Rachel Chavkin: The Director Broadway Needs
There has never been anything quite like it on Broadway. Walking through the doors to see the smash-hit musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, we didn’t find ourselves in a theatre. Instead it felt like we had just passed through a portal and ended up at a Russian supper club. Small bars were placed throughout the space serving vodka and champagne. The public was seated around intimate tables both on-stage and in the audience as if we were just as much a part of this opulent world as the performers. Maybe it was the lush and plush red curtains that matched our seats, the glittering of gold from the brass and crystal starburst chandeliers that were dangling everywhere -- whatever it was, we opted for champagne.
The Great Comet of 1812 was an adaptation of seventy pages in Tolstoy’s famously long book War and Peace about a doomed romance in aristocratic Russia. It was the third collaboration between songwriter Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin. The range of Malloy’s musical background was clear throughout the show: jazz, classical, indie rock, experimental. All these styles flowed together as seamlessly as the performers did throughout the space. The action was everywhere: on-stage, in the audience, in the aisles, the mezzanine, and the actors interacted with the audience as much as they did with each other. There was nothing typical about this musical—which only speaks to the unique career of director Rachel Chavkin.
We’ve been following Rachel Chavkin’s work for years and eagerly watched as she’s built her international career -- beginning in the downtown, experimental scene, to achieving international recognition with her theatre company The TEAM and now with her first Broadway show. The Great Comet of 1812 was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, including Best Director. Ms. Chavkin is groundbreaking not only because she is a woman who has achieved what few others have, but also because of the choices she makes in both her work and who she works with. These choices reflect a much deeper sense of purpose and a strong desire to not just break the mold, but redesign it.
Rachel’s political beliefs have always been a driving force. The set designer, Mimi Lien, won a Tony Award for this fabulous set making her the first Asian-American woman to win a Tony Award. The role of Natasha was played by Denée Benton, an African American actress who was also nominated for a Tony. The show even received an award from Actors Equity for its diversity in casting, but controversy around the issue of race nonetheless arose when Josh Groban, who played Pierre, decided to leave the show this past July.
Rogue sat down with Rachel Chavkin to discuss it all. From the Great Comet, to her own exciting journey from downtown to Broadway, to her thoughts about the controversy that caused the show to close on September 3rd.
ROGUE: We’ve had the pleasure of seeing some of your previous work, specifically with your theatre company the TEAM which focuses on American iconography and values. The Great Comet is an adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace which takes place in 1812 Russia. What was it about the story that drew you to it? How is this story relevant to our society today?
Rachel: Dave Malloy, the songwriter, initially drew me to be very frank. This is the third project we’ve worked on together. He could have said “do you want to do a new version of Fraggle Rock” and I probably would have been right there with him) I loved War and Peace when I read it in high school but why now? The story is about a decadent society that is partying as the Titanic sinks. Right after this section in the book, Napoleon marches into Moscow and the city is entirely burned to the ground. Obviously the audience doesn’t know this, but these are the last days of a hypocritical and decadent aristocratic society. That feels very resonant. And the other thing that is the entire center of the production’s conceit is that Tolstoy is writing about everyone. There’s a reason why the book is so fucking long right? He’s writing about the lowest in the “caste system” to Napoleon and the Prince.
Just to jump on that because it speaks to our next question--why do you you think the show was such a success? Why did it speak to so many different audiences?
This was a part of the genius of the space and how it feels because of the way Mimi constructed it. We wanted to create a single room. In a sense, we wanted to give people the permission to celebrate the fact they were seeing a show that no one else was seeing but that everyone was together in a shared space, having a communal experience with the story and the actors. That’s the connection to Tolstoy, he’s writing about everyone.
The Great Comet started at Ars Nova then moved to a tent in the meatpacking to another tent in the theatre district, to the American Repertory Theatre before it landed on the Broadway stage. What was it like transferring this piece to different spaces? What were the challenges to maintaining its original electricity?
The first thing Howard Kagan, our lead producer, said was— “we’re keeping the supper club, the dumplings, vodka and the shared communal experience— that all stays.” At the outset we cemented that we we were going to hold onto that. It was thrilling because I loved being in that Ars Nova room and the Imperial still felt like it in so many ways. Also on the flip side, there was so much that didn’t happen at Ars Nova. Sam Pinkleton, the choreographer, was not a part of it yet for example. Initially I had choreographed it with the cast and the help of one of the stage managers. As it got bigger and bigger, the show kept growing. At the American Repertory Theatre in Boston, we put in the dance break. It’s Tolstoy, right? It’s not worried about size, so as we got more space, the show kept filling it. There’s no way it would have been what it was without each step.
This show was unique compared to other work you typically see on Broadway. Not only did you reimagine the physical space of the theatre but the show was also a mix of genres. What made this show unique for Broadway in your opinion?
