In New Rochelle, a family who was really just your ordinary upper class family of the time, came to experience life far different from the one they knew when Mother discovered a baby in the dirt of her garden. In the conclusion of ‘On the Wheels of a Dream’ interview series, I sat down with actors Santina Maiolatesi, Cory Jones, and Brian Nabors, playing Mother, Father, and Younger Brother respectively, in the HCC Arts Collective’s production of Ragtime to get their opinion and experience on the show.
As always, let’s start by introducing you to our readers-who have been following along in the series-so that they can get acquainted with you and what you’ve done in the area on the stage in the last year or so.
Cory Jones: I’m Cory Jones and I’m in the show playing Father. In the area recently I was Michael in Tick, Tick Boom! at Red Branch Theatre last fall. I’ve done a bunch of shows there. Most recently I’ve been working a lot on tech, doing lights, sets, and sound for a lot of theatres in the area. The last show I teched, I did lights of Title of Show at Red Branch, which was a lot of fun.
Brian Nabors: I’m Brian Nabors, I play Younger Brother. The last thing I did was CCTA’s Shrek over the summer, I played Lord Farquaad. That’s really all I’ve done because I was away at school, but now I’m here and this is awesome.
Santina Maiolatesi: I’m Santina Maiolatesi and I play the role of Mother. I have a sordid history with Arts Collective from back before it was Arts Collective. I did many shows here but way back in the day. I’ve worked with Sue Kramer many times as my director, I went to Catholic University, and I have done stuff at Toby’s right up the street from here. I was in Miracle on 34th Street back during Christmas and before that I played Daniela in In The Heights.
What was the draw to make you want to be a part of Ragtime?
Brian: Ragtime is my favorite musical. I remember the first time I saw it was actually at Toby’s. I loved it. It’s been one of my dream roles to be Younger Brother for a while now. So when I saw that they were doing it here, I knew I had to audition.
Cory: I had never seen Ragtime or read the score or the novel or anything like that. But I knew that Arts Collective was doing it and I had a lot of fun the last time I worked with them, doing Urinetown, so I knew I wanted to audition for the show they were doing, regardless of what it was because of that experience. So I looked into it, fell in love with the soundtrack as soon as I heard it. I read the book and fell in love with the story and that was that.
Santina: I’m sort of on the Arts Collective marketing team with Sue Kramer. I knew a long time ago, back during In The Heights, like late spring of 2013 that this was happening. I knew back then I had to be a part of it. But I never in my wildest dreams thought that I was going to audition and actually get the role of Mother. One of the reasons was because the fantastic Coby Kay Callahan—who is actually up the street playing Princess Fiona in Shrek at Toby’s— she was going to audition and I think everyone was sort of thinking of her in that role. She and David have worked together before and it’s one of her favorite shows, so I think we all thought she was going to be playing Mother because she’s so talented and so right for the role. But when I knew she wasn’t going to audition, I suddenly felt relieved! No, I’m totally just kidding, Coby is actually my BFF. With her out of the way, I love you Coby, I felt like there was a shot. Like maybe there was a chance I could land the role. It’s just, I think the word is “wow.” That I got this role.
David, (Director David Gregory) presented the leads with a copy of the novel at the opening rehearsal. And to have someone like that who is so dedicated and so involved, that was the other big reason I knew I had to get involved with this show. The chance to work with David, and I have worked with him before, is not something you want to pass up. He puts so much into making this story a successful, meaningful journey, ensuring that the story is told the way he envisions it being told while still making sure we as actors know who we are playing when we work with these characters.
That is a beautiful segue into my next question. The way the interview series was set up, compliments of Santina, we featured the ‘groups’ the Harlem Group, the Immigrant group, and now you guys are the ‘Family Group.’ What has it been like being the “family” representation in a show that is essentially a story of many stories?
Cory: I think it’s an interesting role we get to play. We’re the first story introduced. This is where reading the book really helped me. The whole beginning of the book, the first couple of chapters are all about the family. It very much establishes that they are the status quo for 1906. I think the audience can immediately relate to that. They’re this nice New York family. The family is kind of the group to which everything happens. Everything changes around them.
Brian: Like Cory said I think it’s really interesting that we’re the main focus point -maybe not the main focus point, because the story focuses on everyone, but everything happens to us. We’re the catalyst for the action in the show. It’s really interesting to see how these stories intertwine and clash and cross through our story.
