Photo by Em Watson, American Theater
The Lion met with Rachel Chavkin, a Columbia School of the Arts graduate, to discuss her direction of a new musical on Broadway: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. The show is based on a 70-page snipped of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and includes both period and modern stylistic setting.
The show itself is completely immersive as the cast performs all around you, or even right next to you! And in parts of the show, members of the audience are asked to help with everything from passing letters to providing background sounds for the musical numbers. In addition, the seating is unlike anything else on Broadway with the Imperial theater redesigned to feel like a Russian club. Several seats have been removed to make way for tables and lamps to create this atmosphere. Seats range from being in the standard orchestra and rear mezzanine sections of the theater to sitting right on the stage.
The show has an open run and is performed 8 times per week at the Imperial Theatre. The show offers both a mobile lottery and rush tickets for only $39, a great deal for people interested in seeing the show for less. This is one of the most immersive shows I have ever seen and it’s definitely something to check out! When we sat down with Rachel, we talked about her experience in theater and her journey in helping to develop productions such as The Great Comet.
What did you study at Columbia School of the Arts and what was the first thing you did after graduating?
Sure. I studied directing, in terms of the big, broad picture. Anne Bogart and Brian Kulick were my two primary teachers on the practical front, the making front. I believe with Anne we studied character and how to create character. With Brian, we started with the Greeks and spent the whole first fall semester learning about Greek theater and working on themes from Greek plays. And then the first thing I did was…well it’s important to know that I started, and still run, an experimental theater company called The Team and I ran it during the entirety of my time at Columbia. It was one of the main reasons I chose Columbia, because I wanted to stay in the city and keep running the company. I almost left Columbia multiple times to focus on the company. Anne Bogart, who had a company of her own understood my situation and gave me permission to use every assignment at Columbia to work on what I was doing at The Team. After graduating, I just kept running The Team.
What is it like to be a female director in an environment where white males direct most of the plays and musicals on Broadway? How does it impact you and what is it like to be in that type of environment? Has it been difficult for you?
No, the truth is that for people who are not the standard white men, there are fewer difficulties, necessarily, that you may face. The bigger problems come in when thinking about what rooms you are not being invited into. And the nature of those rooms, whether they are metaphorical or real spaces, is that you don’t necessarily know that you aren’t being invited into them. What I can say is that my experience working at the Imperial was nothing but loving. The crew, which was majority men, but certainly included women, including several female department heads, could not have been more enthusiastic and supportive. Howard and Janet Kagan, she was my producer, are particularly dedicated to leading female artists. So my experience has been fantastic and I think we’re watching the ecosystem change. I want it to be changing faster both for women and artists of color and queer artists, although at least for misgendered, gay, white men there has been less of a barrier in theater historically than in other fields.
You’ve been with this show from the beginning, back when it was in a tiny theater off-Broadway, when it was in a tent, and now that’s in the same theater Les Miserables was in. How has this experience been for you? What was it like to have to adapt this show for different venues while still keeping your vision for it as an intimate, immersive experience intact?
The DNA of the show, the intimacy of the audience-actor relationship has always been the core principle to maintain. And for our set designer and me it was making it feel like everyone was in the same room. And so, on just a very technical level, we extended the red curtain around the whole space, so it’s a full 360 degrees surround. And for Mimi (set designer) and Bradley King (lighting designer) to make sure that there are chandeliers and light bulbs all the way in the back of the stage and under the mezzanine for the rear orchestra. All of those gestures were really important to maintain. Similarly, for my choreographer and me, it was having enough bodies to cover the space. At Ars Nova, there was little room to dance and we had 10 actors, then that jumped to 16 with an ensemble, at ART we had 24 actors on stage, and now at the Imperial we have 30 actors on stage.
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 combines many different musical and stylistic elements into one cohesive work with very unique scenes. What is your favorite scene from the musical?
I mean it depends on my mood, honestly. Sometimes all I want is to live in the party that is the Balaga abduction sequence in Act 2. I love and am absolutely floored by the writing of the Pierre and Andrey duet, which is kind of small and there is almost no singing in it, more speaking on tone – I love the sparseness of it. It really just depends from night to night.
The New York Times reporter who reviewed the show said that he liked it more than Hamilton, another popular Broadway musical. What was it like to hear that?
I mean, great! At the end of the day, you can’t look to a reviewer because you can’t have your entire pride and faith in yourself as an artist based on one person that is just as flawed as any other human. What a review does in addition to making you feel more or less good on a particular day is sell tickets, so I was thrilled. To have the NYT reviewer say that is incredibly important for the future life of the show, just on a commercial, technical level.
