There’s a comet hanging over Rachel Chavkin’s dining room table. It’s an assemblage of spheres and tubes and rods, fashioned from welded steel spray-painted gold, that hovers above her morning yogurt.
The chandelier is a memento of the theater director’s biggest triumph and most spectacular setback — “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” an inventive, immersive electro-pop opera, adapted from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” that in 2016 blazed onto Broadway with Josh Groban, fresh pierogies and rave reviews, but then imploded in a conflagration of social media, identity politics and money woes.
Now she’s back on Broadway with another eye-popping, folk-fueled musical unlike anything else commercial theater has to offer: “Hadestown,” a fervid reimagining of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The shows she has overseen have seeped, literally, into the 38-year-old director’s skin. Her right forearm is inked with staging advice she gave to an apprehensive actor in “Great Comet”: “We’re just gonna go for a walk.” And up her left arm is the image of a Matisse cutout called The Lyre, depicting the stringed instrument that symbolizes Orpheus.
She never expected to be on Broadway, but she has high hopes for “Hadestown,” and is enormously proud of “Comet.” Asked if that first Broadway experience was scarring, she takes issue with the very premise of the question.
“Sure, I’m scarred by it, but that’s not a bad thing to me,” she said. And then, pointing at skin visible through the enormous holes in her jeans, “I love my scar on my knee from a bike accident I had several years ago. Because that’s your life.”
The only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season, Ms. Chavkin has been making enormously inventive, and often wildly experimental, work for years, both in New York’s downtown precincts and in Britain, where she has found a home away from home at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe that propelled her into bigger and bigger jobs.
Her work is often politically pointed, her casts and crews strikingly diverse, and her stagings athletic — many of her shows, including “Hadestown,” feature moments of intense exuberance that she connects to her affection for ’80s D.C. hard core punk, and a desire to counter her own tendency for intellectualism.
Saying “I do love a rush of blood,” she hungers to marry rigor with abandon, control with recklessness.
“I direct by whether I feel what’s happening on stage in my body,” she said. “And I mean that quite literally — is my body moved, on a cellular level, by what I’m watching? If not, then I keep pushing.”
Much to her surprise, she is on a bit of a Broadway bender — “Great Comet” opened in 2016; “Hadestown” opens April 17, and she’s also directing the aspiring-for-Broadway historical musical “Lempicka,” about a bisexual Polish émigré Art Deco portraitist (Ms. Chavkin, obviously, likes a challenge).
“It is amusing to me that I am a Broadway director, because that is so far from my conception of myself, but, at the same time, I’m acutely aware of how privileged I am to be making a living making work that moves the hell out of me,” she said.
She’s also pregnant. Although she’s not sure she wants to raise children — she’s worried that “having a child would decenter my arts life, at least to a certain degree” — she volunteered to conceive and carry a child for a gay couple in Texas with whom she has long been friends. She’s expecting to give birth in late August.
“I wanted to go through the biological act of being pregnant — like I’m interested on an athletic level, on a spiritual level, and on a life experience level,” she said. “I’m an artist, and I want to have all the experiences.”
She is juggling about 10 projects in various stages of development — inspired by subjects as varied as Van Gogh, “Moby Dick” and “Gone With the Wind,” and is working on a film she’s not yet ready to describe.
But she finds the subject of her industriousness tedious. “My fear is that my tombstone will say ‘She was busy,’ ” she said. “I love being busy, but I hope that’s the least interesting part of me. It gets remarked on a lot, and I wonder whether men hear that as much.”
Ms. Chavkin is the only child of a pair of left-leaning lawyers who split up three days after she left home for college. “The way I would phrase it on the record is that I grew up in a fairly emotionally volatile house,” she said.
She was raised in Silver Spring, Md., a suburb of Washington. Her father, David Chavkin, worked in and out of government on civil rights law; he’s now retired. Her mother, Sara Rosenbaum, is an influential Medicaid policy expert who teaches at George Washington University.
Ms. Chavkin’s childhood contained obvious clues to the woman she has become — a director who now says, “I’m constantly looking around the room and asking who’s not present, and why.”
As a 6-year-old, or so she’s been told, she was organizing a game of mommy-daughter on the playground when one child told her she didn’t want a black girl to pretend to be her mother. “Apparently, without hesitating, I said, ‘Well, you’ll just be an orphan then,’ and moved on,” she said.
Then, at about 12, she quit Hebrew school, declaring that she couldn’t abide some of her classmates. “They were saying racist things, and I hated being with them,” she said. “I came home and told my parents, and they let me drop out.”
“I really do believe that my health is physically, spiritually interrelated to the health of others,” Ms. Chavkin said in one of a series of recent interviews, “and so if I’m living in a white supremacist, exclusionary system, then I feel less healthy.”
A latchkey child from an early age, she played a lot of soccer, read a lot of books, and smoked a lot of pot. “I started getting high and doing a lot of drugs with friends from the time I was in middle school through high school,” she said. But she was also editor of the newspaper, editor of the literary magazine, co-editor of the yearbook, co-captain of the soccer team and a valedictorian. “I didn’t want to be bored,” she said.
Her parents took her to theater, at the Olney Theater Center, and the Kennedy Center, plus the now-closed Harlequin Dinner Theater (“you have pot roast and see ‘Dreamgirls’”) and, about once a year, while visiting grandparents, on Broadway. She also spent six life-changing summers at Stagedoor Manor, a theater camp in the Catskills, recalling “I just fell madly in love with it. I don’t look back at those days and go, ‘Those were my halcyon days,’ by any means — the status of the place and the way it played out among the campers is really gross — but I have to acknowledge that it’s probably why I’m in the theater.”
