Theater In Dialogue
from Stage to Page with Rachel Chavkin and Alec Duffy
Rail theater editor Emily DeVoti conceived the IN DIALOGUE feature of the Rail Theater pages as a forum for “playwrights to engage with other playwrights.” I have been a devoted reader (and sometime participant) in these dialogues, which frequently illuminate the quirky and dark inspirations and methodologies of the theater’s most isolating process: solo script writing. But how does the writing happen when no one on the team identifies as playwright in the creation of a work of theater?
To explore this question, I was specifically curious about theater innovators Rachel Chavkin and Alec Duffy because they are both primarily identified (even self-identified) in the theater world as directors. Yet having followed each of their work for years, I knew there must be some process of getting words on pages.
So I asked them if they would discuss their processes and thoughts about the theater’s distinctions and labels over coffee one morning. What transpired was a stimulating discourse, both on Ms. Chavkin and Mr. Duffy’s individual processes, and further on the origins of these identities in the theater and the difficulty of customizing or minting a process in the professional American theater landscape.
The following are edited and condensed excerpts from that conversation. Would that I could record every word.
Frank Boudreaux (Rail): With your extensive resumes and experience, Rachel and Alec, it is clear you are both theater makers. But is there a label you’re most comfortable with in the theater?
Rachel Chavkin: I like “maker.” At the top of my resume, I just revised it to say, “Artistic Director of The TEAM,” “Director,” and “Writer.” So I now do actually list the word “writer.” And one of the main reasons I did that was that I just went through the application process for the Guggenheim Fellowship, which doesn’t fund interpretive artists, but does fund generative artists.
Alec Duffy: Right.
Chavkin: Without question, I consider myself a generative artist, even many of the times when I’m directing. But I had to reposition my brain to outwardly match the language that, inwardly, I felt totally eligible for.
Rail: What about you, Alec?
Duffy: I would say, “theater maker.” One thing I decided early on, maybe about five or six years ago, was that even though I was writing material in collaboration with actors—I would come in with scenes written for them—I still didn’t consider myself a writer. I made a conscious decision at some point because my passion is for figuring out what’s going to happen onstage and what is going to be said at a given time. A writer is someone who really has a passion for words and language. So, I kind of drew that line for myself, and more think of it as writing as utility.
Rail: How did you both come to these positions and relationships to making theater?
Chavkin: I went to NYU undergrad. Sophomore year I took an underground class called Creating Original Work—known as C.O.W.—with the choreographer Marleen Pennison, where the whole assignment was to be interesting alone onstage for 10 minutes. You spent the entire semester just fighting with yourself, to force yourself into a process where you would make things. The big development out of that class was setting homework assignments for myself to generate material, and that is actually now how The TEAM works.
I founded The TEAM almost two years after school. At first, it was me coming in with pages and trying to work on a central idea. Then it became me and [founding TEAM member] Jessica Almasy partnering on that, for a work called Faster. I was involved as a student with the SITI Company, and [Jess and I] took a playwriting workshop with Chuck Mee. That was the first time I had any kind of writing training. After that we kind of said, “Let’s destroy the script entirely.” That was the first work I made with the actors, collaboratively.
Duffy: I didn’t know you had taken a workshop with Chuck Mee, Rachel, because that’s basically how I started. In college I studied in Berlin where I saw a lot of theater artists who weren’t directing plays but were creating full pieces with text collaged from all over. I guess we would call it “found text.” I was blown away by the work I was seeing and came back to the United States with a great desire to be one of those people—to create my own universe, with its own rules, with music, song, and characters onstage that are clearly defined. But not necessarily with a discernible plot or narrative. Giving you a peek into a different world.
Chuck Mee’s basic rule in our workshop was to steal—to steal as much as possible from other sources. It could be an interview you read in Sports Illustrated. It could be a conversation you overhear in a café. And that will be your material for those who don’t consider themselves natural writers and those who don’t have a natural facility for the blank page. We were asking, “What happens if we put this interview with this movement pattern that we came up with based on a painting? Let’s put those two together, and that will be a scene.” Or “Let’s write down all the chicken-cross-the-road jokes, and see who says them on stage.” How do we structure all this text that we have? That workshop inspired me to put together some actors and work on a piece together.
