How a 22-Year-Old Director Conceived an Immersive Ragtime on Ellis Island

Special Features   How Will a 22-Year-Old Director Stage Ragtime on Ellis Island?
 
Sammi Cannold seems to already be an expert at site-specific theatre, even if she just graduated. For her next adventure, she stages a star-studded Ragtime on Ellis Island.
Ellis Island
Ellis Island Dan Prosky

Sammi Cannold is no stranger to site-specific theatre. After all, this is the girl who staged Violet on a moving bus when she was in her sophomore year at Stanford University—getting theatre-lovers so excited by the concept that it will resurface at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, in April 2017.

Until then, she’s going bigger with the beloved musical Ragtime on Ellis Island, the place where immigrants were processed from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Those who were lucky enough to score an invite have to take a ferry to the show, but if you didn’t get an invite, don’t fear! A limited number of seats will be distributed to the public by way of an online ticket lottery.

On the lunch break of her first day of rehearsal, Cannold called Playbill.com to talk about how she will stage the show and what she hopes will come of the production. The “developmental concert” plays August 8 on Ellis Island with a star-studded cast, narrated by original star Brian Stokes Mitchell. Click here for more details, and learn more about Cannold’s vision below.

How are rehearsals?
Sammi Cannold: We just had our first three hours, and it was wonderful. In the first hour, [we talked] about Ellis Island, and everybody went around and talked about how their family came to this country or how they came to this country, which was really neat to hear. And then we sang through!

Where did the idea to stage it on Ellis Island come from?
SC: [Co-producer] Brandon [Powell] and I did a production of Violet on a moving bus at Stanford. After we did that, I was just utterly in love with the form of site-specific theatre and sat down and basically made a list of my favorite musicals that can be done site-specifically. Ragtime was at the top of that list because I’ve always just adored that material. There are so many sites that you can put Ragtime, but I think that putting it on Ellis Island really jumped off the page to me. Not only is Ellis Island relevant because there are immigrant characters in Ragtime who come to the island, but, perhaps more importantly, Ellis Island represents this beacon of hope and this promise of our country that we will provide people with justice and democracy and freedom and liberty, so I think putting the themes of Ragtime in the context of Ellis Island was really what excited me initially.

How did you get on board to direct?
SC: I kind of had the idea, and then from there reached out to Madeline Smith—who is a close, close friend of mine—who is an amazing music director who’s been working around the city for the past few years. She and I just started putting together a team from there, and Brandon Powell came on board as our producer and has really built the staff.

When did you finish school?
SC: I graduated [from Stanford University in] June 2015, and then I went to a year of grad school [at Harvard University] last year.

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Brian Stokes Mitchell Monica Simoes

No big deal—just finished school and now directing an epic, site-specific Ragtime, with everyone on Broadway! How did you get this stellar cast together?
SC: Initially, we thought, “Oh, it’ll be so great. We’ll get all of our friends from college to do this production, and it’ll be wonderful.” Then I was working on Diane Paulus’ team for Finding Neverland, and Laura Michelle Kelly, who is the kindest person I know, basically said to me, “I believe in young directors, and if you are ever doing a reading or anything like that that you’d want me to be in, I’d really be happy to do it.” All of a sudden, buzzers went off in my head. First of all, she is Mother, but second of all, how incredible to think the people of her caliber would actually be interested in doing this piece? A few months later, I wrote to her and asked if I could take her up on the offer for Ragtime, and as soon as she came on board, we were like, “Who do we have to play opposite Laura?” From there, it all kind of spiraled, and we’ve just been so touched and honored by the interest that so many folks in the community have in the project.

It’s being billed as a “developmental concert.” Tell me more about your vision.
SC: I think it’s “developmental” because we are looking to the future to do a fully staged production. This is also not the full production; we’re just doing 12 songs. It’s a sort of sampling of music from the show. In the future, I think the idea is that we want to do something that’s ideally [staged] in 360 degrees in the Registry Room in the island that allows people to appreciate the space for what it is and feel like they’re actually in the space with the performers. But, for this summer, it will be much like a lab or a reading or any presentation for industry folk in the sense that we’ll have microphones, and folks will be coming to microphones, and they’ll have their books and whatnot, but there will be some minimal staging. We will be including moments that are most important in the context of staging. For example, in the opening number, we’ll have a moment where the immigrant ensemble basically processes from the back of the Registry Room hall up to the front, and then there are actors playing immigration officials who will check them in in the front of the room, so we can at least try to recreate what that looked like in the Registry Room. That’s the most staged that we get.

