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Brian Stokes Mitchell:
Backstage with the Star of Ragtime

By Elias Stimac

The new musical Ragtime has quickly become a phenomenon since it opened here in Los Angeles at the Shubert Theatre, and it shows no signs of subsiding. Audiences are enthusiastically lining up to see the Livent, Inc. production, and the buzz on the show and its creative team is sweeping the city.

Being backstage in the formidable venue before curtain time can be almost as entertaining as watching the show itself, especially when one is able to hang out with Brian Stokes Mitchell, who stars as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the stage epic. Everything is coming full circle for this handsome, talented performer, and he is loving every minute of it. In between preparing lemon and honey concoctions for his voice, conferring with tech people, touching base with his wife Allyson Tucker (who’s also his castmate in Ragtime) and participating in theatre rituals (including a shout-out to “El Toppo”), Mitchell obviously enjoys the whole experience of getting ready to perform before another live audience.

Of course, Mitchell (or “Stokes” to his friends) has been through this many times before. Not only has he had great success on Broadwayincluding stints in Jelly’s Last Jam, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Oh Kay! and Mail (which garnered him a Theatre World Award)---but he has had equal success in regional theatre as well as film and television. His first TV job actually came through a familiar source.

“Without Drama-Logue I wouldn’t be where I am today. There’s been a few things in life that have led me to where I am now. I remember I had just moved up from San Diego---I had studied there and worked in all the theatres. I came to L.A. with the Twelfth Night Repertory Company, and I got my Equity card through them. So I was working up here and I was getting a subscription to Drama-Logue, because that’s the paper that gives you all the scoop on everything. I would just read it religiously every week, and one week I opened it up, and I saw a listing for Roots: The Next Generation. I thought, ‘maybe there’s something here for me.’ I had no agent, I had only been in Los Angeles a few months at that time. So I wrote a letter and sent it in with my picture and resume, and two weeks later the casting director Reuben Cannon calls me in to read for him. I got the part of John Dolan, and that was my start. So I consider Drama-Logue one of the spokes in the wheel of my career.”

His wide-ranging career also includes being an accomplished keyboardist, composer, conductor and music producer. Mitchell is looking forward to recording Ragtime in January once the show opens in New York, and is currently in the recording studio working on Dreamworks’ first animated feature, called The Prince of Egypt. Mitchell is also readying his first solo project of standards in his spare time.

Spare time is rare, however, when you go directly from a six-month run in Toronto to another half-year commitment in L.A. before taking a show back to Broadway---but that’s exactly what Mitchell is doing with Ragtime. So pacing himself has become second nature.

“It’s incredibly important. Fortunately for me, because I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t have to worry about it so much. It’s just like an athlete---you build up your muscles and you’re able to run a marathon more easily. Also, I was blessed with very strong chopsI’m building a ‘shrine’ to my vocal chords after this show is over. My voice has given me almost no problems at all.

“But it is a big singing show. One of my secrets is to drink a ton of water. I probably drink three or four bottles during a show. The other important thing is to get plenty of rest. If I don’t get enough rest, the first thing to go is my sense of humor, the second thing to go is my sense of balance and the third thing to go is my voice.”

Ragtime is an epic musical about epic events. Set at the turn of the century, the show intermingles historical and fictional characters to tell the tale of how America really came together as a nation. Mitchell and company have been very diligent about staying true to the times reflected in the show.

“Part of my research is right here in this bookshelf next to my makeup table. My favorite part of any show is doing research. I love reading about a period and trying to capture it. It’s interesting, because I think what happens, especially with a period piece like this, is you do what I call a ‘subtractive consciousness.’ There’s so much that we know just by virtue of our education system as well as television, films, satellites, newspapers that we have which really connect the world now. There’s so much we know about the human beings and societies in general that people back then didn’t know, and we just take for granted how much knowledge we have about a lot of these things.

“So part of my job that I do when I’m reading books from that period---I read Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and other books written about him, biographies of Scott Joplin, the books of W.E.B. Dubois, really anything I could get my hands on about the post-reconstruction era---is I try to erase from my head those ‘modernisms’ that affect the choices that we would make with a performance---the way we might say a line, or use body language.”

