From COW Class to Broadway: The Evolution of Great Comet Director Rachel Chavkin
Meet the Tony nominee who is setting the theater scene on fire.
"I wanted to be many things growing up," Rachel Chavkin says, "but it wasn't until applying to college that I was suddenly like, 'Oh, I want to apply for theater.' "
That choice, and her decision to go to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, set Chavkin on a path that has taken her from directing in black boxes across Manhattan's downtown landscape to the Imperial Theatre on 45th Street. Chavkin's star has risen rapidly over the last five years, and her Tony nomination this past May for directing Dave Malloy's electro-pop opera Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 could be seen as the culmination of that journey. But this inventive and gutsy director is just getting started.
The only child of two civil rights lawyers, Chavkin "grew up with huge politics in the house, and the huge belief that art is the agent for social change," she remembers. At 11, she began attending Stagedoor Manor, the prestigious theater summer camp in Loch Sheldrake, New York. "I probably wouldn't be doing theater if it wasn't for Stagedoor. More than anything, it was about the team aspect," the idea of gathering with a group of people to create and put on a show.
Her path was set at N.Y.U., where, among her favorite courses, was a class called COW, an acronym for Creating Original Work. "It was taught by this really thorny, brilliant woman, Marlene Pennison, who was a postmodern dancer and choreographer." It took place on Sunday nights, wasn't in the roster, and didn't come with a grade. "You either showed up or you didn't," Chavkin says. "The only assignment was to be interesting alone onstage for 10 minutes. It was the best."
Intimidating? Sure. "You got your sh*t together to make some sort of process for yourself. Some people performed every week and built their project, and some people would show up at the end of the semester and do something awful or genius. All Marlene cared about was you being in the crisis of your own work and creating a process for yourself. Through that class, I began generating assignments for myself, and I would make work in response to those assignments."
The downtown avant-garde theater scene confirmed for Chavkin that making her own work was the way to go. She saw the Wooster Group for the first time during her freshman year and, in her words, she "never recovered." In her third year, she was tasked with directing an hour-long play. "I hated all the new writing I would see, so I ended up making a piece around Allen Ginsburg's poem Howl. It was a hit at N.Y.U. and I was very pleased with it. When I got out of school, it was very clear I was going to keep making my own work."
Immediately after graduating, she began teaching at N.Y.U. and continued devising her own projects, using free space at the university or working in bars during the daytime. In 2004, Chavkin and five other N.Y.U. alums created the Team, an ensemble company dedicated to creating pieces about contemporary life in America.
"We formed very specifically to bring two shows to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Give Up! Start Over! (In the Darkest of Times I Look to Richard Nixon for Hope), which was about reality television and Richard Nixon and whether someone exists if no one is watching; and A Thousand Natural Shocks, about a crisis of youth leadership set in the days between when King Hamlet is assassinated and before it's clear that Claudius is going to take the crown. I love that piece; it's still one of my favorite things we ever made. It was wildly messy, amateur, all those things. But whatever."
The Team landed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Give Up! Start Over! won the Fringe First Award. "That ended up being the catapult that got us back to the festival the next year, and led to our first touring gig and our first commissions."
As a director, Chavkin begins with the world of the play. "I start with, 'What is the vibe?,' and then design and the functionality of design have to be set up to perpetuate that vibe." She doesn't have a single style, as naturally her style changes based on the requirements of each project.
In Small Mouth Sounds, Bess Wohl's 2016 work about a group of lost souls at a silent meditation retreat, "we built the Japanese Swedish minimalist place, with the sound of the rain, and a super close-up shot of leaves." The Great Comet, on the other hand, tricks out the Imperial (as with its earlier venues, including Ars Nova and a specially built tent in the Meatpacking District) to look like a Russian supper club that envelops the entire space. Anaïs Mitchell's Hadestown, a reimagining of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, was performed within a special in-the-round bleacher system within New York Theatre Workshop in 2016.
A new iteration of Hadestown is on Chavkin's roster of upcoming projects, running this November at the Citadel Theatre in Edmondton, Canada. Chavkin refers to it as an "out-of-town tryout," adding that the hope is to certainly have it land back in New York City thereafter. Since its initial off-Broadway run, Chavkin and Mitchell have figured out a proper balance for Hadestown, in a world that lives between "concert" and "musical," but still maintains the spirit of the original production. On her own, Chavkin has learned a lot about directing in the process. "There are a lot of wonderful things that come with having the audience in one spot, like everyone getting to see the expression on Orpheus's face right before he turns around. Turns out, that really helps getting people emotionally involved."
Meanwhile, The Great Comet is still going strong at the Imperial, and she's very proud of the family they've created since they started the process in 2011. She never expected it to be on Broadway, but it's not her job to think about that. "It's my business to make the art and make it for wherever I'm making it. If we thought about Broadway when we were at Ars Nova, we never would have made the show we did."
This July, she's off to the Battersea Arts Centre in London to help develop a new piece with her frequent collaborator, Chris Thorpe. And August 22-23 will see the premiere of the Team's latest production, Primer for a Failed Superpower, running at the Brooklyn venue Roulette. "We have a multigenerational cover band made up of these sensational teenagers, thirtysomethings, and boomers," which will perform new arrangements of iconic protest songs by music makers including Stew and Heidi Rodewald, Heather Christian, and Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby. The work will explore what it means to be an American over the course of the country's history.
As for the future, Chavkin wants to do all the things she's not yet gotten to do. "I've never worked on a turntable before. I've never had to figure out how dry ice functions. I've never directed a film or a television show." The scale of The Great Comet certainly has made her job more exciting. "Not so much because it's like, 'Thank God I finally have resources,' but it's interesting to see. If experience is just an ever-increasing bag of tricks, it's exciting to just keep adding to that."