The International Thespian Society celebrated its 75th birthday in 2004, opening the 2005 International Thespian Festival with the first national company production in more than 20 years, Ragtime: School Edition.

A FEW MOMENTS before it was time for the Thespian national cast of Ragtime: School Edition to go onstage for the first of two performances at this year’s Thespian Festival, there were visitors in the crowded dressing suite. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who wrote the words and music the 41 students would soon be singing, had dropped by to wish the cast well.

“So, you had 18 days of rehearsal, is that right?” Ahrens asked.

“Sixteen,” various cast members replied. “Sixteen days.”

“I think originally it took us 18 days to get the opening number right,” Flaherty said. “The fact that you did that and an additional three hours of material is very impressive.”

he cast of the 2005 International Thespian Festival national cast production of Ragtime.

The 2005 International Thespian Festival national cast production of Ragtime. Photo by R. Bruhn.

The national cast production of Ragtime, featuring Thespians from 29 high schools in 14 states, was designed to help put an exclamation point on the Educational Theatre Association’s 75th anniversary celebration. The production plan, a variation on the three successful Thespian national cast shows directed by Robert Johnson in the early and middle 1980s, came with a compressed rehearsal schedule and daunting logistical challenges built in.

The paths that led each of the 41 members of the national cast to this moment in a dressing room at the University of Nebraska’s Lied Center stretched back all the way to a series of regional auditions that began in the fall of 2003. Three hundred students participated in auditions at Thespian conferences in California, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Texas, and Nebraska. A hundred were invited to three days of callbacks at the 2004 International Thespian Festival, and a cast of 40 (later expanded by one) was selected from that group. 

The 16 days of rehearsal came in three sessions last spring. There were two three-day weekends in March and May at the Las Vegas Academy of Performing Arts, where co-directors Glenn Edwards and Gerald Born and most of their production team work. After the mid-May session, most of the cast members didn’t see each other again until early June, when they rehearsed for seven days and did three performances in Las Vegas, spent two days getting the show moved and ready in Lincoln, and performed it twice for International Thespian Festival audiences. Later that week, they worked two days in an Omaha recording studio laying down the vocal tracks for a cast album that Music Theatre International plans to distribute as part of its director’s guide for the school version of the show.

Yes, the national cast production was a huge amount of work for everybody involved in it, Edwards acknowledged. “But it was worth every minute. It was really special. There was really a combination of things that made it special. The show itself. The team of people we had working with the kids. And the cast. It was so great to have 41 kids who were so dedicated to it and so proud of it. These were kids who were playing leads at their own schools, and yet here they were cast in the ensemble and proud of it. You just know that when you have that many great kids working on something, it’s going to be a great experience.”

When Edwards and Michael Peitz, executive director of EdTA, began talking in summer 2003 about doing a national cast show as part of the organization’s anniversary celebration, they decided early on they wanted a musical that would feature a racially diverse cast. They found it very quickly: It happened that MTI was looking for a way to showcase its new school edition of Ragtime, the 1998 Ahrens­-Flaherty-Terrence McNally musical based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel.

Edwards put together his production team and went to work. His Las Vegas Academy colleague Born would co-direct, with Nancy Andersen as musical director and John Morris as technical director and lighting and scenic designer, both of them also on the faculty at LVA. Tammy Pessagno, a Las Vegas choreographer and dancer who has worked on many of Edwards’ academy shows, would handle the dance numbers. Terry McGonigle, director of technical theatre studies for Gwinnett County Schools near Atlanta, signed on to do costumes. Robert Connor, who joined the LVA faculty last year, was added to the production team as associate director in the spring.

One of the lessons of the experience, Edwards said, was “You can’t be overprepared for something like this. You really have to prepare and plan. The logistics are daunting. Just the national cast logistics are daunting, and Ragtime is a big, complicated show.”

A three-hour pageant that examines the yeasty and turbulent early years of the 20th century in the United States, Ragtime focuses on the stories of a penniless Jewish immigrant and his daughter, a WASPy family in the suburbs of New York City, and an African-American piano player named Coalhouse Walker and his fiancée and child. In a way that became clearer as the production took shape, it was a brilliant choice for a national cast show: The process of assembling a multiracial company from all over the United States and forging its members into a creative community held resonant echoes of the musical’s melting pot themes. The cast might easily be the great-great-grandchildren of Tateh, Mother, Coalhouse, and Sarah, and as they rehearsed the show and got to know one another, they came to understand that.

Ragtime is also a potent history lesson. Its principal characters share the stage with Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman, and Booker T. Washington, and the provocative central strand of the story confronts the hatred and violence that is as much a part of the American past as benevolence and invention. The show follows Coalhouse Walker’s journey as he is first enraged by the racist vandalism of his Model T and then radicalized when Sarah, the mother of his child, is beaten to death by police.

“We had some intense circle talks after rehearsals about what the show meant, and how each of us would deal with the situation that Coalhouse and Sarah were in,” said Jared Brown, who played Tateh, the immigrant ragpicker who eventually becomes a movie mogul. “We talked about it a lot.”

