Just last summer, Rachel Stevens was in Pittsburgh directing “Floyd Collins” and “The Spitfire Grill” for Front Porch Theatricals. Now, she is gearing up for the 71st annual Tony Awards, for which her current project, “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” has garnered 12 nominations, including Best Musical.
The 2009 Point Park grad serves as the assistant director on “The Great Comet,” her first Broadway stint.
“It’s a pretty surreal experience that’s for sure,” said Stevens of her show earning more nominations than any other musical on Broadway this season. “Yes, it’s partially due to my work, but it’s a full company effort and I’m just lucky enough that I was part of it. I’m thrilled for the full company because it’s just an incredible group of people.”
“The Great Comet” is an immersive musical based on Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Written by Dave Malloy, the show is directed by Rachel Chavkin and has singer Josh Groban playing Pierre, for which he has earned a Tony nomination for Best Actor.
Nancy Zionts, a producer at Front Porch, is not surprised that Stevens, who grew up outside of Philadelphia, is finding such success with “The Great Comet,” which has been heralded for its originality.
“Rachel produced two excellent shows for Front Porch Theatricals as our season director for 2016 American Dreamers season,” Zionts recalled. “They were critically acclaimed and audiences loved them for their creativity and their ability to balance the characters and the storylines, which were both a mixture of drama with moments of humor and humanity. The cast members and the crew admired Rachel for her hard work and vision. She created a wonderful relationship with so many on the team.”
When Zionts saw “The Great Comet” last March, she noticed elements of the show that made her think of Stevens “and the work she had done for us, and they made me smile,” Zionts said. “In particular, I sat in the upper balcony, where much of the action took place. The show is very interactive and there are characters throughout the audience in multiple scenes. It reminded me of how creatively she used the New Hazlett Theater for ‘Floyd Collins.’ And it was a thrill for me to see Front Porch Theatricals’ name in her bio. We knew her when and are proud to follow her success.”
Working for Front Porch “was an incredible experience,” Stevens said. “It brought me home to the city, and I got to do this musical that I fell in love with and that brought me to Pittsburgh in the first place.”
It was, in fact, an earlier production of “Floyd Collins”— one that featured her brother, then a junior at Point Park — that influenced Stevens to come to Pittsburgh and enroll in that same conservatory.
“I saw the show and was so blown away by the students’ work, blown away by the design, blown away by the choice of material,” Stevens said. “I made a decision right then and there that was where I wanted to be.”
Both she and her brother, Steven — who currently is playing the title role in “Act of God” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater — have been steadily working in theater since earning their BFAs at Point Park. Raised by two educators who did not work in show business, it was nonetheless their father’s love of musicals that led the Stevens children to theater.
“When we were growing up, my father used to play musical theater, and he also used to quote musicals all the time in the house,” Stevens said. “When most kids used to drive around listening to whatever was on the radio, or specific kid-oriented music in the car, we were listening to ‘Evita’ and ‘Sweeney Todd,’ just because that’s what my dad wanted to listen to.”
While she studied musical theater performance at Point Park, by the time she was a sophomore, she realized that her true love was directing.
“In school, I loved being an actor, but there was one year in particular, I believe it was my sophomore year, when I wasn’t cast in a show and I asked one of my professors if I could assist her,” Stevens said. “I think it was for ‘The Skin of Our Teeth.’ And I immediately knew that this is where I wanted to head, that I wanted to empower the actors that I was working with and that I wanted to look at all of the elements.”
After graduation, Stevens worked in children’s theater in Washington, D.C., before heading to New York to earn her master’s in directing at the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University.
Since then, the director has been busy, directing regional productions and national tours and assisting Andy Blakenbuehler (“Hamilton”) at Papermill Playhouse for the world premiere of “Bandstand,” which opened on Broadway in April 2017.
While Stevens is “not particularly religious,” she credits her Jewish upbringing with her passion for choosing theater projects that have the potential to lead to positive change.
“One of the main reasons that I’m a storyteller, and the reason that I’m so dedicated to the work that I do, is because of tikkun olam, which is to repair the world,” she said. “So, when I think about telling stories that are going to elicit discussion and progress and bring communities together, I feel specifically as a Jewish woman the responsibility to do that. And that has always been a driving force in my work as an artist; that’s where I come from and how I grew up knowing that mitzvot and tikkun olam were my responsibility whatever work I did, but as an artist it’s a huge part of what I keep close to me when I’m working.”
Stevens is planning to return to Pittsburgh in the fall to direct a production of “The Hard Problem” for Quantum Theatre which will run from Oct. 27 to Nov. 19.
“We are very excited to be working with Rachel on ‘The Hard Problem,’” said Steward Urist, managing director of Quantum Theatre. “The way her team transformed the Imperial Theatre for ‘Great Comet’ is impressive and the clips I have seen are great. We are eager to see what she will do with space we find for our production.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.