Reconstruction Artists Q&A: Rachel Chavkin & Zhailon Levingston

Our fourth episode of our Reconstruction Artist Q&A features our brilliant co-directors Rachel Chavkin and Zhailon Levingston. In this episode, Rachel and Zhailon discuss “wildness” and how it applies to the Reconstruction room, as well as adapting to freelance life in the middle of the pandemic.

To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.

Rachel: Zhailon. I’m happy to be here with you.

Zhailon: I’m happy to be with you, Rachel.

Rachel: Just for the people watching at home, will you give a brief who you are and what your role is on Reconstruction?

Zhailon: My name is Zhailon Levingston. I am a freelance artist, director, storyteller, writer, performer, sometimes. And on Reconstruction, I am serving in a co-directing, writer capacity.

Rachel: What does co-directing mean to you?

Zhailon: Well, let me take out my manifesto. What does co-directing mean to me? Well, I think I would have to start with talking about what collaboration means to me first and then get to co-direction. I want to only be making things that feel bigger than I am as an individual. And so I have known this about myself for a very long time, and I have known for a long time that the only way to do that is to be in collaboration with other people. And actors collaborate on stage, musicians collaborate in a pit, a creative team kind of collaborates together their ideas around a director’s vision. And it always felt as if to me, there is a collaboration between directors that hardly ever gets to happen. And I think that’s true in life in that directors aren’t in rooms with each other enough, don’t get to steal from each other enough.

We don’t get to use each other’s vocabulary enough. We don’t get to bounce off of each other’s energy enough and obviously very true in the work as well in that there are some projects that very clearly say they want to just be directed by Zhailon Levingston for very particular reasons. But then there’re some projects where I don’t feel pressures about a kind of hierarchal understanding of where vision is coming from at all times. And I think Reconstruction is an example of a project where that feels true to me and I think the projects that feel like that are projects where I feel more like a doula or more like a facilitator or more like a pastor in a church than I do a director with some kind of finalized vision to give to the room. I think in Reconstruction, the center of the room is so much about big questions.

And I think that that room is particularly looking for directors to be just asking impossible questions of the room. And I think within that context, it’s much more fun to be doing that in collaboration with another director, trying to get to the most impossible questions possible. And I think that working with you in that capacity makes that really achievable and exciting, and I think keeps the space stable enough, but also embracing a certain kind of destabilization that actually pours into the work of Reconstruction. Reconstruction doesn’t really want to be built on a completely fixed foundation that in some way it wants to be built on a foundation that is rather malleable and fixed enough. And I think in shows or contexts wherein the show just wants to be fixed enough, it allows for two directors to come in and have ideas colliding in order to make something greater than both of them. If that answers the question.

Rachel: It answers so many questions and that raises so many other questions. I also have so many questions but I just want to honor the word destabilize as a project of reconstructing. Jhanaë gave us that beautiful image of like taking apart a building brick by brick vs bulldozing a house so, either way, the project of de-stabilizing, I’m very struck by that. Thank you. There’s so many corners. Will you talk a little bit about, so going back to directors for a moment and you brought up the idea of stealing from. Who are the directors that you have been nurtured on and raised on and film, could be people who don’t even consider themselves like “directors.” “Musicians.” How have you grown into seeing the way you see or pursuing what you want to see?

Zhailon: Well, I mean, now this person is just a friend of mine, but they started as a mentor. And this is a director out of Louisiana who runs a community theater and runs a children’s theater as well. His name’s Jared Watson. And he was the first person to let me in on what the process of directing look like.

And before I went to college and got wild and wanted to create work, that was doing really crazy things. I was like directing Winnie the Pooh and directing Alice in Wonderland and directing, choreographing Pippin. And what was important about learning from Jared is he gave me this foundation of process and preparedness that as someone who did not go to school for directing, I think allowed me to be in the same conversation as people who were coming up at the same time as me, because I had had many years of having to put on a musical in two weeks with very little resources, working with people who were not professional actors who had jobs to go to and, or school to go to in the morning, where in the schedule was like, if you do not finish this scene today, there is no time to finish it.