His character is taken from several sources. “Coalhouse is not a historical character like Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford or any of those, but the author E.L. Doctorow says very eloquently there are a ‘hundred thousand Coalhouse Walker Jr's in the world.’ He’s loosely based on Scott Joplin’s life, but primarily he’s based on a character from Heinrich Von Kleis’ novella called Michael Kohlhass, and as homage to him Doctorow named the character Coalhouse after that story. He has taken that character and that story and Americanized it and expounded on it in wonderful ways.”

Ragtime transforms audiences back in time, giving young viewers a total culture shock while stirring up nostalgic memories in older viewers.

“We hear the stories of our parents and grandparents and what they went through, but we kind of hear it without the smells and the tastes and the sounds and the feeling of the clothing. They tell you the stories, but we hear these stories with modern ears. It really was a very different world back then. It was a much more polite and formal time. Look at pictures of Atlantic City boardwalk in 1906---all the men are wearing suitcoats and ties! You don’t see anybody who’s not dressed up. There’s just a formality and a genteelness that goes along with that era that we lose track of, and part of the challenge is taking away all of the contemporary trappings that we take for granted.”

Not to say that modern technology doesn’t play a part in this historical event. In addition to state of the art set design, lighting and sound for the show (Mitchell himself has two body mikes out of an amazing 46 total), even audience feedback has met the computer age.

“I have a Web page (this one) which is really neat. It’s been very educational for me. You get a lot of feedback and it’s very immediate---I’ll have somebody that sees the show E-mail me that night with their reaction to it. You really can get into the audiences’ heads---they tell you about the way the show has moved them, or what they were expecting. People are writing some eloquent things, which I think is one of the great things about the Internet. It takes us back to old-fashioned letter writing, which, with the advent of the telephone, we’ve gotten away from.”

The theatrical blockbuster has also attracted many big-name fans, and Mitchell and his co-stars have been awestruck by some of the visitors after the performance. “Sidney Poitier is one of many incredible people who have come backstage. Barbra Streisand came to see the show, and many other celebrities. These people are people whom I admire and have looked up to. The play really has a profound effect on everyone, and strikes a very deep chord.”

Encountering new audiences each night is an extra incentive for Mitchell and the rest of the cast and crew to always keep striving to tighten the show.

“I always want to keep the show fresh---I never want to do the same show twice. I always want to be able to discover something and let the audience discover something new. That’s one of the things that I love about the stage is being able to work on a performance, and keep refining it in the right way. You can start getting off on tangents and going places that are not appropriate. But I think the challenge of it is to find that ‘box’ that you can perform in of who your character is and what they’re about.


“My analogy of it is that it’s like the old television sets---first you find your character---‘Okay, what channel is it?’ Then you start playing around with that little ring on the outside of the channel knob, and that kind of gets the picture a little clearer. And then if you have a really fancy TV set, you have a second knob, and that allows you to really fine tune. That’s what you start doing---you fine tune on these levels that only I and maybe a few of the other performers that are onstage with me every night notice and appreciate.

If there’s any one thing that I hope an audience takes from this show, especially younger people that are still forming their ideas and opinions; there’s racism and sexism and classicism in the world and it’s awful. I don’t know if anybody really has it easy, and the bottom line is: What are you going to make of your life? That’s really what it comes down to. We have all these choices that we can make, and I think the right choice is the choice that helps other people, other members of our species. And I think going into the new century and the new millenium, that’s what we have to concentrate on. We’re all in this together, no matter how you look at it, and we have to help each other.”

Mitchell is always willing to help other performers, and offers lots of encouraging advice.

“I think the first three rules are: know your craft, know your craft, know your craft. If you want any kind of longevity in the business, you have to know what you’re doing. Closely following that is, know thyself. Who are you, what do you bring? Take an honest look at yourself---am I a character type, am I a leading man, am I a personality, am I an artist, am I a musical theatre performer? What category do you fit in, ethnical, size wise, vocally---on all the ways you can analyze it, figure out who you are. If you don’t know who you are, you’re going to have a really hard time competing, because you don’t know who you’re going to compete with.

“Another really important point is, be honest with yourself on how talented you are and when you’re really ready to compete. And that goes back to the first thing---know your craft, because to know what you’re doing, you really do have to study. The last piece of advice---live life! Acting is about life, it’s about human nature, it’s about the way you think, our strengths and our weaknesses. Don’t forget to be a human being---that’s what people respond to in the theatre.”

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