody; and those somebodies have to be white males who can look a little older. But they’re both just sung two minutes before that as JP Morgan and Henry Ford. So how do I do that if I don’t have any extra actors? It forces me to think unconventionally of a different way to stage it and make it work. That to me is a fun challenge. I like pulling my hair out, I do!

This is the huge reason I said, “yes” to directing the piece and it’s a huge reason that I love coming to rehearsals on a daily basis – because of that challenge. I’d be horribly bored if I had to just stage something and replicate or copy a Broadway production. That’s just not me. A lot of the stuff that I did when I worked with my company Teatro101, back when we worked at that tiny little Mobtown Players’ stage, was challenging because of the space constraints. I absolutely loved the challenge of making things work in that space. I think my first directorial piece at Spotlighters (another small theater downtown with a tiny 10’ x 10’ stage) set the tone for my directing style and these types of challenges. It’s so phenomenal to now be able to associate the challenge of a show with the enjoyment of the process. Having those experiences made me love the challenge. My notebooks are so crazy full with unconventional ideas and I think of how to overcome these challenges night and day.

David Gregory with Choreographer Aysha Upchurch. PhotoArt by Cheri.

David Gregory with Choreographer Aysha Upchurch. PhotoArt by Cheri.

Having never worked at the HCC Arts Collective before, what has that experience been like for you?

I cannot express how supportive the Arts Collective has been as a whole. It’s a really appropriate name; they really do work as a collective. The support has just been incredible – from the awesome daily support of the Arts Collective crew to the staff and faculty at the Horowitz Center at HCC. Even the Dean of the Arts and Humanities Division at HCC Valerie Lash has been so graciously involved in the process! It’s great to have the dean of a school take personal interest in projects you are working on.  In terms of space, they’ve always had the spaces available when we ask for them, I’m spoiled here. To go anywhere after this, I can’t even imagine. We’re working on the stage that we’ll be performing on a month before we open. That happens nowhere. Ever. It doesn’t hurt that we’re sharing the space with the fantastic Rep Stage family…oh yeah, go see their Fantasticks!

I need to say an enormous thank you to the Arts Collective crew (Sue, Grace, and Darius) and to the tech staff at the center here because they have been so instrumental in helping me make these things come to life for this production. It’s one thing for designers to say “I need this, this, and this,” and it’s another thing for them to build it and make it happen. And they have done that and been so amazing. We had almost 20 different people show up for that designer run to get an idea of what they would be working with.

Are you sure this isn’t some secret cover-up before this show launches on Broadway? You keep saying you don’t have a Broadway budget or Broadway staff but I’m beginning to think that might be a lie. 

Haha! It does seem like we have staff forever and budgets forever, man I wish we had budgets forever, but I cannot begin to describe what it has been like working with the amazing tech staff here. They are so supported and so invested. It’s people that know how to make the most of the budget that they have. That is the most impressive thing for me. Having those almost 20 people being there to support me for that designer run is pretty incredible. Their response was great. It was the first time they got to see my crazy talk actually working on the stage as opposed to me just trying to explain it.

Taking all of that and showing these designers, and tech supporters, and the cast during that run was great. Now they can see how we’re going to handle “Atlantic City” and they can see how we’re making the car. Now when they see it on stage it makes more sense, and now they’re juiced up when they get to see what we’ve been working with. It was a great chance for the cast and the designers to have that contagious enthusiasm so very early on in the production. Get ready it’s going to be something! People call it Ragtime, yes they do.

So get your wheels turning and get out to see Ragtime before it drifts away into the historical lost and found.

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Ragtime plays May 8th through May 18, 2014 at the Howard Community College’s Arts Collective in HCC’s Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center’s Smith Theatre— 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them onlineIndividual tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for seniors (60+) and military, and $10 for all students with identification.

Ragtime runs May 8 – 18 in HCC’s Smith Theatre, with performances on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m.

LINK

Arts Collective@HCC website.

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