Rachel: I would think about that as like an incredible muscle and the opposite of another word you just said, which I’ve heard you speak very inspiring about, which is wildness. So how did the wildness come in to play?

Zhailon: Well, the work inspired the wildness. And so I think something that people don’t understand about directing is that directing is a thousand different jobs. And just because you’re doing one project, you’re just doing one part of directing, usually because there’s a reading, there’s a lab, there’s a workshop, there’s a concert. And for most of directing, as you’re coming up, as I’m coming up, my experience is you don’t get to be wild. You have to get the job done. And so that initial education was so valuable because it allowed me to work a lot. And for people to know me and for me to be efficient and get the kind of opportunities to then be wild, i.e. working with the TEAM, working on Primer, working on Reconstruction, working on some of the freelance work that I do. And I think the content inspired the wild as it was getting the opportunity to work on the material I wanted to work on.

And that material happened to be wild. And that material happened to not want to be contained by a certain kind of efficientness. So, I don’t know, that’s kind of how it came to be. I don’t know if I’m answering the question.

Rachel: You are.

Zhailon: I think what’s underneath all of those processes that feel untraditional or wild or not bound by industry expectation is a real confidence that underneath it all, we will make something. And that comes from like a certain kind of structure of making things with cardboard in two weeks with no money. And so it allows them for me to be wild and say, there’s 60 people in the room and we’re going to make something we’ve never seen before and who knows what it’ll be?

Rachel: What do you like find yourself, feeding yourself? As a director I think a lot about what I am intaking to nurture and grow. And I’m curious, what have you, or are you now feeding yourself with to grow this appetite for wildness?

Zhailon: And just to even go into wildness a bit more, what I mean by wildness is a space that is void of any kind of traditional structures, be it institutional or otherwise, that wildness is a place that artists have to go. They have to go to the wild because something happens there that the public doesn’t see in order for them to reenter society in a certain kind of way in order to make.

So wildness is also about doing work that isn’t about explaining to an audience something, but about showing them how they already the thing that they want to other. So it’s like empathy on crack because it’s one thing to empathize with other people on stage it’s kind of traditional theatrical model. And it’s another thing for the theater to be forcing you to empathize with the parts of yourself that you have denied and, or demonized and, or shame. And it also, I think, protects the artist who is traditionally othered in society. So wild art and a wild process is a process that is saying, we’re not teaching you anything other than showing you what you already know about yourself. And we know that thing you know about yourself, but you have lied to yourself that you don’t know about yourself is the most dangerous thing to reveal to you. That the wild is also a dangerous space to be in.

Rachel: The word that’s coming, sorry, I have something in my eye, but we’ll keep going. The word that’s coming to my mind, which rings against another word you used when you talked about a preacher is testifying. Like the artists pose to the wild and comes back and testifies to an audience.

Zhailon: That’s completely right. We testify the audience bears witness. And I think that’s the combination I’m trying to get to. Both are active, neither are passive. How do you get the audience to bear witness to an event. Things I’m inspired by right now that I think feed into that always hip hop. Always hip hop. I’m obsessed with the history of hip hop. I’m obsessed with the history of not just hip hop music, but hip hop fashion, not just hip hop fashion, but hip hop vernacular. I mean, it is the last great art form that we can look to that completely tells the history of us. And it tells it in a way that is wild. And I say us, I mean, America, you can look at the beginning of hip hop and trace it all the way to now and pull from so many things. I think that all of the artists or at least the Black artist coming up in my generation are coming up in an air of Kendrick Lamar.

And I think that is going to have huge ramifications in 10 years. I think we’ll be able to look back at this time and be like, “Oh yeah, we can trace not only, commercial music history through the lens of this revolutionary artist, Kendrick Lamar, but we can also trace theater through that history as well.” And that’s really inspiring to me. Radical theology is really inspiring to me mostly because I see the rehearsal room as a church. I see, really the rehearsal room as the ultimate piece of art that I’m trying to make and that the show is spilling over out of this process. Radical theology allows me to look at the rehearsal room as a kind of radical church that I don’t get to experience outside of the rehearsal room. So a church that embraces doubt questions, mystery, leans into it, tries to grow a certain kind of existentialism and allows for everyone to be in the space to quote Robert O’Hara, “a place where everyone is welcome, but no one is safe.”

