Sunday, August 01, 2004

Guest Blog Entry from Michael J. Vaughan

Sometimes things happen in the world of publishing, and stories get pushed out. Michael J. Vaughan recently researched and wrote a great story on our production of "Ragtime", and then sighed as his editor couldn't get it in print in time for the show's run. Too bad, because it's a great story and Vaughan got to speak with playwright Terence McNally himself for the story.

Vaughan has graciously offered the story to us to put in our blog, so here it is.

By Michael J. Vaughn

For San Francisco actor Paul Araquistain, this summer has provided a rare opportunity to hone his craft. While performing the role of Tateh in Foothill Music Theatre's "Ragtime", Araquistain is simultaneously workshopping a new play with Terrence McNally, the Tony-winning playwright who adapted "Ragtime" for the stage.

"When we first met for the (workshop) project" said Araquistain, "I remember saying to (McNally) that it was the second night in a row that I'd been reading his words. I told him that I was up for the part of Tateh, and he said that it was a good part for me."

The musical is based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, which wrapped itself around the entirety of 1906 America - achieving this, in part, by using individual characters to represent entire social groups. Tateh is a Latvian immigrant who Doctorow uses to symbolize all immigrants.

"I understudied the part of Tateh about 18 months ago," said Araquistain. "It's been interesting this time to look at the lines with the new insight I've received from working with McNally. He writes very succinctly and economically; he doesn't write in any big dramatic pauses. I can see that McNally has been extremely faithful to the book, truly preserving the feel of it."

McNally is unique among top-level writers, in that he alternates between creating his own plays (Tony-winners "Master Class" and "Love! Valour! Compassion!") and adapting the works of others for the musical stage (Tony-winner "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and the opera "Dead Man Walking") When I asked him about the difference between the two art forms, he vigorously defended the art of adaptation.
"The only reason to do a musical adaptation," said McNally, "is to love the source material as much as you would love something of your own. Writing a musical book or libretto is not slumming or a vacation from playwriting. It requires the same honesty, diligence and artistry as any original piece."
McNally said he has gotten a lot from working with Araquistain, who "has a sly quality" that he enjoys. The workshop is taking place at San Francisco's New Conservatory Theater Center, where McNally began a 15-month residency in March.
"The whole intention of the (workshop)," said Araquistain, "is for an author to develop a play in concert with the actors, working with them as the play forms. It's beneficial in some ways because it forces the actors to focus on the moment we're playing, prevents us from playing to the conclusion, so to speak, because we don't yet know what the conclusion is."

Foothill Magic

Foothill has won so many professional-level awards, it long ago lost the title of "underdog." It's also become clear that director Jay Manley and company have no problem putting on big shows; this year's cast is actually ten performers smaller than 2001's "Show Boat," which featured 67.

"The challenge," said Manley, "is that, unlike "Show Boat", "Ragtime" is very cinematic, with many short, vignette-like scenes. Nearly all of the show is underscored with music, so that is also a challenge for timing."

The story's most fascinating - and philosophically dark - figure is Coalhouse Walker, a black ragtime piano player who turns to violence after suffering a steadily worsening series of indignities. The part is played by James Monroe Iglehart, who won a Bay Area Theater Critics Circle Award in 2001's "Show Boat."

"(Coalhouse's) character is a mix of different real situations that happened to black men at that time," said Iglehart. "When I first read the script, I thought I would never do what he did when he finally 'loses it.' Yet the more I probed the character, I began to understand, you never know what you'll do if you are put in a life-and-death situation, or if you lose everything you love and hold dear."

Doctorow's story also makes use of real-life figures like Harry Houdini and Henry Ford, leaving some Foothill actors with the challenge of dragging icons down to earth. For Palo Altan Ray Renati, the assignment was tycoon J.P. Morgan.

"I have some photos of him that I use to spawn my imagination of what he was like," said Renati. "The show displays him very much as an icon and something of a bigot. What I want to know is what he was like to relate to as a person. I think he was stern but generous, and truly believed that people could pull themselves up by their immigrant bootstraps, as it were. His vision of the Morgan library becoming a public institution was realized by his son, J.P. Junior."

Renati said that Foothill, in addition to putting on great shows, also provides hard-to-find opportunities for local performers. "When you have other theatres in the area like TheatreWorks and American Musical Theatre of San Jose, who hire mostly Equity actors (often those from out of town) and save only small roles for local people," he said, "(Foothill is) a great place for local actors to work on a quality big musical production."

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