Diversity, Broadway, & Sammi Cannold
It takes A LOT to get me excited about a Broadway show. Maybe I’m just young(ish) and jaded… Or perhaps it is the fact there is so little representation on stage. I really couldn't care less about three quarters of the shows being produced. It is still such a novelty when I see a show that is as diverse as the streets of New York City. Add in a killer score and story, well then, that is enough to make a believer out of me! The Great Comet of 1812 did just that. I am obsessed to the point where I have become a borderline fan girl.
I recently took a class from Sammi Cannold the Associate Director of The Great Comet of 1812, and I unapologetically asked her to please let me her interview her for various publications. She is so nice and said yes! I hope you enjoy reading about this awesome woman. I can’t wait to see what theatrical experience she directs next!
Alex - First of all, congrats on the 12 Tony nominations for The Great Comet of 1812. How and when did you get involved with this show? And what is your role as the Associate Director?
Sammi - Thank you! We’re all ecstatic over at the Imperial.
I came on board when Comet was at A.R.T. in November/December of 2015 and then Rachel offered me a position as an assistant director on the Broadway production. After we opened, my role shifted a bit to focus on duties related to maintaining the show. So, I now teach principal blocking to our understudies, do quite a lot of auditioning when we’re seeking replacements, note the show frequently, help to put in replacements, etc. Recently, my role as associate has included helping out on a lot of the show’s television appearances – Good Morning America, Today Show, our Tony number, etc. It’s all so thrilling and I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of this wacky and wonderful world.
Alex - The way the Imperial Theatre has been completely transformed is amazing. Do you have a favorite space this show has inhabited before making it’s way to the Broadway? And do you think The Great Comet has lost any of its intimacy now that it is in a Broadway house?
Sammi - That’s a hard one! I first saw the show in the Meatpacking District tent and fell deeply in love with it there. That said, I think my favorite space would have to be A.R.T. – largely because I feel like I grew up in that theater and knew it so intimately, but it has a way of shapeshifting. All the sudden, when Comet came, this space I knew so well transformed into the most magical world in the middle of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was working in the artistic office at A.R.T. that year and it blew my mind that I could just walk down the hall and into this lush and opulent Russian supper club.
And no – I don’t think the show has lost any of its intimacy. To me, that’s part of what’s so remarkable about Rachel and Sam’s work (of course, in addition to that of all the designers). They’ve managed to scale the experience from 87 to 200 to 500 to 1200 and fundamentally, the structural integrity is the same throughout.
Friends buying tickets to Comet often ask me where to sit and I think one of the things that’s so thrilling about Comet is that there’s no bad seat. And actually – if you’re sitting in the rear mezzanine, you’re having a more physically intimate experience than you would on a show that stays inside the proscenium at the Imperial Theatre, because the actors are quite literally coming to you.
Alex - One of the things that makes The Great Comet of 1812 so freaking awesome is how diverse the cast is. Can you talk about the casting process and did the artistic team specifically seek out diverse actors of color?
Sammi - I couldn’t agree more.
The Comet artistic team is fervently committed to prioritizing diversity in our casting calls and beyond. Rachel likes to say that the world we’ve created is utopic and pluralistic and the people on stage at the Imperial must represent that. So, since I typically represent the team for the first round of casting, I see it as my charge to go into the audition room with the mission of creating that world at the top of my priorities list.
And we’ve seen how critical that mission is. For example, in talking with so many young women of color in particular after the show, it is clear that so many are quite deeply and profoundly affected by the show’s casting, particularly Denée Benton’s portrayal of an aristocratic Russian countess. And Denée talks a lot about how, growing up, she never saw herself in stories like War and Peace, but human stories belong to everyone and I feel so fortunate to be working on a show so committed to reflecting that.
Alex - Has there been any backlash since this is a “period piece” and the hiring of people of color to play “Russians”?
Sammi - Not to my knowledge; I certainly hope not!
