In Latvia, a man dreamed of a new life for his little girl. At Union Square a rebel with a cause for justice spoke up. And in 1906 the crime of the century was wrapped around a girl on a swing. Yes, this is all happening in Ragtime, the musical at the Arts Collective@HCC. Continuing on in the ‘On the Wheels of a Dream’ interview series, we sit down with three representatives from the ‘immigrant group’: Jacob Stuart (Tateh), Katie Tyler (Evelyn Nesbit), and Lauren Blake Williams (Emma Goldman), to get an idea of life as an immigrant in the musical Ragtime.
Amanda: Thank you all for joining in this interview series. Introduce yourselves and tell our readers where they may have seen you recently performing on the stage.
Katie Tyler: I’m Katie Tyler and I’m playing Evelyn Nesbit, that girl on the swing. I actually haven’t been in the area for a while. I went to school in New York and I just came home in December. But I did a lot of stuff here with Howard Community College for a long time-with Arts Collective. The last thing I did was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I also did A Chorus Line, Angels in America, and other shows. It’s good to be back.
Jacob Stuart: I’m Jake Stuart and I am Tateh in the show. I just played Joseph in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat up in Baltimore, The Suburban Players, actually. I was in The Producers up in Harford County before that. And I did Me and My Girl last summer at Cockpit in Court. I’ve done a lot of work with Cockpit in Court before.
Lauren Blake Williams: I’m Lauren Williams and I play Emma Goldman in the show. I have a degree in musical theatre from Catholic University, but this is my first show since leaving school a few years ago. I’ve been working and this is the first time I’ve been back to the stage.
It’s exciting that we have a range of performance experiences here. What is it about Ragtime that drew your interest and made you want to be a part of this production?
Lauren: The show is what got me back to the stage, actually. Ragtime is my favorite musical of all time. It’s always been my favorite musical for as long as I can remember. I’ve been thinking for a while now that it would be nice just to get back into auditioning. That was the goal at first, just to get back to auditioning. I’m a little familiar with the area. I grew up in Ellicott City, I did summer camps here way back in the day, and I think it was the familiar territory that called to me as well. Ragtime’s my favorite because of the music. The music is beautiful. I’m a music theory nerd and I just love that the way that the music is written. Ahrens and Flaherty are my favorite composing duo.
Jacob: I saw Ragtime when I was in college when it was at The Kennedy Center. They had cheap tickets and I had never seen it and that was the only reason I went. It became my favorite show from the moment I saw it and I’ve listened to the music ever since. I know it’s such a huge undertaking because of all the music involved, and I know that nobody ever does it. So once I heard that they were doing it down here I figured it was worth the 45 minute drive for me to come down and be a part of it.
Katie: If it’s not my favorite, it’s in my top three. I think West Side Story might beat it out. The first time I saw Ragtime it was at Loyola-Blakefield, and my friend was in it and I just loved it. Then I saw the recent revival and I just bawled my eyes out. I’ve always wanted to play Evelyn, and I haven’t done musicals in years. I said to myself, “I’m just going to go out for it.” When else am I going to get a chance to be a part of Ragtime and be in a musical like this? And you know, I have no idea why I’m so in love with Evelyn. Obviously the go-to character would be Mother, but there is just something about her that speaks to me. In this heavy show to do something light and bring a little bit of fun to this darkness is just amazing.
Katie mentioned that she came in looking for Evelyn. Jacob and Lauren-were you both looking for Emma Goldman and Tateh as your roles?
Jacob: Because it’s such a long drive for me, I was hoping to be Younger Brother, or Tateh. Well, I never had Tateh in my mind; actually, I lie. I came in and I wanted to be Younger Brother. And then when I was notified for a callback it was for Father and for Tateh so I had completely changed my course. Tateh’s songs I had always kind of skipped on the recording when I was listening to it. I mean I love his songs but we all have those songs that we skip over and his were always it. So when I got that callback for Tateh it really surprised me. But it’s so awesome, and I love it. And our Younger Brother, played by Brian Nabors, is amazing and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Lauren: I’ve always wanted to play Emma, actually. There’s something about her. She’s like a dream role for a character actress. I have a friend, who when I told him that I was playing Emma, he said, “You’re so good at getting those parts that have very little stage time but lots of glory.” She’s not around that much, she’s actually not in a whole lot of the show, but when she is there she’s cursing and screaming. It’s a powerful role. I feel connected to the message that she’s fighting to portray. She’s a real political activist, so she has lots of message. The big one in this show is immigrant rights, equal treatment, and equal pay for those immigrants. She was a really powerful human being. It’s fun to get to play her. I was driving behind a car the other day that had an Emma Goldman quote on its bumper sticker and it said, “If I can’t dance, I want no parts of your revolution.” I just love her!
