“RAGTIME” from Imagination to Reality Behind the Scenes at The Flint Rep


After four grueling weeks of rehearsals, months of design and more than a year of imagining the production, the Flint Repertory Theatre will raise the curtain on its first performance of “Ragtime” this month. “Yes! It’s very exciting!” exclaims Producing Artistic Director, Michael Lluberes. “It will be unique – it won’t look like any other ‘Ragtime’ production.”

Opened in 1957 as the Flint Youth Theatre, the professional non-profit theatre was rebranded as Flint Repertory Theatre (the Flint Rep) in 2018 with an expansion to include more adult-focused programming and a mission to “provide the city of Flint and surrounding communities with highly imaginative, thought-provoking theatre that is challenging, entertaining and inspiring for everyone.” Since then, under the direction of Lluberes, Flint Rep has produced a bevy of high-end artistic productions including: musicals “Assassins”, “Into the Woods” and “The Fantasticks”; traditional plays “The Glass Menagerie”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Death of a Salesman”; new hits “Riddle of the Trilobites”, “Wrong River”, this year’s breakout musical “The Magnificent Seven” and more. Its annual New Works Festival gives audiences new and groundbreaking works, possibly becoming a future Flint Repertory Theatre premiere. Every production includes an army of devoted theatre professionals from electricians to designers to actors, musicians, writers and others working nearly around the clock under unyielding deadlines to bring every show to the people.

Flint Rep is always looking to innovate and bring special performances to each and every season in a process that starts long before anything ever hits the stage.


The Process

Director Michael Lluberes reveals the set model to the cast.

“It’s very exciting! It will be unique –  it won’t look like any other ‘Ragtime’ production.”

Michael Lluberes, Producing Artistic Director

Each Flint Rep season features 5-7 productions and runs from September thru June. Once they choose a production, General Manager Nicole Samsel starts the process of obtaining the rights, whether it be a new production or classic work. The rights to stage any professional piece have to be purchased and given by the rights holder and just because you can afford to buy the rights doesn’t necessarily mean you get to produce it. “It’s really up to them,” says Samsel. “There are many reasons for anyone to withhold the rights to a production. It could be up for a revival on Broadway, it could be being performed at a nearby venue, etc. We have been trying to obtain the rights to perform ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ for nearly three years and finally, we get to perform it next season.” After the rights are obtained, the vision is shared and the collaboration begins between Lluberes, Samsel and professionals both local and across the country.



Adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, “Ragtime” is a musical that follows the journey of three Americans: a white female socialite, a Jewish immigrant artist and a Black musician, as they navigate the tension-filled streets of twentieth century New York. “The story was chosen because it seemed ripe for reinvention,” says Lluberes. “We are coming up on the 25th anniversary of the show and its message of change and activism really resonates with us today.”

After obtaining the rights to produce the show, the next step in the process is finding a director. In this case, The Rep didn’t have to go far as Lluberes quickly took the hat. His challenge was to find a unique way to tell the story that fits within the confines of the theatre and to do so with a cast of 16 instead of the original production of 40+.

“We began by asking ‘What is the event of the show?’” Lluberes informs. “What is ‘Ragtime’? And, how do we stage an epic show in an intimate way with only 13 adults and three children?” Adding to the challenge is the fact that the original production included full orchestra accompaniment, something the The Rep space cannot accommodate. Instead, for this production, the music will be provided by just two piano players.

With the messages and lessons inherent in the original novel as inspiration, Lluberes sketched out his vision for the show. “‘Ragtime’ is about the hope of America and what happens when a dream is taken from you,” he says. “America is a melting pot and is inside all of us. What happens to America happens in all the characters. It’s longing for what we left behind and planning ahead for a brighter future. American ghosts and the ghosts of American theatre.” Lluberes delved into research of vaudeville and minstrel shows. He began looking at images of old, broken theaters and became fascinated with one image in particular. “I became obsessed with an image of a vintage, broken-down piano,” he remembers. “I thought of taking it apart to the point where you were seeing the guts of it, strings and all.” In a way, the piano is a reflection of what “Ragtime” represents – the peeling away of the pretty top layer of America to reveal the broken pieces within. A vintage piano was acquired and became the centerpiece of the show. It will be onstage for every scene and used in multiple ways. “It can be used as a bench, a table, etc. The question became ‘what can we do with a piano?’” Lluberes asks. It’s there as a constant reminder of the show’s central theme.

The 3D set model was created by Eli Sherlock. The finished design will surround the audience, immersing them in the story.

After the director and vision are set, the rest of the production team is assembled. The “Ragtime” team includes Choreographer Cy Paolantonio from Seattle, WA; Music Director Cole P. Abod from New York, NY; Scenic Designer Eli Sherlock from Minneapolis, MN; Costume Designer Matt Snellgrove from Kansas City, MO, Lighting Designer Chelsie McPhilimy from Flint, MI; Sound Designer Brenden Friedel from Cincinnati, OH and Stage Manager Ernie Fimbres from West New York, NJ.

Months before rehearsals began, the team met for the first time via Zoom to coordinate with Lluberes’ on his vision and what The Rep’s production of “Ragtime” would become. Ideas were shared and responsibilities discussed. “As director, one of my most important jobs is to make sure everyone is working toward the same idea – to make sure we all understand the same vision, the same outcome,” explains Lluberes. Through a series of meetings, each team member works to develop and produce their own part of the show.