Rachel: Do you think that everyone can be in that kind of space? Are there particular things you find yourself grafting towards in collaborators?

Zhailon: I don’t think that everyone be in that space. I would hope that everyone would want to be in that space. But, if you are an actor or you are an artist or a creator of any type who desperately needs the crack cocaine of linear plot and or time to express yourself, you probably can’t be in a space like the wild that I’m trying to create. And to pull it from something you say a lot, which is like, anti-racism work is incredibly inefficient, and not saying just all this work is anti-racism work. It isn’t, but to be in a room where you’re really trying to create an event of the rehearsal itself is an incredibly inefficient thing, just objectively. And I would say that it takes an actor who was really looking to stand, or I won’t just limit it to actors, but an artist who’s willing to stand on the edge of the cliff. Who’s wanting that already and just wanting you to create some kind of safety net for them. And I find that there’s lots of artists who rather not be on the cliff.

Rachel: It’s not comfortable on the cliff.

Zhailon: But to me, I don’t know what we’re making for, if we’re not making from that place.

Rachel: Will you talk about from your seat…so Reconstruction is a mixture as this particular conversation maybe manifests of artists of color, primarily Black-identifying artists, either African, identifying as Black American or Caribbean American and then white-identifying artists. And I wonder if you can just talk a bit about what you have seen. I think of us directors as, obviously we’re kind of watchers in many ways and just the enjoyment of watching someone navigate problem-solving, so I’m curious what you have seen from your seat in the Reconstruction room as people like prepare to, or stand on that edge that you’re talking about. And it’s the difference between the white-identifying actors and the Black-identifying, not just actors, but actor writers, everyone does multiple things. I’m just curious what you’re seeing in the room.

Zhailon: I think the biggest thing that I observe kind of like whenever we’re in process for Reconstruction, the thing that is overtly present to me on the daily is every person, no matter who they are making the choice to be in the room, there’s a difference between I got a gig, so I’m going to go do the gig and making a very specific choice to show up every day.

And I think it’s what makes the kind of work that we’re doing distinctive from just kind of anti-racism work in any other sector is we don’t have to be doing this. We don’t have to be showing up. We don’t have to be requiring this much of each other. So we’re already saying, setting up in the kind of ethos of the room that we all are going to make the choice to do this work. And I think that radically shapes the energy by which we get to pull from to make the work that we’re not convincing people that this work is valuable. We’re not convincing them that this work is easy. We’re not convincing them that there’s even going to be a rainbow at the end of the work. That they’re coming in with their own individual agenda and then making a choice to use Reconstruction as the blank canvas of projecting that agenda.

And what that makes possible is the other thing that I see so clearly in Reconstruction, which is the real investigation and rigor around the question of whether or not Black artists and white artists can work together and carry the same amount of weight, distinctive weight, but the same amount of weight. Is that possible? Is it possible for us to tell the story we’re trying to tell without an overt power imbalance, both structurally and also artistically and emotionally, is it possible for us to leave this room lighter than when we came?

And I think that that is a question I have not heard investigated in any other room that I have been in over the course of the last two or three years, which is, can we actually have an equitable process that isn’t just about the institution, but an emotionally equitable and artistically equitable process wherein we are asking of white artists to draw upon something they cannot explain and make from that? Because when that has happened in the Reconstruction room, art that I think is greater than all of our imaginations has been born.

And in some way, it is as much a spiritual journey as it is an artistic one because it inherently connects you to something larger than yourself that stretches back farther than your memory and stretches forward farther than your imagination. And that is ultimately what we, as Black artists know, we have the power to access and to be able to be in a room where we share that ability and knowledge and technology, spiritual technology. With my artists is something I have way more stamina for it than just explaining what it’s like to be Black, which happens far less than people would think in the Reconstruction room.

