“The play is a stunner,” director Rachel Chavkin says. “I use the term breathtaking a lot because I find it hard to breathe when I’m reading it. It’s ostensibly set during the English Civil War in the 1600s. But it’s a play about now. It just felt as if every conversation happening in the play could be happening now in Bushwick. Or Arkansas. Some people saying something is not right about this world and moving to action.”
Chavkin is talking about her latest project, Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, which she directs for New York Theatre Workshop and began performances April 18. The little known 1976 Churchill play deals with life and politics, a civil war, and revolution in 1640s England.
And its not Chavkin’s first time looking back at epic moments in history. Chavkin was nominated for a 2017 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and won the 2017 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Musical for that same work. She received a 2013 Obie Award Special Citation for her work on the musical’s Off-Broadway version. She also won the 2016 Obie direction award for The Royale at Lincoln Center Theater. Her other Off Broadway credits include Hadestown—which just announced a London production prior to a 2019 Broadway opening, Small Mouth Sounds and Three Pianos, winning a 2010 Obie Special Citation for the latter. She is the founding director of the Brooklyn-based theatre ensemble the TEAM, “dedicated to creating new work about the experience of living in America today.” We spoke with the accomplished director while at the start of rehearsals for the NYTW production. Here, discusses her career, principles and techniques as a director, the Churchill play, and her future plans.
Why she became a director:
“I love the athleticism of theatre. I think of it as a sporting event—and I grew up playing soccer. Whether it’s experimental performance, like the Wooster Group, or virtuosic emotional realism, I love being present for an extraordinary live event and the effort it takes. And I discovered that I had impulses about what material I wanted to work on, and where it would be exciting for people to stand onstage and what would make something particularly emotional. I had emotional images [in my brain]. That was what led me to directing. It’s not like I looked at directing as a career that I picked out of a closet.”
Her principles of directing:
“I guess I have a number of principles, and none. That speaks to a first principle, which is first asking each piece of material, or project, how it wants to work. I often think of what would make this the most emotional—another way of phrasing it is what would make this the most it it can be. Often I’m working on new works, so I think, ‘What is it trying to be?’ That question is as potent with Caryl’s play as it is with a [separate] new piece I’m developing, so I think it works even beyond new plays and musicals.
“Beyond trying to meet something on its terms, I think I have principles as to how I want to work, meaning—and this is becoming increasingly important to me—as inclusively as possible, with as much respect for the different crafts that are brought into the room, embodied in each of the collaborators I’m working with. Whether that’s the traditional sense of craft in the sense of technique and training, or craft in the sense of chops and history and experience, or craft in the sense of life experience, what that person brings into the room in every fiber of their presence matters. Honoring all of this and creating a space that is inviting as many different types of craft to enter as possible. That is a core principle.”
An actor in her rehearsal room – an example of how she directs:
“Fundamentally I work with every person differently, because every person is different. So how I would work with you to externalize some aspect of our shared vision is very different than how I might work with someone else. That’s the most important thing to note.
“In terms of an example: Working on a scene two days ago, I shared all of my thoughts about what’s happening in the scene, and the actors said some of their thoughts back, and some of their questions. We talked about their questions, and then we began working on it, and I said I think this scene probably happens at this table, let’s try you sitting here and you sitting there. And then the actors did it once, and I said, ‘I think you’re in the wrong places, let’s switch the chair places and try it again, and this is why I feel that way, and the actors maybe shared stuff back to me about what they experienced doing it. And we do it a lot of times. We’re early in the rehearsal process for the Churchill. Even how I might work with one single actor at the beginning of the process is very different from how I’ll work with them at the end of the process.
“A director has usually spent a year or more working on a production before the actors arrive. So when rehearsals begin I usually tell the actors everything I think I know, which sometimes involves a lot of talking, but then I try to shut up and let them do their stuff. I have a pretty high tolerance for living in chaos for a long time while the actors create their own neural pathways as they construct their performances. And then at the very end, often in tech, I jump back in and set things, like, ‘Stand there for your light’ or ‘Everyone turn together on this beat.’ So the chaos gets carved out a bit, but hopefully the performances maintain that live athleticism I crave.”
A mistake she made that she learned from:
“I’m trying to think of a good one. I learn from mistakes all the time. That’s why I don’t regret very much, because that’s the only way we can learn. That’s how adults learn. I founded and I am the artistic director of a company called the TEAM. It’s a collaborative ensemble, and I definitely made a mistake in that I had deduced (from a lot of different signals) that members of the company were tired of the team, felt like it was an infringement on their lives. That was a [misreading] that was largely shaped by my own mishegoss and insecurity. It was a huge lesson. Running a collaborative ensemble for now over 13 years has provided mistake upon mistake and lesson upon lesson about leading a company and not jumping to conclusions about what any individual member is thinking at any point in time.”
A decision she made that paid off - and that she learned from:
“It’s on my brain at the moment: I got to make a series of good decisions that have resulted in the cast that we have for the Caryl Churchill show [Vinie Burrows, Rob Campbell, Matthew Jeffers, Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Gregg Mozgala, Evelyn Spahr]. I’m learning radically from it, because the six performers, daily, are bringing this incredible richness of ideas about the play and resonances of the play in their lives. So that’s cool.”
About Light Shining in Buckinghamshire:
“It’s a play about revolution, a proto-democratic movement, led by three radical sects, the Levellers, the Diggers, and the Ranters. It represents the people’s history of a revolution, with all of these different voices. The play is focused on the revolutionary acts and ideas of these three radical proto-democratic Christian sects. I really do think of it as a people’s history—people across the country saying that something is unjust, and beginning to move toward action to rectify what they’re seeing as these wrongs, these injustices, that are economic and spiritual.
“I felt like I wanted to do something that was not just about resistance but really felt spiritually of resistance, and also felt hopeful. There are tragic things about the play as it tracks, as this revolution goes. But the title—Light Shining in Buckinghamshire—is about this light of revolution that is about equality and self-actualization and compassion and authenticity. All of those things make it feel incredibly urgent for me.”
“I value the eclecticism of my life so much. I very much want to keep doing what I’m doing right now, largely focusing on the development of new plays and new music theatre works, but also occasionally doing astonishing plays from the past. I also have a miniseries I want to make about the founding of the community health center movement in this country. It’s an incredible microcosm of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. And I began many, many years ago working with a couple of collaborators on an experimental opera that was like a meditation on James Agee and Walker Evans’ both very problematic and very extraordinary work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men [about tenant farmers in the South in the Great Depression of the 1930s], which is probably one of my favorite pieces of writing in the world. And I’m interested someday in running an institution. I view that as essentially the equivalent of holding public office in theatre. I think that’s an incredible power—to make large change and collaborate with people toward continued growth and inclusion and equity.”