Cory: One of the most interesting things to me is that every member of the family reacts differently to the world changing around them. Father is very staunchly, “I don’t like change. Everything is fine. Keep it the way it is.” Younger Brother runs off—
Brian: Yeah, I’m at this turning point in my life. I’m a young boy and I want to find out what I can do and how I can change the world. This is all just kind of happening to me. And I realize that this is my opportunity. I have to seize it. I have to go and make a difference. I stumble upon a protest and it just sparks this fire in me. I go and I find Coalhouse and I’m so angered by what has happened to him and the horrible things that have happened to Sarah. So I join him and I just want to have justice.
Santina: The relationship between Mother and Father is a huge change from the beginning to the end. Even within Mother, the arch of her character, she goes from the start of the show being very “wifely” in that upper-crust, ladies who are seen only as wives, always on her husband’s arm; she goes from that where everything is very crisp and clear where her role in her household, in her family, in her community. Then the shock that disrupts their lives while Father isn’t there, that whole experience is something that Mother takes into her own hands for the first time. To make such a huge decision on her own—and you know maybe she even questions her decision a little bit—but she makes this decision on her own and she sticks with it because of her natural desire to be good and to do good.
I think because she is naturally maternal she wants to do life right. All she’s known is how to do life the New Rochelle way. And now she’s sort of seeing that maybe there is another way or a different way to do life. She questions, when she finds the baby, she even sings the line: “I never stopped to think that the help who arrive every day might have their own lives.” And that’s the first time that that really jars her out of her own reality. You know how they say that you have that out-of-body experience where you look down on your own life, well she gets that moment to see that her life is not the only type of life that is being lived out there.
The arc of her character really gets interrupted and that’s why it goes so far, like a rainbow, from beginning to end. It’s been such a nice connection between Mother and Younger Brother. In the novel you can tell that she’s really concerned about him, definitely in more of a maternal way. In the show we’ve been able to connect in a more brotherly/sisterly sort of way, more of a friendship than me being a mother to his character. In the novel he really just goes away and does his own thing. So for Mother and Younger Brother we’ve found this nice sweet connection.
Brian: Because of that connection we’ve made, it really changes how Younger Brother gets going in the show for me. When she finds the baby and takes the baby and Sarah in, because I see her doing this wonderful life-changing thing, that really starts the ball rolling for me. I almost want to say, “thank you” because it’s what opens my eyes, it gets the avalanche going for me.
Santina: That line where Younger Brother says to Evelyn Nesbit, “I was going to change the world for you.” I’ve always thought about that and wondered, what the hell was he going to do? In the show it’s just a line that lingers, but now I see what you mean by that. You want to change the world for somebody, but you just don’t know how, and getting to see what I do with Sarah and the baby helps you figure that out.
Cory: I think it’s really interesting too, the way that it’s written Father leaves. He goes off for a year and all this happens while he’s gone. They find the baby, they take Sarah and the baby in, Younger Brother goes down and meets Emma Goldman, and all that happens and Father isn’t there for it. He comes back expecting the world he’s always known. He goes off for his adventures and comes back thinking nothing has changed but instead the world has been flipped on its head. Everyone else is embracing this world of change and Father is left wondering what happened.
Santina: That whole scene when you come in expecting to tell your story of the adventures you’ve had but I’m all preoccupied with the baby, and my hair’s a mess, and you’re just standing there thinking, “What’s going on around here?”
Cory: It’s very jarring for Father. I love his song there too, the message of where have I been and how did this all change and how am I supposed to deal with it all having changed really moves me.
Are you finding it easier or harder to make a personal connection to these characters?
Brian: Younger Brother and I are definitely similar ages. And I am at the point in my life where I have to figure out what I want to do with my life and my career and how I’m going to change my little corner of the world. I think that has definitely helped me drive along his character. I have a really strong emotional connection to Ragtime because it’s a perfect display of the horrible injustices that happened in America, that still happen today though maybe not to the same degree. There are definitely still problems here and now with racism and sexism. Younger Brother gets really riled up about those issues then, he gets really political about them, and that has actually made me look at those issues today. Younger Brother has brought out more of that side in myself.
Santina: Someone needs to mention Raymond Chapman, very quickly.
Cory: Yes! Ray, he plays our Booker T. Washington. I think he has helped us all make a more personal connection to these characters. I was sitting in rehearsal one day and someone said something about not being able to imagine, or could you imagine what living like this was like and Ray just spoke up and said that yes he could because he had lived through it all. I cannot even fathom what it must have been like to in one lifetime live life where segregation was in practice, being separated by the color of your skin and decades later Obama is President. The world has changed that much that fast.