Rachel: Talk about spiritual technology. I don’t know if this relates in your brain to radical theology, but what are some spiritual technologies you’ve seen at play in the Reconstruction room and maybe give us specific examples.

Zhailon: There’s this idea of light heavy light and light heavy light means, or is this idea that in life you go through life and things are light and things are airy and things are awesome and then things get heavy. And if we stay in that heaviness, we think that there is no other outcome. Or if we try to escape the heaviness, I’m sorry. We tried to escape the heaviness. We think there is no other outcome, but heaviness. But if we lean into the heaviness, what we find out is there’s a light at the end of the heaviness that’s actually brighter than the light that preceded it.

And that’s a technology I watch all the time in Reconstruction, which is a light and then a moment of real heaviness and a moment of real existentialism and a moment of real, like are we going to make anything and a moment of real like what’s going to happen? And is there anything that can grow from this work? And then the choice everyone makes to just keep going into that void a bit further, and then a light that comes out of it that creates this remarkable piece of art that no one can really explain how we got there. That’s light-heavy, and then a light that’s even brighter than the light that preceded the heaviness. And that’s just an example of a spiritual technology that I see in the room all the time.

Rachel: What’s one of your favorite moments from the Reconstruction room of creationism? Just one.

Zhailon: A favorite Reconstruction moment. I mean, favorite in the sense that it was just such a huge breakthrough and was hard and was allowed for work to happen past that light to happen past the heaviness was I think the day that all the white performers had to come in and exorcise their own ancestors was an incredibly hard day. I don’t think that we could make the show without that day happening. And just for people listening, we give prompts and homework assignments to the actors. And sometimes they go home and do something with them. And sometimes we make in the room with these prompts and the prompt, I don’t remember who gave it, was it Jillian?

Rachel: It was Denée.

Zhailon: It was Denée. She gave the prompt for the white actors to take a narrative from either their own literal lineage or a lineage that wasn’t literally theirs, but that they could claim as white people and exercise it in front of us. Let that story that could be troubling and dark and messy and evil come through them in some way. And to me, that’s the ultimate example of carrying equitable, spiritual, and artistic weight, because it’s something that we as Black people can’t do. We don’t have that same kind of weight. We are called upon to articulate our trauma all the time, but it’s a distinctive kind of weight we were asking the white performers to bring in. And the work that came in I think was incredibly personal. And I don’t know if that’d be been ever articulated like this in that the Black performers in the room did not comment after each white person did their piece.

And what it really was an example of is the fact that white artists have to watch us create art out of our trauma all the time. And they do it without any consideration of what we may have gone through to produce that trauma. And it was for 35 minutes or however long we did it, an example of the roles reversing and for us to consume you all in a certain kind of way. And I think the difference is that Black people never want to fully consume whiteness. And so in some way it was very hard for us to do that. Where the reaction was not incredibly entertaining. It was not something that we wanted to go on forever and ever.

Rachel: Let me continue with that because I think that the same, I’m saying this as one of the white artists who didn’t, I’m not ultimately going to perform in the piece, but I did that assignment. I brought in, I think Denée had just like assigned us to bring in an ancestor and an ancestor of “whiteness”, like not my fucking shtetl ancestor necessarily who sits in… and I tried to look in that lineage, but ended up deciding on one of the major advocates against busing. And ultimately then someone who’s spoken in pretty lightly veiled code against desegregation. And, and I chose Northern ancestor as well because it was something we were talking about it in the room, but I know all the white identifying artists were tearing, I mean, it was so contorted, spiritually, the fight against that assignment initially be in part because of what you just said. I think there was a tremendous fear of hurting the room, literally bringing in these spirits who we don’t want in our beautiful room. So I’m just responding to that of, it’s not necessarily pleasant work.

