Rachel Chavkin: Riding the Elephant


Originally written for Exeunt.

For a theatremaker whose work has a distinctly American flavour, Rachel Chavkin has a surprisingly close relationship with British theatre. The artistic director of The TEAM, a company who have made a name for themselves interrogating modern American identity, was last over here with Mission Drift, which had its first London run at The Shed last summer after premiering on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011. When we speak, she is in Newcastle for rehearsals of her new stage version of Catch 22 at Northern Stage; other ongoing projects include a collaboration with Chris Thorpe and a new TEAM show being made in partnership with the National Theatre of Scotland.

“It’s the culture of theatre here,” Chavkin explains the continuing appeal. In contrast to American theatres, which rarely have in-house bars or restaurants, she is drawn to the community that gathers around theatres in this country, where people meet to socialise and extend the conversations started on the stage. “The idea that the theatre is a building of culture and life has had a huge influence on my work with The TEAM and my sense of what I want theatre to be doing in the world.”

For her latest project, however, Chavkin is making work for British audiences without the company of The TEAM. The idea of adapting Catch 22 for Lorne Campbell’s first main stage season as artistic director of Northern Stage was first suggested in early conversations about the programme, as it emerged that Chavkin had long nurtured an interest in Joseph Heller’s novel. When they discovered that Heller himself had already written a stage adaptation of the book, Chavkin was the obvious choice for director.

She describes the novel, which follows the nightmarish experiences of Captain John Yossarian during the Second World War, as an “extraordinary piece of philosophy and absurdism”. The novel offers a formidable challenge in its presenting of events out of sequence, mirroring the rule of its title in its circular, repetitive structure. It is the book’s more philosophical strands that Chavkin hopes her production can draw out, conveying the “feeling of existential despair” that the narrative builds to.

“The sense of purgatory, of Yossarian caught in this kind of purgatorial loop, that’s the driving idea behind this production and behind the staging,” Chavkin explains. While Heller’s script brings with it certain limitations, she tells me that “the back story and wealth of worlds that Heller presents in the novel has a profound impact on how we’re able to understand the play”. The novel is informing how she presents the “space around the text” and has influenced an aesthetic which contrasts an atmosphere of celebration and fun with the unremitting devastation of conflict. “War is great, other than the war part.”

The advantage of the novel is that, despite not being able to directly consult the writer about the production, there are pages upon pages of additional material available at Chavkin’s fingertips. In this sense, she suggests, “you sort of do have the writer with you”. Chavkin explains that as a freelance director she is more accustomed to working with writers on new plays, a practice that has increasingly fed into the way she creates work with The TEAM.

“When The TEAM was first beginning to create, and for many years of our company’s life, we would always try to fix problems by rewriting them,” Chavkin recalls. “We always turned to writing first and foremost if something didn’t make sense to us. And actually now I have become much more protective of each individual writer’s contribution within The TEAM. Because as a freelance director I have to protect a new writer or a new play all the time, from both myself and the actors, who just may not understand it yet. Sometimes it means that there should be a rewrite, but very often it means there’s some different logic at work in a play and you just have to work a little bit harder to understand that.”

While Chavkin’s different creative processes have points of convergence, she also discusses contrasts between her work as a freelance director and her projects with The TEAM. Whereas The TEAM’s process tends to be “very gnarly and pretty horizontal”, there is a much clearer hierarchy in place when Chavkin is directing elsewhere, though she stresses that she is still “deeply interested in what the acting company and designers might bring to a show”.

Chavkin is working in a slightly different way again on Confirmation, her current project with Chris Thorpe. It is being written by Thorpe, but as director Chavkin has been deeply involved in the research and development of the show. The piece, which is going up to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, investigates confirmation bias – the unconscious bias that leads us to interpret the world around us in ways that support our existing beliefs. Chavkin describes it as “a very aggressive force in our lives” and discusses how eye-opening their research has been.

“The image that a lot of the research uses is the rider and the elephant,” she says, explaining that the rider represents the conscious, rational brain, while the elephant is our unconscious. “The elephant is a much, much larger force than the rider, and the idea is that the rider can to a certain degree guide which way the elephant wants to go, but actually in most cases our rational brain exists to try to explain and justify to ourselves why the elephant is doing what it’s doing. The most surprising thing is the degree to which we are governed by our unconscious.”

It is going to be a busy Edinburgh Fringe for Chavkin this year, who is also presenting a workshop performance with The TEAM and the National Theatre of Scotland. The new collaboration between the two companies indirectly approaches the question of Scottish independence, exploring the national mythologies of both Scotland and the USA. Using the Scottish Enlightenment as its starting point, it traces the journey that the ideas emerging out of that era have made over the years, right up to the present day.

“The idea is that America was this place where all the ideas coming out of the Scottish Enlightenment actually got, like a petri dish, to act upon,” says Chavkin. “350 years later, I think America is finding itself in a somewhat bankrupt place with this radical misunderstanding of what Adam Smith wrote as our national religion, in terms of this incredibly unfettered capitalism.”

Talk of unfettered capitalism recalls Mission Drift, which took an epic, breakneck ride through 400 years of American history, from the earliest settlers to the twinkling spires of Las Vegas. There is undeniably a certain continuity that can be traced in The TEAM’s thinking, from the research into disaster capitalism that informed Architecting through to this latest project. “I think that’s a common theme in all our work,” Chavkin admits. “Something that comes up as an idea in one piece ends up developing and shifting and morphing into the germs of what inspire the next piece.”

Chavkin makes it clear that the new show, tentatively titled Scottish Enlightenment Project, is not explicitly dealing with the Scottish independence referendum and will not appear in its finished form until after the vote, which is a very deliberate decision. But again, as with so much of her work, it asks the questions that sit right at the heart of national identity. “Who do we want to be? What kind of democracy do we want to be? What are our values?”