The Set

Scenic Designer Eli Sherlock jumped into the vision immediately. “I liked the idea of a set that is used to telling stories, such as an old theatre,” he said to the cast during the Zoom meeting. “It’s a space that is epic, huge, and never stops. What happens when a space we have cherished begins to fall apart?” He and Lluberes began sending each other images they had found. In one such image, the decrepit theatre had a backdrop depicting a faded Statue of Liberty that Sherlock felt was perfect for the show. They also found an old theatre with a perfectly lighted proscenium that was acquired to use as a final element of the set.

The finished design will fill the space of the Elgood Theater, surrounding the audience and immersing them in the story that will take place on the main stage of a theatre that is falling to shambles. Sherlock and Lluberes have worked some surprises into the set design that will further emphasize the show’s major scenes. “The set will be all around you and the actors will move as if ghosts,” says Lluberes. “It’s going to be very immersive,” Sherlock added, “The set will act as a visual symbol to reexamine what we are. The actors will be ghosts until people touch and the electricity begins.” As soon as the set was confirmed and designs complete, the Flint Rep staff began construction.

At the first cast meeting, the set was unveiled as a 3D model to audible gasps. The actors were all very impressed with the space in which they would be working.


The Costumes

In early April, Lluberes contacted University of Missouri-Kansas City graduate student Matt Snellgrove to gauge his interest in doing costume design for “Ragtime.” “I’ve never worked with The Rep before or have ever been to Michigan,” Snellgrove laughs. “My instructor highly recommended working with The Rep and Michael’s ideas of stripping away the glitz and glamor of the traditional ‘Ragtime’ to get to the heart of the story appealed to me.” Snellgrove got to work on designs and concepts, pouring through images and research on the time period. “I was inspired by antique photographs and the concept of ghosts of the American theatre,” he states. “I began working with a muted color palette of red, white and blue.” He made sketches for each character and shared them with the production team including the lighting and set designer. He then made his way to Flint to source his material and fit the actors. He is happy with all his costume selections but two stand out. “I’m really looking forward to the Evelyn Nesbitt and Mother characters’ costumes,” he says. “They are going to look gorgeous.”

Costume Designer, Matt Snellgrove

The Lights

To handle the lighting, Lluberes tapped one of Flint’s own, Chelsie McPhilimy, who has worked on multiple shows at The Rep. “I feel that a big part of my job is to collaborate with all the other elements to best tell the story,” she says. “I work with Eli and his set design to figure out how to cast shadows and enliven the space. Matt is working with faded colors of the American flag for his costume designs so how do I light properly to pull out the colors and textures?” Each scene presents a different lighting situation and each lighting color and configuration has to be precise to match the actors and central theme on the stage. It is not uncommon to have more than 500 lighting cues in a production. “Some are automated but then, some are called by the stage manager,” says McPhilimy. “It can be very intense.”

The Cast

In spring, Flint Rep posted a general casting call online. “We received hundreds and hundreds of submissions,” says Lluberes. “We did call-backs online for more specific parts later.” Flint Rep works with actors from across the nation as well here in Genesee County. All actors chosen meet for the first time four weeks before opening night. In the first hour of the first rehearsal day, they are welcomed to Flint, introduced to the vision, the set, the costumes and production team. They get a tour of the theatre and after a short break, jump right into the music. In four weeks, they learn their dialogue, singing part(s), choreography, cues and blocking – where they stand and how they move on the set. To add even more challenge, each actor learns different roles that they will need to “flip into” on the fly. “Due to our small cast, each actor will have to play more than one part,” Nicole Samsel explains. “Each part will be designated by the change of a hat, which the audience will see in real time.” The first week is devoted to music and singing parts as determined by music director Cole P. Abod. Each subsequent week works through the acts of the show. In week four, rehearsals take place on set. Near opening night, the cast has a full dress rehearsal and completes a “design run” when each scene is presented with set, costumes, and the production team in the room to work through any problems that may arise.

“The cast will be here for seven weeks total,” says Lluberes. “During that time, I always ask that they make themselves a part of the city.” For much of the cast, it will be their first time in Flint. “What we’ve found is that they become great ambassadors for the City of Flint,” adds Lluberes. “All of them have said that they love Flint!” Each actor is supplied with a Welcome Packet detailing the attractions, restaurants and events happening in Flint during their stay. The “Ragtime” cast includes David Aron Damane, Robyne Parrish, Ben Cherry and Elexis Morton with Noah Canales, Emi Fishman, Chris French, Joel Gelman, Bryana Hall, Zachary Keller, Commodore C. Primous III, Karen Sheridan, Ronald E. Spriggs, Cael Cech and Marigold Entrekin.

The Run

After nearly a year of preparation, Flint Rep will perform “Ragtime” for the first time on Friday, June 9. When the curtain rises and the piano strikes its first note, the job of Director Lluberes is done. “After it opens, there can be no more changes,” he says. Instead, the reins of the show will pass to Stage Manager, Ernie Fimbres and Assistant Melissa Nathan. All Lluberes and Samsel can do is sit back and enjoy the show. “Then, we may get a month off before we get back to next season … Maybe,” Lluberes laughs.

For those who have seen “Ragtime” in the past, the Flint Rep performance will be like nothing they could have imagined. “It’s like no ‘Ragtime’ that has ever been experienced,” says Lluberes. The audience will be completely immersed from beginning to end in the period the actors are living in. This production will be more intimate, more raw and more emotional than any past conception of the show. “The set built here will never exist again – it will never be seen this way again,” says Samsel. “Only this community will see this production of ‘Ragtime’.”

“Ragtime” will conclude Flint Rep’s 2022-2023 season and run June 9-25.

Tickets are available now at flintrep.org.


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