The three of you are representing one of the main groups from Ragtime, the “immigrant group.” Can you talk a little about how your personal histories and backgrounds have influenced your portrayals in the show?
Lauren: My family is Russian. And Welsh. Emma is Russian so that worked out pretty well I think. I didn’t know very much about my heritage or my background, I just know that a lot of my family came here from Russia. I think that’s another reason why I feel really connected to her. I think the hardest thing about playing the historical characters in this show is to be able to tell the story of that person, while still making them your own character, and not just imitating something from a history book. I thought a lot about her accent because she is Russian, but at this point in her life she has lived in America for a very long time, so I didn’t necessarily want to come in with something super thick or heavy. I think I’m blending her accent to connect more deeply with her. I was afraid if I gave her too much of an accent that she would end up being too much of a cartoon. I liked her closer to me so that I could relate to her better.
Jacob: I’ve got nothing.
Katie: I don’t really either. I’m a mutt as far as backgrounds go.
What’s it like playing a historical character?
Katie: She’s such an insane character; you know she’s just so bubbly that she’s almost a caricature in a way. I’ve tried really hard not to make her that way. Even if it’s things that only I know I’m doing, like when she says “Wheeeeee” I try to make each one different to give her some depth. I know that they’re different I don’t know if everyone else will know that they’re different. I’ve tried to find ways to make her story shine. Her real life story is actually very sad, and it isn’t highlighted very much in the show because there’s only so much time and so many things you can focus on, and Ragtime already focuses on so much. It’s hard because no one even knows who Evelyn Nesbit is anymore. I’ve been telling people that I’m playing Evelyn Nesbit and they are all surprised when I tell them that she’s based on this real person. She’s a little like Kim Kardashian of her day because she’s famous for being famous, and she just tries to live off of that for as long as she possibly can. She’s so relatable to the world we live in now with that “celebrity of nothing” notion.
Are you as bubbly as Evelyn Nesbit?
Jacob & Lauren: Haha! Oh God-yes she is!
Katie: Sometimes I am. No, seriously, I love her as a character and I do relate. I am bubbly, but she is an extreme. I’m not quite that extreme.
Lauren: She’s not always bubbly and she definitely has some moments in the second act where she is much more like you, Katie.
Katie: Wow! What? I don’t know what to say to that. I know exactly what moments you are talking about. We all love each other here at Ragtime. Evelyn does have a little bit of my sarcasm in the second act and I think that’s where I find myself drawing her into reality instead of this caricature of ‘the girl on the swing.’
Jacob, you get to create an immigrant character from scratch. Tateh is a completely fictional entity meant to represent “John Q Immigrant,” so what’s that like for you?
Jacob: David gave all the leads a copy of the Ragtime novel when we started this process. The musical is based on the novel. The novel has all the fictional people integrated with all the real people just like the musical. I read that novel in like four days flat because there is no real research for Tateh, so I had to create him from somewhere. The novel was very helpful because it contains a lot of Tateh’s back story that you don’t get to see in the musical. I was actually explaining to someone the other day when they were asking whatever happened to Tateh’s wife, it’s actually all right there in the novel, it just never comes up in the musical. So having read the novel and now knowing all that, it becomes my motivation for a lot of thing that I do as him.
A good word to describe him would be ‘frustrated.’ He’s never worried about himself because he’s always worried about his daughter. His only concern is his little girl, and that is my motivation this entire show. Making sure my daughter is OK is what drives me. The whole first act is just trying to make sure his daughter gets through and he gets so frustrated in trying to do that. I feel like I’m grabbing onto those frustrations that people had back then. I’ve personally never experienced anything like that, but I’m grasping at that to help make this character happen.
Do you have children, Jacob?
Jacob: Nope. No children. I’m also not an artist and I don’t do silhouettes. I do theatre. I’m a full-time firefighter and I do this on the side. This is my creative outlet, though I’m not using this to support my non-existent children on the streets of New York City. I’m going to have to learn how to cut out silhouettes really soon though.
What challenges have you faced while you were preparing your performance?