Santina: Ray is a story teller. He knows how to tell things in such a way that it’s fascinating. You know you’re getting a long history lesson but you are engrossed with every word he’s saying. He’s such an amazing person to have in this cast because if you had a question about anything happening in the show you could go to him and say, “Ray, what was it like in 1940 when…?” and he would be able to tell you from personal experience.
Cory: Getting back to how we bring our lives into the story, and Father at his core is afraid of change. I think we can all relate to that, and it’s nice to stick with what we know. Going after something new is terrifying. It’s been interesting to explore but it also brings back memories from my life that I don’t like to think about. Adjusting to college, finding a job, all those times in my life that didn’t make sense and were a big struggle; I feel like that is what Father comes back to. That’s been helpful to pull all of that into Father’s character.
Santina: For Mother I’m not going to say too much because I think it’s best that I keep it to myself how I’ve personally gotten in touch with her. But there are some things that I have been able to feel within myself that parallel some of what Mother goes through both as a wife and as a mother. I am those things in real life. I don’t want to say too much because everyone has their personal journey but I can relate in some of the ways she can to those changes in circumstance. You know in the way your home is and the way you thought it was and the way it should be verses where you are headed.
There was one particularly rehearsal where we were stuck in this little tiny classroom with Mayumi and her piano and people were walking by and gawking at us wondering what the hell was going on inside there – because we were all singing full out. It was the first time that Mother and Father had done the dialogue leading up to “Back to Before” which is her big number. The momentum of it and hearing the words spoken out loud by him, all of that just made me—I didn’t make it through the number. I got toward the third part and I just broke down crying and I couldn’t recover it. I’ve made that emotional connection and having that in my arsenal is incredible. It was very hurtful for me to hear those lines out loud because I didn’t realize that there was this deep, hurtful thing happening between them. Now we’ve figured out a way to make that scene so that it is not hurtful. It wasn’t written to be hurtful, it was written to help them move forward with all these changes and now that we’ve figured that out, I think it works much better for everyone.
Cory: Part of the reason that Ragtime catches so many people’s attention is because nobody comes into Ragtime seeing it for the first time and expects it to be their favorite show. But then you watch it and it just has so many ways to connect with people, it touches on something for everybody. It’s such an emotionally charged show. The cast has just latched onto it and that has made it so powerful. We all just sing our hearts out and it all just comes pouring out.
To some, Ragtime is considered to be a bit of a dated piece. Do you find that Ragtime has relevance to the modern world of 2014?
Brian: Absolutely. It actually baffles me that someone could think that it’s outdated. It is still just as relevant today as it was when it first came out. I’ve seen other shows like Hair which are still applicable to today’s struggles. I think that Ragtime is even more so relevant because it’s America. Ragtime is America. We live in America and maybe you haven’t seen the horrible things that happened here and that happen here but they did and they do and Ragtime is all of that.
Cory: I think it’s an interesting piece that certainly is not dated because it’s easy to look back on history as a story you can tell. Whereas if you really look at it, all those same things are happening today. We get to that part in the show where J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, these people who are the robber barons of the railroads stealing money from the whole population right before the great depression, hoarding money in the rich. We still have that extremely wealthy upper class of corrupt money hoarders. That didn’t go away. You still have the inner city groups. Look at the immigrants in the show, those poor destitute living conditions, that haven’t gone away either. I think it’s a story that everyone can relate to and that you’ll feel the modern connection with if you look for it.
What has it been like getting to work with David’s concept for this musical beast, the living-museum, historical lost and found?
Cory: I think we all came into the first rehearsal and he pitched this concept and we were all sort of like “Um, what?”
Brian: I was skeptical.
Cory: Ragtime, you’ve seen the Broadway production or you’ve seen the YouTube clips and it’s this huge thing. You have all the big defined sets and you have to be in 800 places throughout the show. And then David comes in with this concept and says, “We’ve got four bookshelves, a set that stays static, and everything is always moving.” And we all just looked at him and were like, “Wait— what? You do know we’re doing Ragtime, right?” And he just said that he needed us to trust him. And as it has fallen into place it just makes so much sense. Instead of being in all of these elaborate scenes, David has taken the storyteller’s approach to it. Little Boy starts out with a book and it’s a story unfolding in front of you. It’s a neat way to present the story.