Generative vs. Interpretive
Rail: There’s a lot to unpack in the idea of generative versus interpretive roles in theater. Do you feel frustrated by the distinctions? As you make a work, do you parse those things?
Chavkin: I don’t know that I would use the word frustrated. In thinking about certain fellowships, I don’t like the effort I have to go through of reframing myself for the outside world.
When I am teaching directing, the very first lesson that I started with was that the text doesn’t mean anything until you decide what it means as the director. I made my students write that down, and then write down, “Every choice you make leads to five other choices.”
The former statement could sound dogmatic or denigrating to a writer’s intention, but it’s actually not meant to be that way at all. It’s just the amount of alchemical happening that results from the conversation between the spoken words, the body language, the tone of voice, the placement of the eye. All of that is actually what conspires to tell the audience what is happening when someone says, “I love you.” That’s a conversation that can’t really happen in one person’s brain.
Rail: What about for you, Alec?
Duffy: I think I found a limit to the process of writing and directing—creating a piece from scratch where I was the person bringing in a lot of text. I hit a wall with this piece I started with Hoi Polloi, my theater company, called All Hands [Incubator Arts Project, 2012], which started as an investigation of secret societies. I would go off and write, but nothing I was writing was really any good. [Laughter.]
So I called my friend Quill, Robert Quillen Camp, who is a writer, and I said, “Quill, I think I need your help.” This was the first time I collaborated with a writer.
I basically gave Quill a big brain dump on an hour-and-a-half phone call, and told him everything we had learned and everything we were interested in about secret societies. A month later he came back with a script! With a full script! It was nothing like I originally imagined would happen onstage and I told him that. But I thought it was okay, and basically I started to direct that play. And Quill would make changes for us, he was very open to making changes. I really haven’t done a devised piece since then.
Rail: You always work with a writer?
Duffy: We did a couple of already-written plays—Beckett Solos plays; Baal by Brecht—but the next original piece was Republic [Duke University, 2013; JACK, 2013]. The same thing happened—I started out thinking I could do it, and then I was like, I need a writer! Noah Mease. Who then I worked with very closely in a rehearsal process to create the script.
Now we have also created The Georges [a performance art “band” of which Duffy is a part]. And none of us really know what it is. [Laughter.]
Duffy: We have been experimenting with in-ear—pulling videos from YouTube, lectures, stuff like that, and then speaking them. That becomes tricky because we haven’t quite figured out how to let the audience know—or is it important that they know—that I haven’t written this text that I’m speaking right now. How to attribute something is a question The Georges are facing.
Rail: Who in The Georges takes responsibility for the “generative” decisions?
Duffy: It’s more collaborative than anything I’ve ever done before. I don’t have the title of director [in The Georges].
Chavkin: Attribution comes up a lot in devising. But, Alec, what is interesting to me about what you are saying [about confusions in the audience] is not necessarily attribution, but what your accountability is for the ideas moving into space. Somehow in the traditional roles in theater the director is not accountable. The writer holds all the accountability for the ideas in the work, and the director is a bystander. That is so bizarre.
Rail: I think of how documentary films list writers as someone who has picked out the story. Do you ever think of yourselves as editors? Editors as generative artists?
Chavkin: That is actually the primary way I think about my work for The TEAM and I would say the editing job has become group editing. It used to be me making those final editing decisions. And then, I would say since Mission Drift really [Edinburgh Fringe 2011; NYC 2012], it began becoming not just me, but all the members of The TEAM working on a given project.
Rail: That is more collaborative than before?
Chavkin: Yes, The TEAM is becoming more collaborative.
Rail: I would think people would want to settle into roles: I’m the performer, you’re the—
Chavkin: Not at all. There was a spiritual crisis in The TEAM that happened during the Mission Drift process, and during our annual retreat, it became wildly clear that, in fact, everyone wanted more collaboration, even as everyone was driven crazy by each other at that point. A rejuvenation of collaboration at a root level ended up becoming the salvation for the four projects that were born out of that retreat. Including Roosevelvis [January 2 – 10 at The Vineyard Theatre as part of COIL 2015],including Primer for a Failed Superpower. Now the level at which I come to the company with an idea is so raw as to be almost non-existent.
Rail: Wow. That’s great.
