Rachel Chavkin: Theatre Genius

An interview with the director of the Old Globe's "The Royale."



Photo of Rachel Chavkin, director of the Old Globe's "The Royale"

Photo provided by The Old Globe

The Old Globe Theatre is known for staging world-class productions for both known classics and world premieres. This season, they will be presenting a production of Marco Ramirez's “The Royale.” The plot follows heavyweight champion, Jay “The Sport” Jackson, a black boxer with the talent and drive to win, yet the obstacle of adversity packs a powerful punch. Being a black man living in 1905, Jay must overcome the jabs of racism and his boxing opponents. “The Royale” had it's world premiere with Center Theatre Group last year, and this season the Old Globe steps into the ring with director Rachel Chavkin in their corner. This will mark Chavkin's first time working with The Old Globe. 

Chavkin is a heavyweight champion in her own right. She holds a BFA in Theatre from NYU and an MFA from Columbia. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of “The TEAM,” a Brooklyn based theatre company that is at the forefront of bringing new American works to the stage. “The TEAM” travels abroad, often appearing at places like the Salzburg Festival and often collaborating with The National Theatre of Scotland and London's National Theatre. “There are a lot more federal subsidies for the arts abroad,” says Chavkin. Theatre is less of a luxury in Europe but more common place, whereas in America, “art becomes an arena of the privileged.” In places like the United Kingdom, taxpayers fund much of the art being presented. This makes going to the theatre affordable, whereas a Broadway ticket will cost a patron anywhere from $60 to upwards of $200. There are positives to American theatre, however. Our unions are much stronger and tend to fight more for the actors. Also according to Chavkin, in her experience, American theatre tends to be more organized.

As if being the head of a theatre company wasn't enough to keep her busy, Chavkin is also a playwright with six plays under her belt. Being that busy all the time, it would be no wonder if she hadn't slept for a while. “I have had a particularly insane day...but I get a full night’s sleep all the time,” she says. Directing a show comes with a long list of challenges. There is quite a bit of organizing, research and preparation that must be done for each show. Then there are the technical basics and blocking where the actors need to be, how they should look and how they should sound. It can be quite time consuming directing a show; the same can be said for running a theatre company.  Chavkin's theatre company “The TEAM,” which celebrates its ten year anniversary this year, keeps her busy, but the reward is worth the demand. “Oberon books, which is a publisher in London, is publishing a book of our early works,” Chavkin boasts. The book will be released this December. On the TEAM website, it states their objective is to “...combine aggressive athleticism with emotional performances and intellectual rigor, keeping the brain, eyes and heart of the audience constantly stimulated.” These qualities are what drew Chavkin to “The Royale.” A major factor in why Chavkin decided to direct the show is “the athleticism of Marco's language combined with the physical energy that I can feel when I read the play.” Chavkin is not only a dedicated director, but a keen observer of humanity as well. “As a human, I am most interested in understanding and trying to examine through the current moment...How and why are we here?” The struggles depicted in “The Royale” make the play accessible to our current generation. “The play is so incredibly relevant in terms of looking at what the costs are to society when a major color barrier is broken,” she says.

Reading a play multiple times before signing on to a project, Chavkin wants to make sure it is in line with her interests in the world. “The first thing I do is walk on over to the New York Public Library,” she says. According to Chavkin, the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and Fortieth street is “the best kept secret in New York.” Once Chavkin has committed to a project, she finds her way to the third floor of the New York Public Library where she finds a treasure trove of pictures from all eras. “It's a great place to think laterally,” says Chavkin, “and I find that that's how my brain is free to work.” After reading the play several times and doing as much research as possible, the rehearsal process begins. Rehearsals begin on September 9, and with only three and a half weeks to rehearse, it is important to have an idea of what needs to happen first. “The first thing that will happen is that we will do the design presentation,” she says. “It's a really wonderful, grounding first step that allows the actors to see the world they will be working in.” Giving the actors a grasp on the world that their characters live in constructs a reality that makes bring the show to life. Theatre magic is created, and the shared experience of watching is enough to make the audience connect to one another. 

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Obviously passionate about her current project, it is no surprise she hopes the audience will be affected. “I go to the theatre to see extraordinary things,” says Chavkin. So what does she really want the audience to take with them after the actors take their bows? “An interest in the history. Jack Johnson was an incredibly charismatic and complicated figure in our nation's history and I think the violence between races that sprung up in response to him is really just fascinating to know, but also as it relates to the larger moment, thinking about what has happened in Ferguson this summer...I think increased vigilance and increased humanity in interaction between the races is vital.” 

“The Royale” runs Saturday, October 4 through Sunday, November 2 in the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. Tickets are available for pre-sale on the Old Globe website www.theoldglobe.org or call the box office at (619) 234-5623.