Hadestown is creating space for diverse voices behind the curtain. While the musical is celebrated for its range of talent and skill on stage, director Rachel Chavkin admits more can be done in creating opportunities off stage that mimic the world we live in. In Chavkin’s 2019 Tony Award acceptance speech, she said, “I wish I wasn’t the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season. There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of color who are ready to go. And we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity reflected in our critical establishment.” Chavkin recognizes how Hadestown fell short, and promises to make vast changes in the future.
In a roundtable discussion with Chavkin, Eva Noblezada (Eurydice on Broadway), and Kimberly Marable (Persephone on the North American tour), Broadway Direct talked about Hadestown’s band diversity initiative, working under the leadership of women, and what the future of Hadestown and Broadway should look like.
What was the world you wanted to create for Hadestown when you first became the musical’s director? And now, looking back, do you feel like you accomplished that creation?
Rachel Chavkin: Am I satisfied? I would say both yes and no. The Hadestown company on stage, in terms of racial diversity and gender diversity, is beautiful and something we’re continually striving for. We have not yet in New York successfully cast someone with a physical disability; we have done so in London. We can be more inclusive in terms of the cultures and racial heritages represented on stage. The company is extraordinary and there’s no end to the joy. However, the lead creative team for Hadestown, including the director, choreographer, writer, and all the designers and their team, is all white. It was as we were beginning rehearsals for the Off-Broadway show back in 2016 that I suddenly was like, “F—k, how could I have done this?” And it was then at that point that I said, “I will never work with an entirely white creative team again.” And specifically for me that means not just one person, but a critical mass of folks, so no one ever feels like they are the only them in the room.
Eva and Kimberly, how has it been, living and performing in a world dreamed up by two women, a dynamic that we haven’t seen enough of on Broadway?
Eva Noblezada: It’s been absolutely extraordinary. Not to say that working with women makes me feel a million times more comfortable… Just kidding. I am actually saying that! Artistically, the road and the connection to artistic cooperation has been so wide and welcoming. For me personally, I’ve never, ever experienced that. It’s been a huge stepping stone for me to really spread my wings as an actor myself. When people are comfortable, when you allow actors to be themselves and be comfortable on stage as artists, it really opens up the door to whatever you want to explore. I’m very grateful for Rachel, and I’m extremely grateful for Anaïs [Mitchell, Hadestown’s book and lyrics writer] for providing that space for us all to spread our wings and let this production go where we all needed it to go. So very grateful for both of them.
Kimberly Marable: I would have to agree 100 percent with Eva. Just working with Rachel and Anaïs at the helm has really provided artistic validation and just the space to be able to step into our creative power. Knowing that at the end of the day, we’re all seeking to tell the best version of this very human story as possible. I would add that, for me personally, it’s been a joy to have more complex female characters. The characters have more depth, and I believe it’s because it’s written from the female perspective and not someone trying to imagine what might this female-identifying person say or see or feel in this moment. I would have to agree with Eva as I also have immense gratitude for being given the space and the affirmation, not necessarily permission, to be able to step into this artistic and communal power that we’re able to create together.
Eva, as you play Eurydice, and Kimberly, as you step into the role of Persephone, how has Rachel’s and Anaïs’s direction and storytelling helped in the development of your characters?
EN: The beautiful thing that I’ve always felt working with Rachel and Anaïs was just like any great teacher I knew. They meet you where you are. That’s what these two incredible women have done for me. I watched as they did that also for the rest of the cast. They wanted to make everyone feel comfortable. The other important part of it is they trust their actors. They weren’t saying, “You’re going to do this.” They said, “How can we tell this?” Which is such a more powerful way to go about storytelling. There’s no other option when somebody says, “How are we going to do this to the best of our abilities?” You want to give everything and you want to relay that on stage, and you want to make sure that you’re all working together in tandem. Rather than always keeping on your toes to impress somebody, the goal is to make sure the story is real, the story is authentic, and the story is raw. Which, I’ve never experienced that type of directing. For me, that made my character soar. I truly give so much credit to that. And everybody, I think, feels like that because that’s what they did. They met us where we were, and we all worked together as a unit, which I think is incredible.
KM: I can’t really say anything differently. That was perfectly said, Eva. I would only add that there was a sort of language for each of us that was created. There was a common language that I believe really helped us to think about each character as more complex. Like Eva, I’ve never experienced that before working on Hadestown. So yeah, what Eva said.