So many reasons. The music doesn’t sound like any score I’ve heard on Broadway. Dave’s score definitely tells a story - the lyrics are character driven, but it is much more eclectic than I find most Broadway musicals. Along with that, the voices that were represented on stage weren’t typical. Britton Ashford’s voice, who played Sonya, is one of the most unique voices I’ve ever heard. And Denée, who played Natasha, is a gloriously legit soprano. Josh Groban was this unbelievably rich baritone. Dave Malloy calls himself a “whiskey tenor.” Often Broadway is so pop-polished, but I’m personally much more interested in a character driven voice and unique ones and the assembly that those voices bring together.
You’ve built such a multi-faceted career for yourself in theatre, how did you first get into directing?
Being bossy [laughs]. I mean really that was it. I was bossy before I was in theatre. Those two things together made me into a director.
Who are your major influences?
There are a ton. Anne Bogart, Elizabeth LeCompte and Kate Valk from the Wooster Group, William Forsyth, Simon McBurney and Theatre de La Complicité. Ivo Van Hove has been an enormous guide, Sam Gold more recently, and Lear Debessonet. Then there’s Branden Jacob Jenkins; Octoroon remains one of the most fueling pieces I’ve ever seen.
When did you know the kind of theatre you wanted to make?
A month into my freshman year at New York University, I saw my first Wooster Group show. That was it. It was House Lights, their version of Gertrude Stein’s Faustus Lights the Lights. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this at the time, but I grew up playing soccer from the age of four until I got to college. When I was two years old I got my first pair of running shoes from my dad. Team sports were always the center of my life. The fact that the body would lead was what the Wooster Group was doing. It wasn’t about fake fiction of a play, it was about a literal physical event that was happening in space. And they were doing it with wild abandon. The raw punk nature of it I’d seen in music but never in theatre.
What was the first show you ever did?
If I had to pinpoint where I started doing my work was Howl—-that was my first devised show I ever directed which was an adaptation of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. I did all this research into Jazz which is what these white writers in the Beat generation were fetishizing, honoring, appropriating from these black musicians. Norman Mailer’s essay The White Negro was very influential for that piece.
We love that because already the seeds have been planted for your theatre company, the TEAM—what kind of work did you want to create and why?
I was always obsessed with history. Both my folks are civil rights lawyers so I grew up in being told the story of the civil rights movements and from there of other political movement. The speedboat of people’s history has always been very personal.
The Great Comet was not a show you created with your company the TEAM. What was the difference in building your career between the two?
The TEAM is almost entirely horizontal. It’s a consensus driven writing process which I lead through creative prompts but I have no more authorship or ownership over the actual material than anyone else in the room. I’m both the boss and not. I’m also the midwife and harnesser of the cats… do you know what I mean? In the Comet of 1812 room or any other freelance gig I am the boss. The freelance world is by its nature and construct efficient because it has to be. The goal is to be financially responsible. The TEAM is, in its DNA, constructed to be as irresponsible as possible but intelligent.
We personally love the parallel between the journey of The Great Comet and your own as a director. Just like the show, you moved from the world of downtown, experimental, off-Broadway theatre to Broadway. We’ve read the term “avant garde” used to describe you as a director. Being that this is your first Broadway show, what was it like transitioning into the commercial realm?
I’m just at the beginning of figuring out how I want to sit there. I have no antagonism towards the commercial world. If we look at music, film and television, particularly television, I actually think the for-profit world is at the forefront of making some of the most cutting edge and necessary work. Like Beyonce’s Lemonade, for example, is groundbreaking. It’s also ferociously commercial and political as fuck. There’s nothing inherent about the commercial world that is regressive.
What do you think about these labels—downtown, experimental, avant garde, etc?
They aren’t useful to me. I get why they happen. I personally have worked quite hard [laughs]...I like the fact that my career defies labels. What I do get is that for audiences that aren’t full time art consumers, which is 99 percent of audiences, that it can help them with context. With Comet, they know they’re going to experience a Broadway show. That frame helps audiences adjust and set their mind at ease when they feel they don’t initially recognize what they are seeing.
Did you have to adjust the way you work in order to accommodate the tastes of Broadway audiences?
Oh my god no no no— no. I learned small bits about playing to an audience of 1200 eyes but no I didn’t compromise anything for a broadway audience.
There’s this idea that once an artist achieves a certain level of success, that they have to sacrifice some of their vision. How do you stay true to your own artistic vision while also having commercial success? What were the challenges that you faced over this Broadway run?
I didn't experience that with Comet because our lead producers told me to be even more artistic. I don’t know if those were the correct procedurial decisions, that’s not my job, but as an artist I felt my vision was utterly cared for and respected...and encouraged. I’ve done one show on Broadway, it remains to be seen whether or not I will have a commercial career, so I’m just speaking about Comet.
