“When I first read The Royale,” Rachel Chavkin told me the other day, after a rehearsal, “I had an experience I rarely have: I didn’t move during the entire time it took me to read it. I immediately wanted to direct it.”
According to Chavkin, who grew up in Washington, D.C. and studied at New York University and Columbia, the script exerted a rich appeal. “There was the energy of the fights. And the ingenious way the play’s larger themes were revealed slowly over the course of these six scenes, or, as Marco calls them, ‘rounds.’”
Chavkin didn’t immediate visualize what a production of the play would look like. “I always try to grow first and foremost from the text, and to respond to each piece based on its particular needs. So, at least on first read, it’s really just about listening.”
Chavkin’s variety of approaches echoes the variety of her work’s subject matter. With The TEAM, a Brooklyn-based ensemble she co-founded and for which she is artistic director, Chavkin has staged such work as Architecting, about Gone with the Wind and the challenges of reconstruction on personal and national levels, and RoosevElvis, a surreal road trip involving Elvis Presley and Theodore Roosevelt.
“Both Elvis and Roosevelt were so uncompromising in their sense of self. The world had to reorganize itself it response to the spin of their molecules. The same could be said of Jack Johnson.”
Johnson was the early-20th-century heavyweight boxing champion who inspired Marco Ramirez to write The Royale. “He was wildly dynamic,” Chavkin said, “and projected a clarity of self within this profoundly hostile world. He was aggressive right back at it. You see it in his pursuit of the heavyweight title, you see it in his fashion, and of course you see it in his love life.”
That boldness carried risks. “The play,” Chavkin said, “starts as a wonderful biopic and becomes a whole other piece, about how the country loses its mind – violently – when someone breaks the color barrier. That was the case 100 years ago, and it sadly feels very real now. The play explores the very real danger that every African-American, and especially every African-American man, was put in by the fact of a black champion’s fight with a white champion.”
Chavkin previously staged The Royale at the Old Globe, in San Diego. “I enjoy having the chance to do a play again,” Chavkin said. “It gives you an opportunity to look at what worked before and to deepen those choices.” She added: “You also get to think about what you screwed up.”
With Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, her best-known production, Chavkin will, this fall, have not a second or even a third but a fourth go at a play. This “electro-pop opera” was written by Dave Malloy, with whom Chavkin collaborated on Preludes, an acclaimed production about Rachmaninoff, at LCT3, last year.
Natasha is based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It began at New York’s Ars Nova, went on to a tent-encased engagement at two venues, in New York, then to a proscenium production at ART, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which, in further adjusted form, will come to Broadway in September, starring Josh Groban.
Of Natasha’s production history, Chavkin said, “Each time, the concern has been that we will lose the intimacy that made the original production at Ars so special. And yet because we’re so committed to maintaining that essence, it’s felt each time like the show is just growing more and more into itself while keeping the vibe of a deeply connected room.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.