In the summer of 2016, droves of theatre’s elite gathered for a one-night-only abbreviated concert performance of Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Terrence McNally’s Ragtime, but they weren’t in the Theatre District. They boarded ferries at New York City’s Battery Park to Ellis Island to experience director Sammi Cannold’s site-specific mounting in the Island’s famed Registry Room, where thousands of immigrants—akin to characters in the musical—passed through before settling in America.
The night felt nostalgic, but for Cannold it marked a glimpse into the future. Her goal is to produce a full production—costumes, staging, choreography—for a run “at least the length of an Encores! production,” but possibly as long as a few months.
The team at Ellis Island loves the idea, and is willing to work out logistics to bring theatregoers to the Island after the museum closes at night, possibly during low season. Cannold learned from her test run that her greatest logistical challenge wouldn’t be getting the Island on board, it would be the sound design.
“We realized that we built a $40,000 sound system for one night and—while it was an amazing, state-of-the-art sound system—it’s still hard to have sound translate intelligibly in a space like that with 120-foot ceilings,” says Cannold. Not to mention, the daily assembly and disassembly of that system for the length of a run can’t be done.
Cannold brought sound designers to the Island to discuss options, but it was fellow director Michael Arden and his husband, actor Andy Mientus (who played Younger Brother in the concert), who unlocked possibilities. They had seen the opera Invisible Cities in Los Angeles “in a train station, and the audience members wore headphones and the actors wore body mics and the sound was mixed live into the headphones,” Cannold explains. She reached out to Invisible Cities sound designer Nick Tipp, who jumped aboard Ragtime and designed a system specifically for her project.
This design also gives audience members headphones, specifically the kind of in-ear monitoring system usually used for musicians. (“Headphone technology has been used for this sort of work before, [but] it’s never been used the way we’re using it,” the director says.) Though the design originated as a solution to preserve the understanding of text in a cavernous space, Cannold found ways to use it to enhance her initial vision. “We designed a whole sonic experience during ['Our Children'],” she says of the number set on the shore of Atlantic City, “where you hear gulls and you hear waves crashing, just as you would if you were actually standing on a beach.”
Donning individual headsets may seem counterintuitive to the communal nature of theatre, but Cannold has discovered the opposite: “This experiment has been, in part, to see: Is it, indeed, isolating? The experiment has shown us it’s not.”
What Cannold and team did encounter was that headphones require an adjustment period, which led her to further expand the production. “We developed this pre-show experience wherein when audience members step on the ferry, they’re handed their headphones. As the ferry’s going to Ellis Island, Peter Friedman [the original Tateh] narrated for us an audio score of New York Harbor,” she says. “So, as you’re sailing, Peter’s saying, ‘On your left is the Statue of Liberty, here’s some history about the Statue.’ By the time the show starts, you don’t even remember you had the headphones in.”
Ragtime on Ellis Island has transformed from a performance to a full event, and its progressive design taps into Cannold’s quest for experiential, rather than presentational, theatre.
“It changes the game of intimacy. You feel like you do when you’re in immersive experiences because you’re so much closer, sonically, to the performance,” Cannold says. “When those numbers happen, I feel like I’m in the scene as opposed to voyeuristically watching it.”
While she continues to chip away, cracking the challenges of the immense undertaking, her next step (and hope post-workshop) is to find “the infrastructure from an institution or from a producer to say, ‘I believe in this project and want it to go forward.’” Then, Ragtime on Ellis Island can jump from the stage to the place where the story truly began.