It was on the third day of rehearsal, Edwards said, that he began to feel pretty good about what the national cast show could be. “The Sunday night run-through at the end of our first rehearsal weekend was when I knew it was going to work,” he said. “We were on a bare stage with just chairs, and it was fantastic. Everybody was weeping at the end. After that, we realized it was our job not to screw it up.”

Cast members said they learned some important lessons about professional discipline while rehearsing the show. “It was a real eye-opener to the professional world for me,” said Brown, who graduated form Hartford (Washington) High School this spring. “That’s the closest I’m going to get to working on a touring Broadway show, for a while at least.”

The compressed rehearsal schedule meant there “was no time for us to second-guess ourselves,” he said. “In some rehearsals, though I knew my lines, I realized that I hadn’t really done all the work to establish the intent behind the line yet. I felt guilty about sleeping when I could have been working on my character.”

Lisa Weiner, who played Mother, had a different perspective on working and sleeping. “This is going to sound funny,” she said, “but it’s so humid where I live and so dry in Las Vegas that going through that climate change every time I went out for a rehearsal session was really hard for me.” A spring graduate of Pennsbury High School near Philadelphia, Weiner said, “Dealing with that and the pressure that we were under both physically and psychologically really taught me to be a smart performer. There were lots of parties that we were invited to during rehearsals, because the academy was graduating, but I knew I had to take care of myself and get my rest. I wasn’t going to ruin this experience by wearing myself down partying.”

Claire Longest, who graduated from New Albany (Indiana) High School in the spring and played Evelyn Nesbit, said the hardest part for her was the fragmented rehearsal schedule. “I hated leaving every time,” she said. “Every rehearsal was like ‘Oh, we’re getting there, we’re getting there’ and then we all had to go away. It was frustrating not to be able to keep working.”

Everybody says it was over way too soon. Once the show was ready in the middle of June it was a fast ride to the end: three performances at LVA (which Edwards included in his 16-day rehearsal count), then two days to move everything to Lincoln, load in, build, tech, run through it once, and show it to an audience at 3 and 8 p.m. By the time the 2005 Thespian Festival was fully up and running, the national cast Ragtime was history.

Both performances came off flawlessly, except for a moment of quiet panic when the computer running the digital score locked up during the second show. (For economy and simplicity, Edwards used digital synthesized music augmented by a live rhythm section.) In the pit, the two human players kept the rhythmic line going without dropping a stitch, and Jared Brown, who was singing “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay Inc.” when it happened, sailed right through it. The computer was rebooted before the start of the next song and most of the audience, according to Edwards, had no idea there was a problem. “But we were dying,” he said.

The audience response was sensitive to the nuances of the story and wildly enthusiastic. Christy Clark, playing Sarah, remembers the scene when Father arrives home from his polar expedition. There’s a swift mood change when he discovers a black woman and her child have been living in his house. “The audience suddenly got so quiet then,’” Clark, from Tri-Cities High School in Atlanta, said. “The way all those people responded to the show, it was the most incredible audience. They made me feel like we were doing our jobs, doing what we had rehearsed for.”

“There’s nothing like performing for that audience,” said Edwards, who has directed 10 ITF main stage shows and insists Ragtime is his last one. “There’s a level of empathy that you don’t encounter anyplace else, because they’re peers. And because everybody in the audience knows what went into the performance they’re seeing. I tell my kids when we spend eight hours working on a couple of measures of a musical number that nobody in the audience is going to know how much work went into getting that moment right. Well, in this audience they do know. Nobody responds like an International Thespian Festival audience.”

Ragtime creators Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty visit backstage with the cast of their show at the 2005 International Thespian Festival.
Ragtime creators Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty visit backstage with the cast of their show at the 2005 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Don Corathers.

The sweetest reviews came from Ahrens and Flaherty, who were back downstairs after the second performance. (In the interim, they had the unusual experience, for a composer and a lyricist, of receiving prolonged standing ovations when they were introduced to the two Ragtime audiences.)

“We were really impressed, first of all, with your commitment to the story,” Flaherty told the cast. “Every moment of the story was crystal clear. Your passion, your focus, and your commitment were wonderful to watch.”

“You guys are extraordinary, each and every one of you,” Ahrens said. “We are very honored to have been here to witness this.”

Many of the cast members graduated from high school this spring and will be sitting in their first college classes this month. Jared Brown is going to the University of Evansville, Lisa Weiner to the University of Cincinnati College­Conservatory of Music. Christy Clark will be at Wright State University. Claire Longest is heading to Otterbein.

During the two months since the festival, a lot of them have kept in touch by phone and by posting to chat spaces like, where there’s a Ragtime cast page. Brown predicts the friendships that formed during Ragtime rehearsals will be enduring ones. “There’s a lot of us going to schools in the Midwest,” he said, “so it won’t be that hard for us to get together. And it’s good that Devere [Rogers, who played Coalhouse] is going to NYU, so we’ll have a place to stay in New York.”

At EdTA, Peitz considers the first national cast adventure in 18 years a great success. “We gave our audience a memorable event to mark our 75th anniversary. We showcased the work of a lot of talented Thespians. We gave the 41 cast members something they’ll remember all their lives, and provided a rich learning experience not just to the students who were cast but also to all 300 who participated in the auditions. We’d love to do it again if the conditions are right.”

This story appeared in the September 2005 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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