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Interview: Ford's Theatre RAGTIME Director Peter Flynn

Interview: Ford's Theatre RAGTIME Director Peter Flynn

Nina Simone once said "You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times."

But what do you do when a piece of art from 20 years ago, based on a piece of art from 40 years ago, about events which took place 100 years ago, reflects the times of today?

RAGTIME debuted on Broadway in 1998. The musical opened to mixed reviews, but was so grand in scale, that it couldn't be ignored. The original production cost more than $11 million and featured a working Model T Ford and fireworks onstage. It garnered 13 Tony nominations and starred Broadway luminaries such as Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, Peter Friedman, and Judy Kaye.

Since then, productions in the West End, a Broadway revival, and numerous high profile regional efforts have stripped back the sets and costumes to give a simpler approach and to elevate the book and score, by Terrence McNally and Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty, respectively. The newest production opens this week at the historic Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C., and is directed by Peter Flynn. I had a chance to chat with Peter about his approach to the work, and how it might reflect so many history-repeating themes.

Interview: Ford's Theatre RAGTIME Director Peter Flynn JM: We've seen a broad swath of scale when it comes to productions of RAGTIME - from the original Garth Drabinsky Broadway production which was extraordinarily grand in scope - to Marcia Milgram Dodge's medium-size - to Stafford Arima's fully scaled back Papermill production. All of these have had excellent critical success, where does your new production lie in terms of scope and scale?

PF: I would say we're between the small and medium. We have two dozen actors onstage, so smaller than Marcia's. It's an entirely Washington cast which really thrills me because it feels like a genuine community offering of this tale. And the set is, I think, one of the bigger that's been on Ford's stage. It's triple tiered including the deck.

JM: Did you build that yourself - as far as people playing multiple roles - how the roles would be assigned?

PF: When Paul called me about it, my first two questions were "why?"and "how?". When I was artistic director at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, NY, we did a production with around 20 with the children and a two-piano accompaniment onstage. It was a very small chamber production. I was encouraged and fascinated by the way actors would play multiple roles - so I used that as a template. But I also wanted to make it more diverse and inclusive to see how we could illuminate the immigrant story more effectively and reflect contemporary culture and citizenry more than it has been before.

Interview: Ford's Theatre RAGTIME Director Peter Flynn JM: In a time where racism, anti-semitism, and civil unrest is centerstage in our culture - especially here in DC, how does the current political climate affect vision for this production?

PF: It definitely brings a listening into the room. We're all very aware of how we are living, and how we're all living together - where we agree and disagree. If anything, it clarifies things for us. Offering RAGTIME in its purest essence at this moment is really enough. It really wants to be as clear and as bold a rendering of both the Doctorow narrative, Terrence McNally's script, and Steve and Lynn's score - it really reflects our cyclical history. What is astounding to us as a company is how many plotlines - not just the original 3, but another 3 or 4 are so reflective of where we are right now. For us, it's been about inviting the listening of our own personal experiences as citizens of the country, as community members in each of our own cities and neighborhoods, and bringing that conversation into the room.

Every week in rehearsals, we spend the last hour and a half of the week with what we call a "community wrap-up". We all gather, myself and my associate director broach a subject that we've found equally resonant in the story of our show and in the past week of living in our country. So not only is there the regular dramaturgy and rigor of rehearsal, but we also come together to hear each other's voices and look in each other's eyes and say "Here's how this show is resonating for me as of this moment" and if we can keep doing that for the run of the show - we're in pretty good shape.

Interview: Ford's Theatre RAGTIME Director Peter Flynn JM: I'm noticing a theme here as far as community goes. In both making the show feel like a community event with the locality of the actors, and this wrap-up you're doing. What's the through-line in the show that speaks to your need to make community such a central focus of the work?

PF: My understanding of the show and how we've built it as an ensemble - everyone in the show is looking to express their identity and in some simple form, be heard. Tateh is looking for his art to bring him work. Coalhouse is looking for justice to be restored. Mother is looking for validation for how powerful she's becoming. Then you've got Evelyn Nesbitt looking for an identity that doesn't sequester her to being a celebrity. Houdini is looking for deeper meaning in life - something larger than what we understand of the physical realm. The more we realized people were looking for eyes and ears in a practical way, to stand still and listen to them, we realized this is truly a community experience - this is a group of people saying "Am I here? Do you hear me? Can you speak up for me? Can you speak with me? How do we do this together?" The more we realized that's the narrative, the more we realized that's what people on both sides of the aisle are hoping for - can you hear me and will you speak up about this with me?

JM: You're known on Broadway for your beautiful work on several one-night concert events including CHESS, FUNNY GIRL, an ON THE 20TH CENTURY. What are the primary differences between directing one of those large scale events, and a fully produced musical?

Interview: Ford's Theatre RAGTIME Director Peter Flynn
RAGTIME Director Peter Flynn

PF: It really comes down to time. That's the big difference. I do the same amount of dramaturgy and production research, I have as many meetings with the design team beforehand as we can. But in a concert, there's no time for gestation and simmering. So you just have to run with whatever the best idea in the moment is.

That's distinct from a rehearsal period to walk in the room and say "this is the best idea we've had so far" and then 3 or 4 weeks later, that gives birth to a completely new idea which is clearer or heartier. There's also more time for collaboration, more question asking, more inquiry. More time on a narrative and to explore "Is this really the clearest, boldest, most engaging way to tell this part of the story?" If yes, great, let's get really clear. If not, let's ask the question again and see what happens when you add a different element. The gestation is really the key difference.

A concert is like a bottle rocket, whereas a show is hopefully like a well-seasoned stew. The bottle rocket has audacity and hopefully collective buy-in, chutzpah and a lot of goodwill. What I've experienced on RAGTIME is a lot of goodwill, but also a lot of time to say "Great, let me think about that" We're going to think about it, go home, and come back with new things to try. Where there's an exhilaration that is the fuel for a concert, there's a heartiness and a growing collaboration that fuels a full production. The exhilaration still comes when we add the audience, but prior to that, there's a real, deep, thorough collaboration that makes us stronger when telling the story.

JM: What's your favorite part of working in DC?

PF: The community. I'm sorry to keep going back to that: I love this group hard. The actors are so strong, so loyal. They have equal affinity for each other and for new ideas, which is a perfect combination for success. You've got a group of people who trust each other implicitly and fervently, so they're excited to have a new idea walk in the room and take it on with an even greater sense of confidence because they know the people with whom they're taking that risk. It's always a pleasure when I get a call from Paul at Ford's. When he says "We're gonna do it with the home team," I say "Sign me up!"

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