Rachel Chavkin grew up in Silver Spring as a self-described mall rat who danced and played soccer, loved grunge and heavy-metal music, and was captivated by the theater.
Those childhood passions are evident in the Tony Award-winning director’s approach to staging two recent Broadway hits, the musicals Hadestown and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
“Oh, my early years of music, dance and sports definitely make a difference,” says Chavkin, 39, who was co-captain of her soccer team at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. “Movement is so important to me.”
Known for incorporating athleticism in her shows, Chavkin also focuses on diversity when hiring casts and crews. Her predominantly female teams garnered a stunning 26 Tony nominations for the two musicals. The only woman nominated for best director of either a musical or a play at June’s Tony Awards, Chavkin made headlines when she lambasted producers and theaters for not promoting women as she accepted the award for directing Hadestown, which won eight Tonys.
“I wish I wasn’t the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season,” she said at the time. “This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.”
A fan of history who read compulsively as a child, Chavkin says she approaches her work by moving from complex details into what would be spectacular and thrilling to see on stage. “When you experiment on stage, a premium is placed on authenticity,” she says. “I’m trying to get as close to real life [as possible]. The chaos of life is so delicious and joyous theatrically.”
Chavkin went to shows often while growing up, attending productions at Olney Theatre Center and the now-closed Harlequin Dinner Theatre in Rockville, as well as making annual trips to Broadway. When she was 11, her father, David Chavkin, saw an ad for Stagedoor Manor, a rural New York theater camp that launched the careers of Robert Downey Jr., Jon Cryer and Mandy Moore, and thought his daughter would like it.
“I immersed myself in Stagedoor shows and my life changed,” says Chavkin, who spent five summers at the camp. She also became a fan of anything unusual on stage. “I saw Hair in a loft at Studio Theatre in D.C. at age 16,” she recalls. “I was immediately attracted to the raw realness of experimental theater.”