As a theater student at N.Y.U., Ms. Chavkin found herself drawn to the experimental, loving a Sunday night class called “Creating Original Work” in which the only assignment was to be interesting alone onstage for 10 minutes, and discovering the Wooster Group, a mainstay of the downtown avant-garde scene, and realizing “I want that.”
“I lost interest in plays,” she said. “I was like, ‘There are no plays,’ which was a stupid and ignorant thing to say, but that was how I felt.” She thought of acting as like sport, in which she could discern whether someone was “authentically present” by their breathing, their posture, “and whether their body is alive.” She took up postmodern dance.
The decade after graduation was a swirl of odd jobs and theatermaking. She worked at Barnes & Noble, taught at N.Y.U., served as a personal assistant for two psychiatrists, sold beef and bison at a farmer’s market, did some marketing for Adidas. Oh, and she got another degree — a master’s of fine arts — at Columbia.
But she was always creating shows — weird, ambitious, inspired by reading and a curiosity that took her from bebop music to the theory of relativity. Her collaborations with fellow N.Y.U. grads led to the formation of a company, the Team, where she is still the artistic director today. She also fell in love, on a Team trip to Scotland, with a theater electrician from Iowa; she and Jake Heinrichs have been together since 2005, and married since 2011; he is now a lighting supervisor at the Signature Theater, and they live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Her work outside the Team took off after a 2010 production of “Three Pianos,” a boozy song cycle riffing on the work of Franz Schubert. She directed it at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater; it then got picked up by New York Theater Workshop, won an Obie, and Ms. Chavkin was on her way.
When one of the writers of “Three Pianos,” Dave Malloy, embarked on a long-shot quest to fashion a musical from a 75-page section of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” he again turned to Ms. Chavkin to direct. “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” was a sensation from the moment it opened Off Broadway at Ars Nova, and four years later it arrived on Broadway. It lasted 10 months before closing amid a social media frenzy over the financially shaky production’s decision to replace a black performer with a more famous white performer in a starring role.
Ms. Chavkin said she learned several lessons. On a mundane level, she is being more mindful of weekly running costs, eliminating a pyro effect from “Hadestown” to keep the budget down; on a cultural level, she is less dismissive of the power of social media; and on a psychological level, she said, she feels “a lack of solidity” that has made her far more protective of “Hadestown.”
But “Great Comet” earned Ms. Chavkin a Tony nomination and brought her visceral directing style to the attention of new audiences.
Mr. Groban, its original Broadway star, recalls meeting her and thinking, “This is a human being who reminds me of all the reasons why I was excited to get into theater at a young age.”
Now, he says, “I would follow this person anywhere.”
Among those who saw “Great Comet” in its first production was a Vermont singer-songwriter, Anaïs Mitchell, who had recorded a concept album about a Greek myth that had long intrigued her. That album was “Hadestown,” and Ms. Mitchell was looking for a director who could help her shape it into a full-fledged stage musical.
“She right away had a lot of visual ideas and inspirations that were almost like music videos — that came from a place of poetic illustration of music that is bigger than narrative,” Ms. Mitchell said about Ms. Chavkin. “I sensed right away that she was never going to cheese it up.”
Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Chavkin fine-tuned their collaboration with productions of “Hadestown” at New York Theater Workshop in 2016, where it was staged in a makeshift amphitheater; at the Citadel Theater in Edmonton, Canada in 2017, where the creative team flirted with a more literalist set before pulling back; and at the National Theater in London last year, before making another round of revisions for the Broadway production now in previews at the Walter Kerr Theater.
“She kicked my ass for six years,” Ms. Mitchell said. “She expects the best from people she works with, and she gets it.”
The show is set in a club-like space inspired by Preservation Hall, nestled within a shell that might suggest an oil drum, where Hades presides over an underworld of industry staffed by indentured workers.
At its simplest level, it is a retelling of a story human beings have been revisiting for more than 2,000 years — a story of a grieving musician, Orpheus, who travels to the underworld in an effort to retrieve his beloved Eurydice.
But this version is not quite so simple. It is about love, of course, but also oppression and resistance, community and climate.
“There is something timeless about someone so moved by love and grief that they want to change the space-time continuum to get their lover back,” Ms. Chavkin said. “And in Anaïs’s version, it’s not just about getting your lover back, it’s about changing a potentially unjust society.”
For Ms. Chavkin, each iteration of the show has been a chance to try to refine her vision — recasting, restaging, rethinking. “‘Hadestown’ is the hardest thing I’ve ever directed by far,” she said. “The process has been long, and we have screwed up at times. But it feels like we’re finally in a rockin’ balance.”
She’s not done yet — on the day before the first preview, she was still wrestling with what sound should open the show — should it be a trombone or a guitar — as she and the rest of the creative team tried to figure out how best to balance loveliness and exuberance, hope and tragedy, story and symbol. And she’s still working — listening to her own breathing, hoping that if she is moved, audiences will be as well.
“I have huge hopes for ‘Hadestown’,” Ms. Chavkin said. “I want it to be in everyone’s ears and hearts.”
Rachel Chavkin, Briefly
HOMETOWN Silver Spring, Md.
Show that inspired you to be a theatermaker: When I was 16, I saw an immersive, really raw production of “Hair” in a loft at the Studio Theater in D.C., and was totally undone by it. I wanted to get up and help burn draft cards.
Key influence on your work: The humor and rawness and realness of experimental artists (Wooster Group, Elevator Repair Service, Radiohole).
Dislike onstage: Lack of rigor. A lot of middle- or upper-class white people talking about their problems without acknowledgment of their privilege or context in the wider world. Plays about Alzheimer’s that radically misrepresent the disease.
Why “Hadestown”? Anaïs Mitchell’s music (including Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose’s orchestrations). Its heart and its politics have kept me hooked.