The conversation around diversity and inclusion has been at the forefront as Broadway reopens. And earlier this year, Hadestown’s band announced their incredible diversity initiative. Rachel, how else does this impact your show and how it runs?
RC: The band diversity initiative is huge. I didn’t raise it in the initial answer to the first question, but it’s important. We have an astonishing band, but it is very white-male-dominated. Over the course of the pandemic, myself, Liam Robinson, and Cody Owen Stine, our music director and associate music director for Broadway, our music contractor, David Lai, Marika Hughes, and most importantly, an incredible group of musicians and activists called Magic, led by a dear friend of mine, Nehemiah Luckett, who’s an extraordinary artist and activist, have been having these wonderful ongoing conversations. We’ve been discussing ways in which, particularly in Broadway pits, there are a lot of systems that are set up to perpetuate people calling who they know. And because there is not enough rehearsal time really built in or allowed for in the current structure of how subs work on Broadway, you call someone who has played extensively on Broadway before. And because that’s a historically white-male-dominated field, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for a perpetuating machine of limited representation. These conversations that the band has been having for well beyond the pandemic have been led by Marika and Dana Lyn, two women and artists of color in the original band.
EN: I just wanted to quickly add that it’s really exciting, this artistic revolution that’s happening among the other revolutions that have been happening. This work is time-sensitive. This is something that I’m sure a lot of us wish was available earlier. So to be doing this now at the return of Broadway, is going to be an epic shift. I mean, like a tectonic plate kind of shift. Which is extremely essential and very much needed.
Broadway is reopening to seven plays written by Black playwrights this season. The Broadway League hired their first-ever director of diversity and inclusion. And there are a number of initiatives happening across the theater community that are making sure that people from underrepresented groups are acquiring jobs more than just on stage, but also in creative roles behind the curtain. Do you think Broadway as a whole is doing enough? Do you think Hadestown is doing enough?
RC: You always fall short, and particularly white folks. Have you created jobs? What is beyond symbolism? There’s so many mentor programs that are happening that are thrilling. There are so many artists who I can name who should be getting hired to direct large-scale musicals. And I say musicals, because obviously I love musicals and I’ve worked on a lot of them in my life. But also because, again, financially, that is where a big portion of the income is in terms of really setting life up for sustenance. These artists don’t need mentorship; they just need to be hired. In short, to answer the question, I would say no, but that is said with the spirit of until we deepen, and we hold each other, and we keep growing every day. I think getting over the embarrassment and shame that can be associated with the no, is very important.
What are your hopes, dreams, and desires for the future of theater as your show readies to reopen next month?
EN: My hopes and dreams for theater are that we don’t have to have these conversations beforehand. We just allow people who want to make art to make art and the pathway to doing that is not as narrow and racist as it has been in the past. Even the way that we tackle diversity and representation on stage. My friend, who is an incredible actor and activist in the Bay Area, said to me, “You think that the native Filipinos really give a crap about representation on stage? They just want people to spread awareness of what’s happening in their country.” And I just have to keep reminding myself that the work that I do is so much bigger than myself. I do hope that we can live in a world that Hadestown reflects. “See how the world could be.” It is something that we’re all working so hard toward. That world is without people feeling excluded or discriminated against. That is something that I, unfortunately, still have to call a dream.
KM: I hope theater as a room and as an idea can sustain itself as a place where everyone is celebrated just for being themselves, and all of the complexities that are involved in that. I want to see people’s life experiences, and who they are as a person—whether racial, religious, ability, or where they grew up—be respected, celebrated, and used to create the best art on stage and backstage, and also in the audience. I really would love for theater to be more accessible to all communities, because I believe that theater is for the people. I really hope that we are able to experience community again. There’s something really sacred and special about being in the theater together and experiencing an event for two and a half hours and going through that journey together. And I hope that we are able to do so and to continue telling that story again and again.
RC: My dream is for Broadway to have more imagination. That means more individual people’s imaginations and imaginations of a different kind. That is a Broadway that is consistently thinking about what stories haven’t been told yet, who needs to see those stories. I know my great fear is being boring, and there’s a rigor in the practice of nurturing one’s imagination. Eva quoted that incredible line of Anaïs’s of how the world could be. And I dream of a Broadway that just keeps asking itself that question and then meeting it with each new fall, each new spring, and every new season.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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