Santina: I’ve worked with David before – he was my director for Brooklyn, but that was such a different experience. It was a very short time to pull it all together, we had just a few actors and we just had to pull it together. Everyone did their own thing and there was no real question about the design. And if someone had something they needed, those sorts of requests were sort of acquiesced. This is very different. We have 30 people and you have experience levels all over, which is good. It’s good because everyone goes through their process. With David there was literally only one time where he had to step back and say, “I’m upset.” It was very quiet and that was the extent of it. The fact that he only had one instance throughout this whole process—because he is so encouraging and he knows how to really get everything that he needs and wants out of every single person working with him— it’s just been so amazing.
Brian: And it’s not even that he was upset. He actually said to us, “I know that you all deserve to put on a better show.” And it was basically him telling us that we could do better for ourselves, and he was absolutely right.
Cory: It’s funny because like after rehearsal or on a break we’ll all be standing around just singing a fun song as a group, completely unrelated to Ragtime, and we’ll just be going to town with it and David will just show up and be like, “’Scuse me!, If you all can do that, can you do it on stage?”And it’s so funny, because he then pulls it out of us on stage.
Santina: Right! He uses his humor to get the best out of us and to get his point across.
Brian: From the get-go he said he wanted this to be an amazing experience for all of us. And it truly has because of David. He’s a brilliant director, he’s a wonderful person—
Santina: He’s very prepared. He is not making it up on the spot. He has diagrams and all sorts of stuff. He got excited with those scale models. You should see him with all of his preparations. I’ve never met a person who knows exactly what he wants and how to get every little thing out of his head and onto the stage the way he visualized it.
Cory: The other thing that really impresses me is—and demanding isn’t the right word—but how much he expects of us to develop our characters. The second rehearsal I came to we started “Journey On” and he asks me to stop and take a few minutes to explain the emotional journey Father was going on. And I was like: “But I just read the— what the what? Oh.” So I went home and read through the book, read through my script, I wanted to be ready because I didn’t want to be caught off-guard again for the next scene. He expects, and rightly so, that you know why you’re in every scene -not just because the director is telling you to walk across the stage, but to know what you’re doing and why. That is what makes him so amazing to work with; he expects all of that out of you and you want to live up to that.
What is it like having to basically create these characters completely on your own? You don’t have the historical realism like some of the other characters in the show to build your characters on, so what are you using as inspiration and what has that process been like?
Santina: It is a historical research project because how much do I really know about upper crust societal women in 1906? The novel has been my Bible. I’ve definitely done some historical research about etiquette but I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the novel. Also drawing on the way Cory is playing his character has helped a lot with my physicality and my nuances.
Brian: Me too. It’s funny because Cory and my characters clash. Right from the start you know that they don’t get along. Living in the household I’ve been conditioned: this is how you walk, you hold yourself upright, etc. And I think I’m trying to replicate him in a way even though I don’t like him. That’s how it is and that’s how it has to be, right up until I realize that that isn’t how it has to be and I start to change.
Santina: That’s why it’s so important to be able to trust your fellow actors. For Cory to be able to take that character to such an extreme it helps the rest of us build on that.
Cory: Like David was saying to us in that first rehearsal, “It’s easy to do Ragtime where every number is this big exposition of these characters’ lives.” And he did not want that. He told us they needed to be real people with real lives and real stories. He was constantly driving us to figure out who are these people and what are they feeling. There is a lot of the way he staged this where we’re on stage a whole lot doing “nothing” where we aren’t moving or speaking for a long time. So you have to figure out all of those things. All of those details of ‘how do you stand here’-they all became really important.
Since you come from varying musical experiences and backgrounds, what were the toughest challenges you had while preparing your performances?
Cory: One of the hardest things is that every number in the show is huge. They’re all big, brassy numbers. It’s not only boring if every song is that, if every song becomes a big belted anthem, but we’ll never get through eight shows if we have to belt the like 30 songs in this show every night. It’s been interesting to see a new take on these numbers; watching David and Mayumi bring certain numbers down. That was an adjustment, a good one, but it took some getting used to.
Brian: For me the main thing is I’m not by any means a tenor. And they put me in the tenor part. I have to sing that but it’s been good because it helped work my upper range. It’s a lot of endurance. You just have to sing.
Cory: There are a lot of characters like that in this show, actually, who are singing slightly outside of their range, but I think that’s great because it’s really pushing us as performers to challenge what we can do and ultimately it’s making us better at what we do. I sing higher, I’m a tenor and Father is written more baritone. He’s heavier and has more gravity to his sound. But having that chance to grow our range, it gives you so much more to focus on and it really makes it an experience that I know I certainly won’t forget. I’ve learned so much from it.
