Rachel Chavkin and Rebecca Taichman Discuss Broadway’s Gender Gap

The directors Rachel Chavkin and Rebecca Taichman spent most of last Thursday at a series of press events for the Tony Awards. Chavkin is nominated for Best Direction of a Musical (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812), Taichman for Best Direction of a Play (Indecent). Arriving at the Paramount Hotel, they were tired, maybe a little punchy. Chavkin’s feet hurt. As they posed for pictures on a sofa in the mezzanine it was hard to conjure a natural smile.

But here’s a trick if you need to get a pair of female directors to grin: Instead of “Say cheese!” shout “Say Garry Hynes!” Works every time.

Both Chavkin, 36, and Taichman, who is in her 40s, were watching in 1998 when Hynes won a Tony for Direction of a Play, the first woman ever to do so. That same year Julie Taymor also won for directing The Lion King. Yet Broadway remains wildly inequitable when it comes to hiring and honoring female directors, playwrights, and designers. (The same applies to artists of color.) Audiences are nearly 70 percent women. Tony winners? Not so much.

Both directors are Broadway newcomers, and each is the only woman to be nominated in her category. Both of them have been with their shows for years (Taichman began to conceive hers while still in graduate school at Yale; Chavkin began workshopping her piece six years ago), shepherding them through multiple runs elsewhere, a more typical trajectory for women as opposed to what Chavkin calls “the shiny boys,” who are offered projects already Broadway-bound.

Taichman and Chavkin have different styles. Chavkin’s shows are brainy but often powered by a wild, almost anarchic energy. Taichman’s are more Romantic, interested in the ways that emotions and other forces — history, destiny — can shape a life. These differences didn’t inhibit the women’s mutual admiration.

Over a late, loud dinner and various sparkling drinks in the Paramount Bar, they compared notes about moving from Off-Broadway to on, the pressures of helming a show, and how to get more women in the director’s chair.

Is being a woman director on Broadway still an event, or have we moved beyond that?

CHAVKIN: Well, we are each alone in our categories, so we are not the average. I get lots of letters from young women like, “I am so glad you exist.” So I think it’s still an event.

TAICHMAN: I agree. If you look at just the numbers it’s totally inequitable. It’s just a fact. So the question is, how do you shift that? That feels like a very important and not an easy question to answer.

CHAVKIN: It’s pretty easy, actually. It’s just a bunch of producers saying, “We are only going to hire female directors.”

Have people ever questioned your authority?

CHAVKIN: For the most part, professionally speaking, I haven’t experienced sexism to my face. Mostly it’s that you don’t know what rooms you’re not being invited to. You just don’t know what jobs you’re not being offered.

TAICHMAN: A long time ago, I remember walking into huge production meetings and feeling like, “I am not the natural. It is counterintuitive to the room that I am leading.” I don’t feel that anymore. I don’t question my own authority in the room anymore. I’m not coming from that place of fear.

When did you know you wanted to be a director?

CHAVKIN: I was always very bossy. Theater came much later than bossiness. I began making my own work in college and then after that I was like, “All I wanna do is make my own work.”

TAICHMAN: I was the opposite. I was kind of lost, honestly. And then the first summer out of high school I went to a summer theater program at Yale and I just kind of sprang to life. I tried acting and I was a really bad actress and I tried dramaturgy. Finally I directed something, and I said, “This feels exactly, exactly right.”

Were there women directors you looked to?

CHAVKIN: I knew about [the Wooster Group’s] Liz LeCompte. She was all I really needed. Later it registered that, “Oh, of course all my female role models are working in the experimental world, because no one in the mainstream wanted them.”

TAICHMAN: Once I figured out where my abilities were and where my passion was, I didn’t really stop to look around and go, “Is this possible?”

So you never felt you had to ask for permission?

CHAVKIN: Very few artists do. You can’t wait for anyone to give you permission.

How would you describe your directorial style?

TAICHMAN: Fundamentally collaborative. It starts extremely open and then more and more becomes managed by me. Also I’m just a very emotionally driven person, and it’s a sort of emotionally driven process.

CHAVKIN: I am motivated by a deep anxiety that I am visually boring, and so I tend to start all of my work doing an enormous amount of visual research. When I start with the actors, I start with: “This is the universe you are in, this is the style, these are the impulses.” Then I don’t give a note until tech.

How do you choose your projects?

TAICHMAN: I’m totally driven by story, a story that grabs me by the throat or scares me or affects me in a really profound way.

CHAVKIN: I need to feel from the writer a really deep sense of ambition. And I don’t mean career ambition. An ambition to link a personal story with political undertone, philosophical undertone, historical undertone.

TAICHMAN: You want to find material that’s asking the epic and mythic questions in a deeply personal way.

CHAVKIN: That’s why at Indecent my sternum hurt from how much I was crying.

How do you know when a scene is working?

TAICHMAN: For me it’s very clear: I’m moved. That’s what I’m waiting for. I’m just dying to be moved.

CHAVKIN: When I taught directing at NYU, I would tell my students to direct with their legs open, with the vag open.

How does it feel having finally made it to Broadway?

CHAVKIN: You’re dealing with so much more pressure. At a nonprofit it’s just about making the work. Here it’s about making the work, but also really fucking needing that work to survive and do well.

TAICHMAN: Yeah, the economics of it are very, very different. But I felt a ton of freedom to make the piece we wanted to make.

CHAVKIN: I felt the same.

What’s it like to finally make some real money?

CHAVKIN: I’m certainly making more money then I ever expected to off of the arts. I can donate the money to WNYC that I want to. That’s awesome.

Do you think that interesting work can be made on Broadway?

TAICHMAN: Last night I saw Dear Evan Hansen. I saw Rachel’s show recently and Hamilton. It does feel like there are some exciting risks being taken. I feel really honored to be part of what’s happening right now.

Have the Tony nominations changed things for you?

CHAVKIN: I suddenly got a lot more calls about meetings the day after the nominations came out.

TAICHMAN: I don’t fully know yet what it means, but it shifts the dynamic a bit. Our culture prizes these things.

How do you like your chances?

CHAVKIN: Those guys at the Times had me as “should win,” but not as “will win.” So I have no idea. Can’t even say.

TAICHMAN: You know, I’ve been doing this a really long time already. To have this opportunity with this particular project is like a dream. It’s just a great, great honor and gift. And I just hope that instead of focusing on who gets the prizes, as a community we can come deeply together and create new possibilities.