Zhailon: And so I think in some ways it changes the way then white people consume our work as something that is not, you’re able to see it as something that isn’t just objective that isn’t just also something to take for granted as something that is easy or fun or possible for Black people to produce. And less heart-centered rooms, the inability to show up in that way every day can get you fired or prevent you from getting the job in the first place.

Rachel: So I know we’re almost out of time because you’re busier than I am between.

Zhailon: That is not true.

Rachel: I think it’s true actually between freelance life, which is like all over. And I want to ask like two final questions, maybe return slightly to a more terranean versus like subterranean level. How is your freelance life developing in this moment? And how does that sit in your brain with this wild work? And are they the same or are they feeling very differently? I’m just curious, what your experience right now?

Zhailon: Well, It’s a interesting question. I think ultimately I feel blessed in this moment because I do get to make, and a lot of people don’t get to make right now. That’s why I think ultimately there’s just like a lot of gratitude, but even within this online kind of moment of storytelling that we’re in, yes, there are gigs, for sure, gigs and then there’re places where I’m trying to innovate. And I think being able to workshop my musical, A Burning Church at the Ice Factory Festival at the New Ohio was a real moment of innovation that we didn’t know that we were actually working towards. We were trying to just answer the question of how are we workshop and musical online, which we hadn’t seen done yet. And how do we do it in a way that doesn’t look like you’re watching a zoom play, which we hadn’t seen done yet.

And what has happened since then is we’ve gotten so much feedback from other creators that doing that work has inspired them to keep creating through this time and let them know that the things that they create aren’t for not, because we can’t be in a room together and we’ve gotten lots of really, really lovely, random emails from people that were like, I didn’t think I could think of the musical in this way, and now I can, and it’s going to allow me to keep working on my thing. And so I think there’s a mix of shit I just have to do to pay rent, which is fine.

And also, I think there’s always going to be a part of me that is trying to innovate in the form no matter what the form is, no matter how frustrated I get with the form, because I think particularly in musical theater, and this is kind of pulling from George C. Wolfe philosophy, that it works best when people who are more talented than the form are pushing against the form. And if you break too many of the rules, it doesn’t work. And if you don’t break any of the rules, it doesn’t work. And so than some way the event of musical theater successfully lives at the intersection of that tension and that tension as possible to escalate, even on zoom.

Rachel: I love the idea of being, I can’t remember the word you just used, whether it’s more creative than the form. I know you didn’t say more clever than the form.

Zhailon: More talented than the form,

Rachel: More talented than the form. What talent does a form have. It’s so interesting. So my last question, and then I’ll ask if there’s anything else that you want me to ask quickly is you want to run an institution someday? I’ll ask that.

Zhailon: I have historically said I didn’t, but I do understand that there is something in my personality that is built for that. And so I think I don’t want to run the kind of institution that does not leave space for me to go into the wild when I need to. But if I find that institution, then I think things get a lot more enticing. I think ultimately, and I’m going to say this now because I have a relative that says, if you can’t say it for yourself, no one will say it for you. I know I will be a mogul. And I don’t say that from a place of cockiness. I say it from a place of, I move best at scale at large, large scale. And in this world that we live in, that is people who move best in that way become moguls. And I know there will be some kind of leading of a big, big team one day, and I don’t know what that form will take, but that will surely happen.

Rachel: Oh my God, I love that. I can’t wait to buy your products.

Zhailon: Oh Man. It may just be face cream after all this COVID stuff is over.

Rachel: Is there anything else that, I mean, I could talk to you for days and happily spending years and hopefully our lifetime talking, but, is there anything else that you want to talk about in this moment?

Zhailon: There’s just so much that could be talked about, but no, I think the only thing I will say is that I have a really strong sense that we will be the first historians of this time that we’re living in. We meaning the poet, meaning the artist, meaning the storyteller will be the first historians of this time. And so when it feels like we must hop out of our vocation, do not listen to that voice deeper and deeper and deeper into your vocation. Because if not, we won’t really know the truth about this time.

Rachel: Thank you for that. Thank you for this and for you.

Zhailon: Thank you.

Rachel: That’s it. have a good day becoming a mogul.

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