Santina: I want to shine a spotlight on Mayumi as the Musical Director. I didn’t know anything about her when she comes in, just that she had done Ragtime at Kensington and right at the beginning of our rehearsal process she had won a WATCH Award for doing it, so that was really impressive. She really was giving us the chance to ask all these open ended questions, allowing us to explore our characters. She has such a wealth of knowledge of musical theory and singing in general. Exploring our characters through these songs, she’s got us singing what’s written on the page while simultaneously figuring out what the dynamics are so that we can emote through the song. The character is vocally able to come through in the song while still being true to what is written and that is all thanks to Mayumi.
Cory: She would ask things like, “What are you trying to express here?,” and then she’d have us try it a different way to help us get that point across. She was very knowledgeable about helping us take what we had developed in the character and translating that into the song.
Santina: I personally have a really hard time with Musical Directors who just let you go as long as you’re singing ‘close enough.’ Mayumi never once just let it go. She corrected the tenors when they were going flat, she would shift people all around, expecting more to really get the best sound possible out of us. And that makes for an exceptional music director.
Cory: We’ll finish this big number, the whole room is ringing and we’re feeling pumped and she’ll just say, “Well, it was OK. Let’s do it with more this or that,” and she really drove us to get a fantastic sound.
David Gregory has conceptualized the notion of a ‘historical lost and found.’ What does that notion mean to each of you?
Santina: I think David wants to make this show relevant to all who come see it for what it is today in today’s world. Reinventing it to make it relevant to people’s lives today. The design elements are what also make it clear that there is a little bit of that ‘lost-and-found’ going on, but it’s the way that our relationships are built that really solidify that notion. For example, Mother and Father are finding their place in their relationship, like a lost and found, because of the way things change. Obviously you see things on the stage and you wonder what that’s going to be used for later, so there is a lot of it represented physically but it’s also in the character world the way we relate to one another where that concept really flourishes.
Brian: Pretty much what she said. That kind of hit the nail right on the head. I think we all relate to it a little differently.
Cory: Different from Santina, I think there are two ways that it makes sense to me. One is that everyone can find something in their own history that relates to the show. Everyone has something or perhaps many things that can be found again after it was lost in their history. A historical lost and found is also happening right now. We’re picking snapshots out of history and you see a lot of that with the historical characters.
I’m sorry, did you say snapshots or snapchats because I’ve heard both thrown around in this process.
Cory: Snapshots. No snapchat for Father. He would not approve.
Santina: You know Edgar, who plays our Little Boy? He has decided that he invented the first selfie in 1906. He carries around this camera and decides that he is going to take the first selfie. So there you go, historical lost and found, the first selfie found itself back in 1906.
Cory: We only see glimpses, little flashes of things that happened in history, of course some of it has been embellished because that makes for a better show, but these little flashes that you can find and when you look at them all together they really do make a story.
Why see Ragtime at HCC Arts Collective?
Brian: Well I’m in it.
Cory: Me too. But to be completely honest it’s because it’s not like any other production of Ragtime you’ve ever seen or will ever see. It’s David’s telling of the story. It’s our telling of the story. He let us build our characters which means they aren’t the characters you’ve seen before, they’re all new and different.
Santina: People will definitely get something out of this particular production because when you see it wherever else it is that you see it you’re getting a different quality of storytelling that they have created. But it is very fortunate that Arts Collective at HCC has such a wonderfully supported, educated program in getting support for the arts out there. We have huge support, and we have what you would see at any equity house right here. It’s beautiful, it’s technically complicated, it’s wonderful, and the big houses all have that, but we have people who want to be here telling the story.
Cory: It’s not just a job for any one of us involved in this show.
Brian: Exactly. We’re volunteering to be in this show and tell this story. Because we love this show and we love theatre, it makes it that much more personal for us. I’ve seen Ragtime before, but this is such a different perspective because we’re all so invested.
Cory: Ragtime is traditionally a proscenium show. And here in the Smith you are right there in the middle of people swirling around you. There is hardly a fourth wall and sometimes that makes it really challenging for us, but I can guarantee you that you’re not going to see anything like this anywhere else.
Ragtime ended performances on May 18, 2014 at Arts Collective@Howard Community College in the Performing Arts Center’s Smith Theatre— 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, MD.
On the Wheels of a Dream’ Part 1: An interview with Ragtime Director David Gregory.
‘On the Wheels of a Dream’ Part 2: An interview with Coalhouse and Sarah.
On the Wheels of a Dream’ Part 3: An interview with The Immigrant Group.