KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
If you go to the theater and see a show directed by Rachel Chavkin, you might have to participate in the action, maybe knock back some shots vodka or pass notes between actors. Her career is exploding. She has two shows running off Broadway right now and another opening on Broadway this fall. Jeff Lunden reports.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Songwriter and playwright Dave Malloy has worked with Rachel Chavkin on a number of projects. He remembers a time when the cast of one of their shows was invited to perform at a swanky New York club.
DAVE MALLOY: And afterwards, we were all hanging out on the roof deck, and there was a beautiful swimming pool. And we did not have swimsuits, but Rachel charged in (laughter). And we - we ended up just all diving into the pool in our clothes, and it was wonderful. And that kind of celebration and, like, love of life finds its way into her shows.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Driving you around, ladies on your laps. Taking your places...
LUNDEN: When Rachel Chavkin jumps in, it seems like everybody follows, from actors to audiences. Her shows happen not just in front of the audience, but all around them.
RACHEL CHAVKIN: I mean, I love chaos, honestly.
LUNDEN: Rachel Chavkin.
CHAVKIN: And so what I'm interested in is creating a really rigorous environment in terms of every nook and cranny of it being in the world, of the world, helping to tell the story of the play, but then, at the same time, leaving space to watch the world spin.
LUNDEN: Right now, one of those spinning worlds is her production of "Hadestown." It's a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus. Eurydice, Persephone and Hades are all there, singing contemporary folk and jazz by songwriter Anais Mitchell, looking like Brooklyn hipsters in their vintage clothes.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HADESTOWN")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) It's an old song. It's an old tale from way back when. It's an old song. And we're going to sing it again.
LUNDEN: Chavkin convinced the New York Theater Workshop to tear up their stage and auditorium to create a kind of theater-in-the-round, with beat-up, old chairs.
CHAVKIN: It felt like what the story wanted was a Greek amphitheater, but that also felt like a barn - and this feeling of everyone has gathered around this tree to tell a story.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HADESTOWN")
AMBER GRAY: (As Persephone, singing) Allow to introduce myself. Brother, what's my name? My name is...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Our lady of the underground.
LUNDEN: The other show that Chavkin has running right now couldn't be more different. Here's a little excerpt. Yep, it's silent. "Small Mouth Sounds" takes place at a silent meditation retreat, which means there's barely any dialogue at all. Playwright Bess Wohl wrote pages of backstory about each character based on her own experience going to one of these retreats.
BESS WOHL: Everyone comes with this incredible need, which is I want to change my life. And then there's also this great obstacle, which is I can't use words. So, you know, need and obstacle is the sort of basis of drama.
LUNDEN: She met Rachel Chavkin over coffee to talk about the obstacle of staging a mostly-silent play.
WOHL: And the first thing she said in that coffee was she said, the audience should feel like they've been on a silent retreat. And I think that eye to sort of what the experience is for the audience is something that she brings to all of her work.
LUNDEN: Certainly Chavkin's next show will immerse the audience. It's called "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," and it's based on a section of "War And Peace." Actors will be all over the Imperial Theater while some audience members sit on the stage, and vodka will be served. Recording superstar Josh Groban is making his Broadway debut.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUST AND ASHES")
JOSH GROBAN: (Singing) All of my life has been searching the words of poets and saints and prophets and kings.
LUNDEN: The 35-year-old director will also be making her Broadway debut. And Chavkin admits, given her avant garde roots and punk-rock vibe - she has tattoos with quotes from all her shows - it's a bit surprising to find herself on Broadway.
CHAVKIN: It's never been the ultimate trajectory for me. It's a trajectory. But, yeah, it's exciting.
LUNDEN: Which means, this September, even more people will get a chance to jump in the pool with Rachel Chavkin. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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