Interview: Director Grace Austin On COCA's Epic Musical Production of 'Ragtime' at the Edison This Weekend
To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their theater department, the Center of Creative Arts has set their sights on tackling an ambitious show, “Ragtime,” based on the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name. With a book by Terrance McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty, the epic show captured five Tony awards and four Drama Desk awards when it opened on Broadway in 1998. Performances will take place at Washington University’s Edison Theatre on Friday, July 25, and Saturday, July 26.
The COCA production is epic in itself. The show features 50 cast members, which includes current COCA students plus students who hail from 17 high schools across the region. Moreover, the students will be performing alongside returning COCA alumni who hail from a variety of colleges and graduate schools, including Columbia, Indiana University, Marquette and Vanderbilt.
“Ragtime” paints a intricate picture of America around the turn-of-the-century, drawing from the era’s varied music—including marches, cakewalks, gospel and ragtime—to tell the story of three remarkable families as they face head-on the conflict of freedom and prejudice, wealth and poverty, hope and despair, and what exactly it means to live in America.
ALIVE caught up with Grace Austin, “Ragtime” director, COCA theater instructor and head of the Theater and Communications Dept. at East Central College, to get the 411 on what she calls “the most challenging show” of her directorial career.
ALIVE: Tell us in your own words what “Ragtime” is about.
Austin: Ragtime is difficult to describe plot wise. It’s like Les Mis. It is an epic musical. There are 15 different plots going on at all times, but I think the main draw of the story is the idea that no matter how different we look on the outside—religion, money, class, skin color—we are all the same on the inside. It really deals with racism in the early 1900s and the way that white families deal with it when a black man comes into their lives and changes everything that he touches, and he opens up their eyes and makes them realize how wrong they’ve been in what they thought before about their own world.
ALIVE: It’s also an immigrant story.
Austin: And that’s the third story. It’s the story of an immigrant named Tateh who comes from Latvia. He has a daughter and he just wants to provide for his daughter, as all parents do. He has a very hard time at first, but he perseveres and doesn’t give up and he finally makes this wonderful life for his daughter and becomes a movie director, creating a wonderful life for his child.
ALIVE: What parallels do you see with this show and the current state of things? How do the shows themes apply to today?
Austin: I think the idea of America as a melting pot—which I think we give a lot of vocal intent to, like, “Oh, yes, melting pot, America—but I think we’re still in a place, certainly in the wake of a black president, we’ve made great, great strides, but I think we’re still in a place where we judge people. Maybe not as much by their skin color, but by what God they worship, who they love and all sorts of different things.
In “Ragtime,” in the very beginning during the opening number, everyone is very segmented. You have the New Rochelle people, the upper class people, you have the immigrants, you have the Harlem residents, and then in the very last song, they all come together as one, showing the journey that they’ve taken. I think that’s what we need here; again the idea that it doesn’t matter who you are on the outside, what matters is what’s in your heart and what kind of person you are.
ALIVE: How would you describe your directorial style?
Austin: I love it here at COCA. Everyone is so talented. They are phenomenal performers. A lot of them are young, and a lot of them have been with me a long, long time, since I started here. Having strong performers, you really just give them a basic framework and then you see where they go. When you have actors that aren’t as strong, you have to be more hands-on and it’s a lot more complicated. I’m so lucky to have these performers, and they also come to me with great ideas. That’s something I like to do as a director: Use the performer’s ideas.
ALIVE: I understand you’ve brought back a lot of graduates to perform in “Ragtime?”
Austin: We have. Most of our leads are played by people who have been through our program and have graduated. Most of them are now in BFA programs or going off to BFA programs, and they’ve come back to be with us and do the show.
ALIVE: And this is the first time COCA has done that? Invited back all of its graduates?
Austin: It is. This is the first and only year that we’ve opened up our doors to all of our alumni. The COCA dance program does that every year, so the idea is not new to COCA, but it’s new to the theater department.
ALIVE: What have you found most challenging about directing “Ragtime?”
Austin: It is such an epic musical. There is so much music, there is so much choreography; there’s just so much going on that sometimes it’s hard to focus on everything. We’ve done so much work on vocals, and so much work on choreography, and so much work on acting, and sometimes some things don’t quite come together til the last minute. I’ll see something and think, oh my gosh, I have to fix that, but first I have to fix this, this, this, this and this. (laughs)
This musical is just enormous and all the parts are very difficult and you want to make sure all the aspects are equally strong. That’s where the strong actors come in. If you have strong actors, they can build their own characters and bring things to the table. They’re very good at creating their own stories so I don’t have to go through every person’s story with them.
ALIVE: What do you think the audience will take away from the show?
Austin: I think the ultimate message of “Ragtime” is a message of hope for everyone. Whether you are born into wealthy circumstances and you are able to make a better life for other people with what you were fortunately blessed with, or if you are born in circumstances that aren’t as fortunate and you’re able to work your way up, that there’s always hope, and there are people out there who will help you and who need your help.
So the idea is coming together as a community and providing this net of support for people who need help and don’t have as much as you do, or using that help to create a better life for everyone around you.
“Ragtime” will be performed at Washington University’s Edison Theatre on Friday, July 25 at 7pm, and Saturday, July 26 at 2pm and 7pm. For tickets and information, visit the COCA website.
Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly