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Rachel Chavkin, 2019
© Andy Parsons

Rachel Chavkin: ‘I think it’s funny that I’m a Broadway director’

The visionary director of ‘Hadestown’ and ‘The Great Comet of 1812’ is making her London debut via a strange, forgotten Arthur Miller play

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Director extraordinaire Rachel Chavkin founded avant-garde New York theatre legends The TEAM and has now become an unlikely Broadway hitmaker. Hot on the heels of ‘Hadestown’ – which transferred to the National Theatre on its way to Broadway – she’s directing her first proper London show, a revival of Arthur Miller’s vaudeville-tinged Great Depression drama ‘The American Clock’.

‘The American Clock’ isn’t a famous Miller play, is it?

‘I had never heard of it before the Miller estate brought my attention to it, and I grew up in a household that revered Arthur Miller like a god. This felt like a really good match: there’s something formally crazy about it and then there are these scenes written like brick shithouses.’

Your concept is to change the lead actors as the play wears on – why?

‘The show is almost a collage or quilt of the country during the Great Depression, so you keep on checking in on this family [the Baums] but they’re not necessarily the same people, they go through massive changes. So I wanted to represent different generations of immigrants, so we move from a white Jewish family to a South East Asian family and so on. It’s not necessarily moving forward through time.’

Do you think that might confuse audiences?

‘Well, that’ll ultimately be for audiences to answer! It’s not “Death of a Salesman” in the sense of a single driving narrative, it’s an immersion in a country in spasm, this very particular moment of the American dream falling part. It feels like each scene is almost its own Olympic event.’

Does the Great Depression still feel like a key part of the American story?

‘I relate to the Great Depression through my grandfather who is amazingly still with us and on the rowing team at his nursing home. He was born in 1921 and I have small stories from him about it. And for me there were so many echoes with the depression in 2008 and I feel like in America everyday we’re living everyday with the fear the next economic collapse is coming, whether that's going to be related to climate change or the madman that is our president. There’s such a sense of waiting for the ground to shift at our feet again, and that feels very resonant with the Great Depression.’

A lot of people over here would love to see your Broadway musical ‘Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812’. Will we?

‘I think it’s very possible that it will live again. I don’t have anything to report but I hold out hope. Part of me would be equally unsurprised if it was next year or in 25 years.’

Your career is a mix of small avant-garde stuff and massive mainstream shows – how does that work?

‘I would say I am drawn to eclecticism, I feel very dissatisfied if I’m not learning, I am pathologically listening to podcasts, I am almost never not taking in information, so I take on projects where I’m going to learn something. I guess I think it’s funny that I’m a Broadway director – but I like it!’

‘The American Clock’ is at the Old Vic. Until Mar 30.

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