How were you able to rearrange the theater itself from a traditional theater to an immersive theater? How long did it take?
There are two parts to that. There’s the preproduction part where we go back and forth on drawings until doomsday. We spent probably 6 months doing that and it came down to inches. It mattered by inches how much we raised the ground level of the stage to make sure that it was in really good sidelines for the mezzanine, which is an incredible place to watch the show from, while also taking care of the orchestra. I called it a real democracy of sideline challenges and we spent hundreds of hours going back and forth on these drawings. And then in terms of the actual time it took to build, remarkably, only a month.
What was your vision of the show? Was there anything that inspired you to direct this show in a particular way?
Yeah, if you’ve read the classic story of Dave going to this café in Moscow called Café Margarita. The band was spread throughout the room and there were shakers on the table, along with vodka and dumplings. It was like an enormous party, so that is where we began. And then it was very important to me, directorially, for the world to feel opulent, and that there be elements of period and elements of contemporary. As you observed, the score has those very classical arias and that crazy techno scene when they go to the club. I always wanted the principles to be in period dress because I thought it was very important for us to go with that story. And meet the Tolstoy characters in sort of their own period. But then when we added the ensemble, it added the option to have that hybrid time in dress as well, so we got to put the ensemble in these great contemporary punk and folk couture look.
How do you decide what shows you participate in? Do you tend to go towards the more quirky and unique shows?
The approach I take stems from the text, I’m including music as well (the score). What I can say is that I’m drawn to projects that are profoundly ambitious, whether that’s a new approach to form like Small Mouth Sounds, which was a play that took place in silence. The challenge of directing for that kind of silence and the specificity that was required of all the tiny realism of life on that stage was super exciting to me. Also, that show had a really important question at its heart because it was a play about new age and healing. The question was: should we be happy? In a world that’s as screwed up as our world, should we be pursuing happiness? So it’s very important to me that there be an ambition of content as well as a formal ambition. And obviously, Comet had both of those things. It is high art in terms of being Tolstoy, an epic novel, with being about philosophy, history, and pity. It discusses the role pity should play in our lives, and it’s also a beautiful, sexy melodrama.
Through the Columbia Night talk, I heard you have participated in canvassing for Hillary and protests at Trump tower. Many students at Columbia have also done these things and are scared/mad/upset by the results of the election. Do you have any advice for them moving forward? – Veronica Roach, CC ’20
Yes, absolutely. Grassroots organizing by the left is everything now. I think it’s essential to keep in mind that what we saw has been framed as a really emotional narrative, of “oh the country is so discontent and people want change.” I don’t disagree with that, but it’s essential to remember that the results of this election were the victory of more than 30 years of really hardcore grassroots organizing by the right to have every local office. I think it’s now 68 out of 99 local, both governorships, school boards, city-councils. These are the levels on which decisions are made, so it’s time to have people running from those offices from the left because I do believe Trump was elected legally, but I think, unfortunately, the laws like the Voting Rights Act, which was eviscerated in 2013, in a decade long campaign by the right to take out the DRA contributed. And so we saw massive voter suppression, which was done though “legal terms,” but that’s your grassroots organizing. So, every student at Columbia has to know everyone who is representing them – know their state assembly members, know their city council person, be calling them and showing up at their doors to say what issues matter most to them.
How do you think that theater and art play into this?
Look, theater can do many things. You know, for one thing, it makes life worth living. So it’s got to be good and have joy, philosophy or reflection. First and foremost, I truly believe theater performances make my life worth living and that’s an importance. And separately, I think theater can move the themes of social justice, equality, diversity, and heterogeneity forward – these are all things I care about. By putting these themes in the forefront of peoples’ minds or through representation on stage, which is the beauty of any artist working today to make sure that the questions of representation and diversity are met at every level of the production. That’s a huge thing theater can and should be doing. There’s no cookie cutter!
Do you have anything else you’d like to say to the Columbia community?
Back to the activist question, you all are the future. We are going to watch a massive assault on safety nets across the country that, sadly, is going to hurt the people. There are many reasons people voted for Trump and they are not a monolithic force that did it, but dispensing those social safety nets… Just be ferocious.
Tickets to Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet 1812 can be purchased from between $59 and $169 through the show’s website.
Interested in helping share the stories of members of the Columbia community? Join The Lion’s Interviewing team by emailing email@example.com.