Chavkin: Well, it’s more expensive. It’s slower.
Rail: But are you still “the shepherd” of the ideas?
Chavkin: I’m the shepherd in the sense that I say, “We’re going to rehearse in April.” And in making decisions about whether we should have a two-week rehearsal process or a four-week rehearsal process. Or whether or not we feel we are in the process of making something. Even that is a group conversation. I’m the person most practiced in feeding back to the group what the group is putting out. But the decisions about what to do about that go back to The TEAM once I have put out there what I think the group is saying in what is ultimately this massively democratic process.
Duffy: Talking about editing alerted me to how much editing goes into just being a director. I will end up making a lot of cuts in the script—mostly dead playwrights. [Laughter.]
But I will make a lot of cuts. That’s a role I don’t really think about, but it’s a huge step in a process that I was never taught how to do. There are those long nights till 4 a.m. just sitting there because you have to have the script ready for tomorrow’s rehearsal. I’m thinking, “Oh right, tonight’s run was two hours, it needs to be 90 minutes by the next day of tech.” So you’re sitting there making those cuts which are obviously informed by having been a writer or having written before.
Rail: Sitting there at 4 a.m. crafting pages for tomorrow’s rehearsal certainly sounds like playwriting to me.
Chavkin: That’s my favorite. I love that.
Duffy: Cutting? [Laughter.]
Chavkin: Not even cutting. It’s also structuring—restructuring—and I would call that dramaturgy as much as editing. Obviously on Three Pianos [Ontological-Hysteric, then NYTW, 2010] you guys had all the say about what went where. [Chavkin collaborated on the piece with Duffy and co-creators Rick Burkhardt and Dave Malloy.] But the conversations about structure and the thermodynamics of one moment leading to another, leading to another, either in a narrative way or an emotional way—feeling that logic and trying to follow that logic, whatever a particular piece wants to be. That is totally my favorite thing.
I don’t think of myself as a writer, in any way, in that capacity. For example, working with Chris Thorpe—this British artist with whom I made this show, Confirmation [currently on tour in the U.K.]—he wrote every word of that play, but we were very closely collaborating on the structure of the work, which is another huge aspect of editing, in addition to cutting.
Rail: How do you find the logic of a piece, Alec, when you’re working on your own work?
Duffy: A lot of the things Chuck Mee taught us I still use. It’s largely a process of creating a lot of scenes and then putting those scenes on notecards and laying those notecards out. Mee has such a beautiful analogy, when structuring a play that is not narrative based, of using the seasons—of wanting to follow a general sense of an arc without an arc happening. What notecards feel like winter? What cards feel like spring? Summer? Whatever. That has helped me a lot with the dramaturgy of any given piece.
Most Confident vs Most Stimulating
Rail: I heard Young Jean Lee in an interview say that she feels how she imagines an elite athlete must feel when she is directing; she considers writing pure agony. Yet Lee is still popularly known as a playwright. You both are identified as directors, but is there a role in which you feel best or worst?
Duffy: Generating text is the most difficult part. The blank page of the stage—how do we populate that stage? That is hard. Once we have got the play, the text and the script and whatnot, I feel very comfortable. The labor of the director is very comfortable to me. It is the generation of material that takes so long.
I learned pretty early on to “look where you’re not supposed to look” in terms of generating material from scratch with collaborators. For example, we would get so frustrated during the rehearsal process, and then we would take a 10-minute break and I would continue watching the actors. It was in those breaks that I would notice, like, these two actors are just getting along great. Let’s write towards that. These two spirits are going somewhere, so I would create a scene for them. Instead of, “At this point, you guys will be doing this, and you guys will be singing this,” it rather...it grows out of something I wouldn’t typically consider important to look at. Looking at the empty space, instead of looking at the positive space. Looking more into the negative space.
Rail: Rachel, do you have a role in which you feel best?
Chavkin: There are definitely the parts of work that I feel more confident in, but they’re not necessarily the things that are most interesting to me. I absolutely feel most confident directing.
Rail: So, “interesting” to you—does that relate to Alec’s point about looking at the negative space?
Chavkin: Maybe. I mean more that if my life was strictly directing, I would leave the theater and go into something else. I think I am a good partner with writers—the interpretive aspect. It is just not the thing I am most turned on by. It is not what I would stay up until 4 a.m. fretting about.