Alex - Have you been involved in other shows where casting actors of color was an issue?
Sammi - So, I wouldn’t say that casting actors of color has ever been an issue on Comet; it’s simply essential. That said, diversity in casting is something that you think about all the time as a director, associate, etc. Some shows I’ve cast lately, like Violet, have specific and dramaturgically necessary stipulations about who plays each role. Other shows can be a bit more variable. I guess my specific thoughts in this world recently have focused on the immigrant ensemble in Ragtime. I directed a concert version on Ellis Island last year and when we were thinking about casting, it occurred to us that many Ragtime productions cast all white actors in their immigrant ensembles. So, yes, Tateh and the Little Girl are white, but migrants coming through Ellis Island were from all over the world (in fact, Lynn Ahrens wrote lyrics for this ensemble that are in Haitian creole). So, I’ve been having conversations a lot lately about how to cast Ragtime in a way that’s conscious of that, especially as we’re on Ellis Island – that history and who our ancestors were is really important.
Alex - What made you decide to become a director? Women directors are rare in this industry and I think it is wonderful you are paving the way for women everywhere who want to pursue this line of work. Have you encountered any problems due to your sex? Do you have any advice to other women who want to direct in the theatre arts?
Sammi - My mom is a Broadway producer, so I had the good fortune of growing up in the theater community and being completely and totally entranced by it at a young age. My parents tell me that the only pastime I was interested in as a three/four-year old was putting on shows with the little shampoo bottles they’d bring back from business trips, so it’s been a long time coming, I think.
And that’s so kind of you to say – I certainly wouldn’t claim to be paving any ways, but am so honored to be walking the ways paved by the women who came before me. I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to have the most amazing mentors in Rachel, Diane Paulus, my mom, and more. Those women are so committed to mentorship and ushering the next generation of young female artists into the field – I feel profoundly fortunate to follow their lead.
And hm…the problems I encounter that are germane to being a female director feel rather small in comparison to those of my predecessors, but I am hyper aware of the continued lack of female representation in the commercial directorial field. Again I’ve had the immense good fortune of working with Rachel, Diane, and others who’ve shown me what’s possible, but I think my experience is unique. I will always remember the first day I worked for a male director professionally; I walked into the room and realized the creative team was 13 white men and me; there’s a lot wrong with that philosophically, but on an emotional level, it was also rather isolating. And then when I talked to female friends about the experience, they were like ‘Oh, Sammi, that’s totally par for the course. You live in Diane Paulus and Rachel Chavkin utopia,’ which was sad. But again, those women I mentioned above are brilliant models. I remember watching Diane win her Tony and I think that was the moment I decided I had to be a director, because I got to see someone who looked just like me being honored for a craft I thought maybe I could take on too. It’s like Jeanine Tesori (obviously another amazing female role model) said in her Tony speech, you have to see it to be it.
Alex - You also recently directed a production of Ragtime on Ellis Island. Is there a chance this might come back?
Sammi - Yes! A good one. Stand by.
Alex - Any other projects coming up for you in the future?
Sammi - Yes! I’m directing a two-week workshop of an incredible new musical by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire at Sundance this summer and am looking forward to it more than I can possibly express.
I’m also in development on two other new musicals and am working on potentially helping to bring a site-specific production of Violet on a bus that I directed at the American Repertory Theater to New York at some point in the future.
Thank you so much Sammi for taking the time to do this interview! For more info on Ms. Cannold please visit her website:
Alex Chester is a California gal living in NYC. She has been performing since she was a little girl and is also the creator of the blog MeSoHapa.com and the multicultural cabaret "WeSoHapa", recently seen at The Triad. Theatre credits include: Broadway's “How the Grinch Stole Xmas” – Madison Square Garden (NYC) and the Broadway sit down production at The Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. TV credits include: ER, The Closer, 7th Heaven, and several national/international commercials. http://www.AlexChester.com Twitter/Instagram @AlexFChester