Lauren: I did a lot of sight-reading, and my degree is in music and I think I’m really good at reading and memorizing music. But I struggled with this one! I don’t know whether it’s because I haven’t been in a show for a while, so I’m not used to the process or what, but the music is just really hard. The ensemble portions of this show were much harder to learn than any of the other ensemble music in past shows I was in. It’s the kind of show that takes a lot to put together. All of the different storylines coming together are really complicated. We are very fortunate that we have David Gregory who came in with this idea of how that was going to happen. But for the rest of us, wrapping our head around it took a long time. There was a lot of him saying, “Just stand here, and trust me it’s going to work.” And that process is always scary. It wasn’t until we really got to see it that it all started making sense.
It’s a complex show in terms of plot. Just to understand not only the trajectory and the arc of your own character and then having to grasp the other characters that are effected by your character -well- it’s a lot to take in and understand. Emma is really well-connected to Younger Brother in particular and she’s a motivator for a lot of what he chooses to do. They don’t really know each other, and that’s a complex relationship. There a lot of complex relationships throughout this show.
Jacob: I think my biggest challenge would be Tateh’s character development. Like I said, I got the back story from the book, but Tateh’s character goes through so many changes so very quickly. Even in the in that first number, I’m not even in America yet and then suddenly I’ve been in America for several years, and they are the worst few years of my life. All that happens in five minutes. I’ve never played a role like this before ever. I’ve never been so into or passionate about a role the way I am about Tateh. I’ve had a lot of people comment to me about it, and I’m very into it.
I have no idea why I’m so passionate with him. I think it really is all that character development and the fact that I’m so invested in making him work. I did a lot of research and a lot of practice on my own with him and I think it shows. He goes through all of these character changes and I have to be very clear, and distinct and concise about every time I change. I think that was my most difficult thing and I’m still working on it. That’s me in real life-I need a challenge.
Katie: I think because I was so familiar with the cast recording, the biggest struggle for me was to not copy what I had heard. Trying to find my own way of doing it, taking inspiration of course, but you don’t want to emulate because that’s boring. You need to find a way to add your own twist and that was challenging for me. And the music was really hard. When it’s happening, it’s so exciting. When we are all listening to each other-it’s just amazing.
Lauren: Amanda, you were talking about how you’d heard us rehearsing and how wonderful we sounded as an ensemble, and I think that says something about community theatre. People say “community theatre” and they think something different than what it actually is. And this is showing people that community theatre is so much more than the stereotype that is out there. That is one thing that has definitely not been a challenge; the amount of passion that everyone is bringing with them to this show. Everyone wants to be here and do this and we all want it to be successful. You have a bunch of people who are here because they want to be here and they love it. The passion is more than I’ve seen in some professional theatres.
Your Director, David Gregory, talks about this concept of a “living museum, historical lost and found.” What does that mean to you, and how does it affect the way you are approaching your role within this concept?
Jacob: I think this came up before when you said, “John Q Immigrant.” I am the pinnacle of the immigrant group in the show. You see a bunch of immigrants come in but the only immigrant that gets followed to a tee is me. Let me rephrase. Because Tateh’s struggles are the only struggles who are consistently focused upon and followed throughout the story, he is the opportunity for the audience to have that window into the struggles of immigrant life.
Katie: Much better.
Lauren: Tateh also has Little Girl with him.
Jacob: I do. I have Little Girl with me and if you think about it, people like my grandparents, my grandmother, or anyone’s grandmother could have been that little girl-coming over on the boat and struggling the way they are seen struggling in this show. I imagine people staring at a glass case looking at an immigrant display and it follows my story in that glass case, and Little Girl’s story and all of our trials and tribulations as we encounter them.
Katie: I think that’s safe to say of every character in the show. Every character represents that one person from that time period whether they are a real person like Evelyn and Emma or whether they’re “Mother” where the name represents itself. Very intentionally vague, Mother is the every-mother figure of that time. I love that they don’t have names.
Lauren: It is very intentional that the “family” does not have names. That they are all listed as Mother, Father, Younger Brother, and Grandfather. They could be anyone’s mother or father, but in a sense they are also very specifically mother and father to the white upper-class demographic of New Rochelle.
Katie: I know the lack of identity in that ambiguity drives people bonkers, but I love it. It makes the characters more relatable because Mother becomes any woman of that time period and every mother can relate to her.
Jacob: If you could take every character of that time period and put them on a shelf they would have so many stories just like any piece in a museum. You look at any piece in a museum and there are hundreds of stories locked away inside of it. If you just look further into it, like you’re going to be looking further into everyone in this show, you’ll see all of those stories coming to the surface.
