Tom Wojtunik Takes Astoria by Storm

Tom Wojtunik

Tom Wojtunik

Last year, when director Tom Wojtunik landed the job as the Astoria Performing Arts Center‘s new Artistic Director, his first task was to program their upcoming season. How did he decide to kick things off? By scheduling the biggest show APAC has ever produced and the biggest one he’s ever directed. The show, of course, is Ragtime, Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty’s 1998 musical adaptation of the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow. Ragtime tells the stories of three different New York families affected by the coming social, economic, and political changes in the years leading up to World War I.

In the midst of opening this bear-of-a-show, Tom took some time to visit the ol’ blog and to talk more about Ragtime and APAC. Check it out…

So, why revive Ragtime now? What is topical about this show now, as far as you’re concerned?

When I came aboard APAC last summer, one of my first tasks was to program this season. Although I could have chosen a smaller, more “sensible” musical for my first season, Ragtime kept coming back into my head as a story that needed to be told again now. I think it’s more relevant today than when it first premiered on Broadway in 1998. Here we are at the turn of another century and our country is once again in the midst of major social, political and economic change. As scary as that can be, it’s also an exciting and intoxicating time to be alive. The characters in Ragtime experience a similar set of circumstances, and I think we stand to learn from them. Those who are able to adapt in the face of change are the ones that succeed—those who don’t pay a price.

It’s also fun to see people’s reactions when they hear APAC is doing Ragtime—it’s such a big show compared to what people are used to from APAC. The challenge of it is addicting.

As a director, how do you approach such a well-known show? Do you borrow directorial ideas from the Broadway productions (and any others you may have seen), or do you rely solely on your own ideas?

As a rule I look for my own approach to material. I think it’s vital that directors respect the integrity of each other’s work, acknowledging that someone’s staging is a form of intellectual property.

For this production in particular, our design is also so different from the original production, that there is very little of the original staging that would even make sense. Michael P. Kramer, the set designer, came up with very smart concept for the set that really involves the audience. I thought the original production was so grand in scope that it was actually hard to connect emotionally with the story—it was overpowered by the design.

Ragtime is also a big show as far as size and scale go. You’ve got nearly 25 people in the cast, and a slew of costumes and set pieces to go along with them, I assume. As a director, how do you prepare to work on a show this massive?

Heavy drinking.

But seriously, the way to prepare for a show this big is to surround yourself with the most talented, hard-working and creative people you can find. The most important work I did on this show happened last fall when I chose the production team and auditioned the cast. Since rehearsals have started, my job has essentially been to step back and let those talented people do what they do best. I’ve also assembled my “dream team” of designers—I’ve worked with all of them before and trust them immensely.

Our production of Ragtime has a cast of 27, a 5-person band, a 5-person crew, and a 20-person production team. It’s the biggest show APAC has ever produced, and the biggest I’ve ever directed.

Alright…there’s also an unbelievable new wine bar near our venue, Vesta Trattoria & Winebar, and regular visits after rehearsal are definitely in order.

The cast of "Ragtime"

The cast of "Ragtime"

You were recently appointed as the new Artistic Director of the Astoria Performing Arts Center. For those who don’t know, what exactly is the APAC? And what made you want to take the job?

APAC is Astoria’s premier producing theatre company, now in its eighth season. Originally founded in 2001 by TV and film actress Susan Scannell, the community of Astoria has embraced APAC from the very beginning, and the company has a rich history of celebrated and award-nominated revivals and community programming.

I had a wonderful experience directing David Auburn’s Proof for APAC last season, and when Executive Director Taryn Drongowski asked me to interview for the A.D. job, I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve been living in Astoria for six years and commuting all over Manhattan and Brooklyn for directing opportunities—honestly, it’s just sort of amazing to walk to work.

As a freelance director looking for whatever jobs I could find, there’s something very attractive about the responsibility of programming APAC’s season. Choice of material is a vital element of connecting any theatre to the community, and I look forward to engaging in a dialogue with Astoria through our work.

What are your goals for the APAC?

Ultimately I hope to shift APAC’s focus exclusively to new work—I think Astoria has the potential to become a great development ground for writers. We’re close enough to the city that we provide high quality productions in terms of talent, but because we’re in a borough, APAC is “safe” from the scrutiny of a Manhattan premiere. New work production hasn’t been a major part of APAC’s mission in the past, so that change will take a while. In the meantime we will continue to present revivals of plays and musicals, but with an eye towards choosing material that is relevant and worthy of revisiting.

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