What are your hopes and dreams for this production?
SC: The first step, I think, is getting everybody in the room to see the material—the audience that we invited this summer is a mix of theatrical producers, television producers, folks in government and folks in the National Park Service—anybody who could take the project somewhere going forward. I think that we’re keeping it kind of open because we’re curious about what the form could be. We recognize that it’s very difficult to do a long-running production on Ellis Island because you have to take ferries to get there, and it’s a whole situation with protocol because it’s a national landmark. So I think that’s what we’re figuring out right now, but it would either be a fully staged production on the island, [or] we had some interest in a live televised version, where it would be like “Ragtime Live,” which is thrilling to me, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I think that that could be really fascinating. And Ragtime is a musical that America needs to see right now, I think, so I hope that whatever the next incarnation is, it could allow great numbers of people to be able to experience this musical in the context of the play.

In terms of logistics, what kind of permission did you have to get from Ellis Island?
SC: So when you do anything on Ellis Island, you have to essentially rent it. It’s interesting—Ellis Island can be rented as a venue, basically, but you have to apply to the National Park Service to do so, so we applied about two years ago. When you do that, you basically have control of the island for one night, which entails access to all the exhibits. Then you have to charter a ferry that will get your guests to and from the island because there’s no public transportation to the island without the boat. That was the first step, and from there it’s been a lot of logistics working with the National Park Service to figure out… Anytime you’re on Ellis Island you need an EMT, you need to go through airport-style security, you have to set up a whole entire sound system because it’s not built for theatrical performance, so in many ways, we’re kind of re-inventing the wheel. That, to me, is incredibly exciting. It’s daunting because it’s uncharted territory, of course… Site-specific theatre is happening all around the world, and I’ve been privileged to learn from the masters of site-specific theatre, but I think this is a beast that we kind of had to figure out as we went how to handle it logistically.

Will audiences be moving around at all? Where will they be placed versus where the performers will be?
SC: For this summer, we set up the audience at one end of the [Registry] hall, and then we built a stage at the other end of the hall, just so that it is in concert form. But as I was saying before, I think [a] 360 [-degree staging] is the goal for the future. We also had some discussions about whether or not it can be a promenade-type of adventure, where you follow one character, but that would have to be a discussion with the writers because the last thing I would want to do is create anything [that will], in any way, mess with this gem of a show that they created.

You’re only doing 12 songs? What went into the decision of what was kept and what was cut?
SC: It was painful! Because Ragtime is a masterpiece. How do you pick and choose? Before any of this really got rolling, we wrote to Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and said, “Here’s what we would like to do. What do you think? Would you give us permission to do this?” To my knowledge, I don’t think there have been Ragtime concerts that have been anything but the full show in the past. They basically said to us, “We love this idea. Our request would be that you just don’t do a truncated version of the show because that’s not what was intended, but rather come up with some scheme of grouping the songs.” So what we landed on was kind of highlighting themes that are in Ragtime and choosing songs accordingly. The themes that we’re really talking about are freedom in liberty in the musical Ragtime; so, for example, at the beginning of our sequence, we do all of the songs in Ragtime that basically talk about the immigrant experience and freedom and liberty in that context, so we do “Journey On,” “A Shtetl iz Amereke,” “Success”—those songs that explicitly talk about Ellis Island and that experience, but then we do songs like “Back to Before,” which doesn't talk about freedom in the same way that those songs do, but it does because it’s Mother’s journey and her search for freedom, as well. It’s touching on those themes; and, of course, one of the things that we feel is so important to highlight this summer, in particular, is that Coalhouse’s journey is incredibly, incredibly timely this summer with all the sociopolitical, racially-charged violence in our country. I think that telling this story is a beacon that represents our hopes and dreams for what this country can be [and], I hope, adding to the dialogue.

It’s so funny, when I talk to friends about this, they’re like, “You have no idea. This show is so timely right now.” Yes, but the thing about Ragtime is that it is always timely! Because the show talks about what it means to be American, [and] it talks about it in a way that begs the question of, “Are we doing enough to fulfill the promise of what being American means?” While it’s a story that took place over a hundred years ago…it’s still incredibly relevant because A) what I was just talking about with politically charged racial violence, but also immigration is such a crazy charged topic in our country right now, especially with the election year. To be talking about it feels critical, so I feel that we are blessed to be able to talk about with a beautiful piece of art that helps us break it down and [see] where the emotion in the political issue lies.

Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.

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