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Directing the way to gender equality with Broadway's Rachel Chavkin

The Tony-winning director is calling for greater representation of women in the theater world; this past season, 85 percent of Broadway show writers were male.
Rachel Chavkin at the 73rd Annual Tony Awards "Meet the Nominees" press day at the Sofitel New York on May 1, 2019.
Rachel Chavkin at the 73rd Annual Tony Awards "Meet the Nominees" press day at the Sofitel New York on May 1, 2019.Charles Sykes / Invision/AP

There was only one female director of a Broadway musical this past season. And she won the Tony Award.

“I wish I wasn’t the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season,” said Rachel Chavkin during her acceptance speech for directing “Hadestown,” which is based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Urging the Broadway community to embrace racial and gender diversity, she said, “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.”

Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski recently sat down with Chavkin to talk about her call for greater representation in the theater world. In fact, this past season, 85 percent of Broadway show writers and 76 percent choreographers were male, and seven shows had no females in major roles on their creative teams.

Chavkin said ironically many people consider theater and the arts to be “amongst the most progressive industries because they’re industry is filled with progressives … and yet unfortunately, there’s the same systemic white supremacy and patriarchy that we see operating in so many different industries around the world.”

Blazing a trail

Chavkin has found that working with females and artists of color has become “an increasing core value” of hers. “Hadestown,” which brings two love stories from Greek mythology into the Great Depression, is certainly an example of this. Anaïs Mitchell, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, is only the fourth woman in Broadway history to complete this triple feat. And Jessica Paz, one of two sound designers, is the first woman to have been nominated for the “sound design of a musical” award since the category was introduced in 2008. Both women took home Tony Awards for their efforts.

A simple mindset shift

Chavkin may be the recipient of multiple awards now, but when she was just 24 years old and going to meetings on behalf her experimental theater company, the TEAM, she had “impostor syndrome,” the feeling that she didn’t know exactly what she was talking about.

As a freelance artist, she often had people in those meetings asking her what she was working on. “The answer is not that I’m waiting to be told that I have the opportunity,” Chavkin told Brzezinski. Rather it’s, “This is what I want to make in the world” and to believe the person you’re meeting with wants to work or support you in some way.

What’s next?

Chavkin certainly isn’t resting on her laurels. She has spent years developing a musical version of “Moby Dick” with writer Dave Molloy, who helped create the fascinatingly offbeat show that gave Chavkin her first Tony nomination, “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.” She is developing a second new musical called “Lempicka,” about a female painter in Paris between the two world wars. In his review of the recent iteration of the show in Williamstown, MA, well-known New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley called Chavkin a “miracle worker.”

This busy director has also been working on a different sort of miracle this past year. She volunteered to act as a surrogate mother for her best friends, a gay male couple, and she is due at the end of August. Chavkin said, “I’ve always, always, wanted to be pregnant but have been uncertain, frankly, as work and life has become a kind of really thrilling storm over the past couple years, as to whether I wanted to … notch back a little bit in order to have a child and family.” Describing the process as “a thrilling experience,” Chavkin said, “I think it’s really important to model non-traditional families.”