The Role of Music
Rail: Talk about the role of music in your work.
Duffy: Music is often the starting point for me. I’m always thinking about music and song. I grew up a singing in choirs and whatnot. It is very much who I am.
For The Georges, certainly, even though we are a band, we don’t actually perform a whole lot. What we end up doing is going into the studio and recording, but in our public performances we don’t really play those songs—mostly because we don’t have a drum kit. It’s only in Julian’s studio. So we do this other performance stuff.
Rail: Rachel? You’re a musical director, and almost all of your work has live music, yes? Is music a special part of your process?
Chavkin: Yes. That’s true. Music is in almost everything I make. Heather Christian [composer/singer-songwriter/performer; Mission Drift composer] and I are at work on adapting this Mac Wellman novel [Annie Salem]. It was a similar process in Mission Drift. I give Heather a whole lot of raw lyric material. Or she will ask for specific responses to material. But in many other cases, Heather will take one word and blow that up into a song. She is the final decider about it. Sometimes we’ll talk about further editing lyrics from there, but typically the lyrics that Heather had wedded to a song stay, and that is either the right song or it isn’t.
There was a terrible rate of attrition for songs in the making of Mission Drift. There is a terribly high rate of attrition for writing, period, in a TEAM process. Part of the theory of how The TEAM works is that we’re going to generate so much material that 99 percent of it will get shredded in part or entirely. It changes the relationship of what you put out into the room. It changes the amount of responsibility you feel to solve a problem on any given day. The process can be the same with Heather.
The Difficulty of a Non-Traditional Process
Rail: What’s the difficulty in upsetting the primacy of the script and playwright in the American theater? Why do we persist in the traditional model of making theater?
Chavkin: Economics and unions. Good and bad things about the mainstream model. This work [Alec’s and my own] is aggressively inefficient. I don’t know, Alec, what your relationship is to inefficiency, but I have come to value it. This work is chaotic. If you have to plan and sell a season, that is so fundamentally antithetical to the idea that a project could take however long to bake and make. So I don’t know that I’m all about shattering those institutions. I just directed a show at the Old Globe [in San Diego] that I totally had enough rehearsal time for. The play was wonderful. My actors were extraordinary. And we had enough time. But a union is set up to protect a large group of people dealing with the same problem, and there is no way to define what the problem may be in my room versus Alec’s room. And yet, people must be protected. I’m a big believer in unions, but they become an obstruction to nuance.
Duffy: I find, for example, Equity Showcase rehearsal guidelines challenging when thinking about creating a work from scratch.
Chavkin: If this is helpful, it has caused The TEAM to contract radically differently and schedule rehearsal radically differently because we want our actors to get their Equity benefits and we want to support the union. So we try to separate when someone is a writer and when someone is an actor. That is upsetting to me because I see an unacceptable dichotomy that is created in my agency, ICM, for example, between the “talent” and the “creatives,” which I think is absurd and insulting to everyone involved. It’s about how to push the system as much as possible toward openness because it’s good for playwrights to say that their work is not best served by the model that is most prevalent. And then to recognize when the model is working just fine. It is hopefully having a large enough and diverse enough ecosystem just in terms of the bones by which work gets made. The big problem with the experimental wing is that because there is not enough money, it is generally artists of more privilege that get to make work. (I use “privilege” very broadly there.)
Rail: Alec, do you direct in the traditional model?
Duffy: Not usually. This Japan Society show was a rare exception [Yukio Shiba’s Our Planet, 2012] where I was actually directing a living playwright’s work. It is not something I’m looking to change. Because I am running JACK, I don’t get a lot of opportunities to direct. So if I am directing, I want it to be my own baby, my own piece that gives me sustenance. All my own rules.
If you are unfamiliar with their work, get familiar! Rachel Chavkin is lately overseeing the encore engagement of The TEAM’s 2013 work, Roosevelvis in the COIL Festival, January 2 – 10, 2015, among her ever-stuffed schedule of globe-hopping projects. For tickets and further info, visit ps122.org. Duffy continues in his role of artistic director of JACK, as well as performing regularly with The Georges. To find him, visit jackny.org.