Lauren: They’re isolated at first glance, just like museum pieces. They may all be part of a collection but each piece seems separate at first, just like all the characters and their groupings here in the show. David did a beautiful job with the staging to show how truly interconnected they all are. Even though they all live their own independent lives, and they are grouped out into families: the New Rochelle family, the Harlem family, the immigrant family-they are all connected as a bigger part of one whole and all of their paths cross in one way or another-just like artifacts that are part of a larger collection in a museum.
Lauren, what is it that gets your blood pumping as you play Emma?
Lauren: I have a lot of things. I will get on a soap box about a lot of things if you let me.
Katie: Yeah she does.
Lauren: See? They know. I’ve done it all before, and I think that’s another reason why I really connect with Emma. There are so many causes that I am really passionate about. There are just so many different ones! I mean there’s—
Katie: Is there one that’s prevalent in your life right now?
Lauren: I work in theatre education and arts education right now; I actually work for Imagination Stage. When I started taking music education classes in school, the first thing that I was told was that I was going to spend 90% of my career advocating for the necessity of these educations for people. I can’t tell you how important that I think it is that people, especially children, are exposed to the arts in their life. We have a theatre at Imagination Stage that is specifically designed for children under the age of five as an introductory type experience to theatre. Theatre should be part of your culture forever, whether you’re just an audience member watching it or you’re actively being a part of it. I think that drama classes and improvisation classes help children with all sorts of life skills that they’re going to need. If it were up to me every single child would take a drama class in school. I think that theatre and art is really valuable, but terribly undervalued in our society.
Katie: You are so riled up right now.
Jacob: See? She’s perfect for Emma Goldman.
Lauren: I’m sorry! It’s what I do for a living!
Katie: No, I was really into it! I thought we were actually about to vote on keeping theatre in schools or something! That was great!
Jacob, when you were growing up did you have any life changing moves that gives you more of a relatability to Tateh and his struggles?
Jacob: The struggle in my life that I think I can relate to Tateh’s struggles is that my father passed away when I was eight years old. I was raised by a single mother who raised both my brother and me and I think her struggles have motivated me in so much of my life. My father was a firefighter and that was what got me into that. My mother is the strongest woman I know and she has just been such a motivation for me all my life. I take a lot of her strength into this role. I don’t have kids, I’ve never had kids in my life. But I’m trying to take what it was like for her— always doing what was best for me and my brother— and put that into how Tateh always puts his Little Girl first. All of that experience and strength that my mom had, she didn’t care about her she only wanted what was best for us, and I’m channeling that into Tateh only wanting what’s best for Little Girl.
If we weren’t playing Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman, and Tateh, who would we be playing?
Katie: Jake would say every character. Jake would do a one man show of Ragtime.
Jacob: Not every character. Just Coalhouse. Hands down. Every time Jamar was not in rehearsal I was singing his parts. Every time. We’re never on stage at the same time so we could do that. I mean the girls and I stand back stage and sing “Wheels of a Dream” to each other every night. I love it. I love that character so much. I think I said that I was auditioning for Younger Brother, but the way the show ended up being cast age-wise it wouldn’t make sense for me to play that role. And like I said our Younger Brother is amazing. I’m really glad that he’s Younger Brother. But Coalhouse. For sure.
Katie: I want to be Coalhouse. I’m not saying that to be funny or just because Jake said it. Coalhouse is such an amazing character. God! His songs! His development and it’s just so amazing. Now, obviously Jake would be a better Coalhouse than me, and of course Jamar, who actually plays Coalhouse in the show, is the best, but Jake would be second best and I would be the third best.
Lauren: I’ve always been connected to Mother. I think right now I’m too young to play her. Someday I hope to play her, though. I’m not at a place in my life where I can understand her struggles yet. I think part of the reason Santina does such an amazing job is because she does have a family and children, and she can bring that into the process. Mother has such a rebellious bone in her body, she’s a trailblazer. Her arc in the story is the most interesting to me. If I had to pick one character for the show to be about, for me it’s always been Mother. I also think that the part of “Sarah’s Friend” is really undervalued. She sings one number, the lead into “’Til We Reach That Day” and it is the best number in the whole show. And our girl Caelyn is so good just wait until you see her.
Lauren: It does, even on her days when she’s not feeling 100% she still blasts that song out and sounds so amazing she makes me want to be that character so bad. The part is great and I do love those roles, the ones that just show up, do something quick and flashy and then go away.
Katie: That is Ragtime though. You get to the point where you say, “Oh, I forgot that character was in this show.”
What does the word “Ragtime” mean to you?
