Rachel Chavkin has a taste for epics. She turned Broadway's Imperial Theatre into a Russian supper club for Dave Molloy's musical slice of War and Peace that was Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. She's made the Walter Kerr a mythological underworld for the Orpheus-and-Eurydice inspired musical Hadestown (for which she won a Tony). And for several years, she's been attached to Dave Molloy's next literary whale—a musical version of Moby Dick.
As a director, Chavkin gravitates toward the gravitas of Greek(like) tragedy, and her latest professional journey—this time into the Marvel universe is no exception. She directs season two of Marvel's Wastelanders podcast series, which, though removing the visual experience that typically accompanies her work, indulges all of her sensibilities for heightened drama. This season follows a future Hawkeye (Stephen Lang) and his adopted daughter Ash (Sasha Lane), whose stories intertwine along a narrative of revenge and the ever-ambiguous concept of justice (Jess Barbagallo, Michelle Hurd, Bobby Moreno, Joe Morton, Tracie Thoms, and Lea DeLaria are also among the cast).
"We sometimes go to the theatre to see our exact life reflected back at us," says Chavkin. "But I tend to be drawn to plays, and now podcasts, that are calling forth our larger selves."
Congratulations on joining the Marvel universe! What level of Marvel aficionado would you say you were going into this project?
I love the movies. I can't say I've seen the entirety—there are a lot of movies, so godspeed to those who have seen them all. My husband is one of them. But I've been a huge fan. I love the Marvel storytelling. I love how emotional it is. I love how it's rooted with a wonderful self-awareness and humor, which I think is really key to keeping a sense of joy in the storytelling. J. Holtham, who's our spectacular writer, has this kind of endless knowledge of the universe. I, as someone who doesn't know that universe nearly as well as he, felt like I could actually be a very good partner in helping make it more accessible to those who may not know or recognize all of the layers of reference.
When the call came in to direct this podcast, were you expecting there to be a learning curve, or did you feel comfortable with the medium from the start?
I felt comfortable with the act of audio storytelling. In many ways it relates to directing a reading where you have to really care for the musicality of the show and make sure it captures the energy that a finished production might. But also there was the excitement of knowing I was going to learn a lot technically about a new form, which I love doing. So there was a little from column A and a little from column B.
What has been most enjoyable and most challenging in telling a story entirely auditorily?
It's funny, the pleasure is the same as the challenge—which is how much space it leaves for the imagination. Your own imagination, I think, tends to often be more exciting than a literal representation. I'm a huge consumer of podcasts, myself. I just love getting to be in my own brain. So the challenge is to give enough information—and that means the actors' choices, and where they're pitching, and how they're texturizing their voice—but that also has to do with the sound effects and the score. I have found that if you try to do too much storytelling in the audio, you can actually just confuse the ear, because when your eyes get to see, you hear in a very different way.
This Hawkeye narrative, with its vengeful premise and heroic characters, feels inherently big—as do all Marvel stories. In any medium, does that sense of bigness or smallness of a story affect your direction?
For me, definitely. This was actually a real challenge for that exact reason. Because yes, you need human truth. But also, these are archetypes. There's a Greek-ness to it. These are not characters doing everyday things. It’s not language we use everyday. And if you don't embrace that archness and the lusciousness and joy that the language can have, you risk sucking the life out of what wants to be larger than life. A very dear teacher of mine recently passed away—Louis Scheeder, a Shakespeare teacher. A student once said to him when they were working on a scene, "I just don't think I would do that," referring to the character. He immediately, without skipping a beat, said, "Well, that's why they don't write plays about you."