On All Sides

DEC 7, 2015

An Interview with Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 Director Rachel Chavkin

Rachel Chavkin is the Artistic Director of the TEAM and a two-time Obie Award-winning director, dramaturg, and writer. She’s created internationally touring shows such as RoosevElvis (performing at OBERON in May 2016) and Mission Drift. She will continue to collaborate with composer of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy, on upcoming projects based on Moby Dick and Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. 

You’re staging Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 in a proscenium arch theater, but you’re using the space in a different way. Could you explain how and why? 

Typically the proscenium arch is the dividing line between the fiction of the play and the reality from which the audience is watching. In this production, there is no proscenium arch, so that dividing line doesn’t exist at all. The action unfolds around the audience in 360 degrees. It is in front of them, behind them, on all sides. Actors wander past them singing songs. This helps the audience enter the melodrama and romance of one of the principal characters, Natasha. The experience is different for the actors, too. They are playing two things at once; both themselves and the character they are carrying. They might have to navigate where an audience member has placed their chair while also playing a scene in the fiction that’s happening all around.

What should audiences expect to see when they enter the Loeb Drama Center theater? 

They’re going to see, first and foremost, a really opulent world. Half the audience will enter the theater through different routes than usual, pouring across the stage and into a Moscow supper club. We are building over the Loeb’s seats, around those seats, through them. The other huge difference for the audience is that, at multiple points during the show, they will be within feet of an actor or musician. So, the actors are going to be doing double duty, acting both cinematically and operatically. They need to be honest and legible (emotionally speaking) to someone who’s five feet away, or one foot away, while also reaching an audience across the space.

The musicians are vital in the storytelling of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. How are they incorporated into the performance? 

The design is deeply influenced by an experience Dave had one night when he stumbled through an invisible door and into an underground club in Moscow. It was a tiny club packed with people drinking vodka and eating black bread and pelmeni [Russian dumplings]. A string trio was scattered throughout the club. Dave ended up sitting very close to the viola player, and he had an incredibly intimate experience with the viola while watching the violinist and cellist play across the room. We took this image of the musicians spread all over the space and put it in our production. There are happily a lot of new musicals that put the band onstage. But this production takes the idea of exposing the band to a whole new level. These musicians are spread everywhere and each audience member will experience getting to be closer to the oboe or the string trio. They’ll get to watch the beauty of these instruments.

How was the mood of Tolstoy’s novel drawn into the show? 

Tolstoy was one of the fiercest critics of his society. He was incredibly critical of the hypocrisy that he felt governed the upper classes. Furthermore, Tolstoy himself hated opera. He hated anything that smacked of elitism, because it just further reflected the inequity he saw all around him. So Dave cleverly built that into the very score of the show. He combined traditional operatic or musical theater arias with a very contemporary pop form. I’ve talked with designers and the cast about the feeling of society partying as the Titanic sinks. Immediately after the events of the novel that we’re portraying, Napoleon marches in, and the Russian army burns Moscow to the ground to prevent him from taking the city. In this production, you can feel the decadence of a society in total denial of its near annihilation.

Interview by Tessa Nelson, a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. 

This article originally appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater in conjunction with A.R.T.’s production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

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