Jacob: I think now it has so many meaning because of this show. Everyone has their own story and involvement. When you’re watching the show you’re going to follow the Harlem group for 20 minutes-and then Tateh will come back-and you’ll have to realize that you’ve briefly forgotten about him. Then you follow him for 20 minutes and then there’s Mother-and what about her story? They’re all interconnecting and they’re all so brilliantly written that Ragtime becomes this montage of many people all at once. So many stories come together as one, and each letter has its own story. Just the word itself means something different to Tateh than it does to Evelyn, to Emma, to Mother, to everyone in the show, even every last ensemble member has a different meaning for the word and it shows in this production.
Lauren: I like the idea of “Ragtime” as the music as well. Because as the music is shifting and changing so are the characters. There’s a large shift in the culture that’s happening and it is represented in the show by the type of music that is written. It’s written into the opening number if you listen to the way the New Rochelle portion is written verses the Harlem or the Immigrant portion is written. The differences and the changes are all right there.
Katie: Even the monologues that the family has in the beginning, their own little representation of “Ragtime” in those words—
Lauren: Which is a totally different style from how everyone else is singing and talking in that opening number. “Ragtime” is diversity. I like the idea that the music is what creates that diversity and follows this transition of those people and their stories and the time.
Why should people come and see Ragtime here at HCC Arts Collective?
Jacob: For a $15 ticket this is the best show you’re ever going to see at that price. This is the best show that I’ve ever been in-ever. I had a friend who I told me, “This is the best show I’ve ever been in.” and she was completely taken aback and said, “but you’ve been in some really amazing shows.” And I had to say to her, “I don’t care because this is the best one. By far. Hands down.” I don’t know how to sell it besides putting that out there. This is a 45-minute drive for a lot of my friends, but saying that seems to do the trick.
Katie: I think it’s just one of those shows where if you know it you want to see it because it’s just so beautiful. It’s not done nearly enough because it is such a beast. I have watched YouTube videos, I’ve seen the revival, and our production here is such a new interpretation. It is so exciting to see it done in such a different way. Even the set and the design elements are mind-blowing. When I walked in to the designers tech where the set wasn’t even finished-I gasped because it was so beautiful and original and amazing. Everyone is working so hard-not just the actors involved- but the people behind the scenes are working ten times harder than we are. It’s insane. In other theatres you don’t usually get the amount of support we’re getting. It feels different than anything I’ve ever done before. It feels bigger and so much more important than anything I’ve ever been a part of. And the story too. It’s an important story. People say it’s aged but it really hasn’t. It’s so relevant right now.
Lauren: I think it’s not hard to sell this show to a theatre person. If you know the show and you know it’s being done, people will jump to come see it. This show is incredibly unique. It’s incredibly powerful. I can remember seeing it for the first time on stage and I still remember it. This production is going to be a memorable experience that will stick with you for some time to come. You aren’t going to walk away and forget about it. You are going to leave feeling empowered, you’re going to leave feeling moved, and having your life put into perspective.
Jacob: Tears streaming down your face.
Lauren: He’s right. It is that kind of show. It’s an emotional experience to watch. It’s an emotional experience to be in it. It is our job as actors to make sure that emotional experience transfers to our audience and that they feel what we feel. I think that there is somebody for everybody to relate to in this show. Everybody’s struggle in life can be seen somewhere in this production. It is going to be beautiful. There is so much passion and dedication being put into this show from people who do not have to be here but choose to be. It’s worth your trip I don’t care how far you’re coming from. This is the show you have to see.
Katie: Come see Ragtime. I’m backstage and I’m watching every little moment that I’m not in happen and I never get tired of watching it. It’s so exciting.
Jacob: I have never been this excited for a show before in my life.
Lauren: Proud. I’ve never been this proud of a show that I’ve been in before.
Katie: We’re all really proud of it. Every single last person.
Lauren: That’s why you come and see this show. We’re all dedicated, and we’re bringing all our passion to it and we’re all so proud. So you have to come see it.
Katie: I wish I could see it. There are things that we’re doing that would make me desperately want to sit out in that audience and watch it. That’s why people need to see it. When the actors involved want to take a seat in the audience and see what’s happening-you know it’s going to be incredible.
Ragtime plays 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 online.’
Review of Ragtime on DCMetroTheaterArts.
On The Wheels of a Dream: David Gregory on Directing ‘Ragtime’ at Arts Collective@HCC.
‘On the Wheels of a Dream’: Shayla Lowe and Jamar Brown on Playing Sarah and Coalhouse in ‘Ragtime’ at Arts Collective@HCC