You were nominated for a Tony Award for Best Director. There haven’t been many women who have won the award. As you were coming up, were you aware that there weren’t many women who were recognized in the field?
Garry Hynes, I believe, was the first woman ever to win the Tony in 1998. She won for Beauty Queen which I saw I think my freshman year at New York University. I remember clocking the significance of that but no, I didn’t understand the profound and clear injustice. But also, I was more interested in experimental theatre. So many of those heroes: Elizabeth Lecompte, Anne Bogart, were women. I wasn’t lacking for female role models, they just weren’t working on Broadway.
What were the obstacles that you faced as a woman director—have their been specific roadblocks you would attribute to this lack of representation? Did you feel like you had to work harder than your male peers?
No. The biggest thing you don’t know is which rooms you’re not being invited to. When people talk about the “boy’s club,” that is something I definitely have palpably experienced. That’s so layered. It really crystalized with what [Vice President] Pence said, that he would never have dinner one on one with a woman who wasn’t his wife. That’s the epitome of the boy’s club.
So you just made your own way?
Well yeah, I began doing that straight out of school. You have to as a young artist. I had a couple friends who ended up assisting very quickly on Broadway. I don’t know if their careers are any more potent than mine after all these years later. After graduating college, I just started creating my own work which became the TEAM… My sense, speaking to a lot of female friends, is that it’s hard to develop the muscle to say I want this. There was that New York Times piece about why Hillary Clinton didn’t call Trump out when he was stalking her during that debate. Women systemically are taught to politely receive, to not make waves, to not be seen as a bitch or an angry woman. Having the muscle to say clearly— “I want to do this,” has taken me years to say confidently.
For those young women who might be looking to you as a role model, is there a piece of advice you received that you would pass on?
Too often advice is an act of ego on the behalf of the advice-giver who wants to feel wise. I love tips, but at the end of the day you figure it out. Another way of putting it, my greatest mentors are people I’ve never spoken to in my life but whose work influenced me. Shared experiences are much more useful than advice.
Controversy over the casting erupted around the show and led to its closing. When Josh Groban decided to leave the show, it was projected that the ticket sales would drop to under a million a week. First, Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan from the hit show Hamilton, who is African-American, was hired to do a limited run. But producers asked him to leave early in order to replace him with a more famous white actor, Mandy Patinkin. This sparked an outcry from the community that this was a social justice issue--yet another example of how black actors are treated in the entertainment industry. Actor’s Equity gave the show an award for “extraordinary excellence in diversity on Broadway” —this show was an example for color-conscious casting, so how did you navigate that controversy? Do you think it was a social justice issue?
What I can say is nothing is without context. We are in a wildly traumatic moment as a country. I can say, 100 percent, there was nothing racially motivated from the production’s perspective. At the same time, in the final days of performances, I was struck by how successful the show really was. We ran almost a year which is no small potatoes for Broadway. A lot of young women got to see Denée Benton as Natasha. I know how seriously she took that responsibility. She’s one of the most extraordinary artists I’ve ever encountered and she has a Tony nomination now. Mimi, our set designer, was the first Asian-American woman to win the Tony for set design. Do I wish it would have run for another ten years? Yes because I think it was that good.
But being that it happened, did it start a conversation that was necessary?
In a sense it was inevitable that the conversation arose around Comet. The conversation is not going to come up around a show that doesn’t give a shit because they aren’t even a part of it. I feel like that is the biggest change that’s happened in the country since Trump's election. People of color have long known that we’ve been living in a white supremacist country since its founding. Then a whole bunch of white people woke up to that on Nov 9th. As to who’s involved in the conversation or who’s not, it’s very amplified. I just attended an artist talk at the Brooklyn Museum for the new show about the legacy of lynching. One of the panelists, Akiba Solomon, was talking about white supremacy and white supremacist structures as being an “ambient noise” that a lot people are just tuning into.
We know that you’re passionate about politics both personally and professionally. The Guardian called the TEAM “theatrical excavators of American culture, American dreams and the American psyche.” You use your work often to explore larger issues concerning our society and world. What are some of issues that you are thinking about right now? Are there any themes that surface again and again in your work?
The biggest is the TEAM’s mission: radical revisionist history—and the act of constantly reassessing who we are by reexamining how we look at stories from the past. That pertains to Comet as well. We retell War and Peace through this contemporary music that Dave has written. The present against the past is my main recurring theme.
Now that the Great Comet has come to a close, what’s next for you?
Right now I have the Toni Morrison essay Playing in the Dark in my bag and I think I know what the next piece might be... this is still to be discussed. I’m working on Hadestown again which will be done in the very north west of Canada. If you feel like coming you should come…
Which is what everyone wants to do in November... go to the Arctic! [laughs]
We’re into it.
Written by Maria Mocerino
Photos by Chad Batka