A Conversation with (some of) the cast of Hadestown
Written by Esther Cohen & Alicia Carroll
Photography by Emma Pratte
July 21, 2016
There’s something in the water at New York Theatre Workshop the famed East Village theater is known for producing hits: RENT, Once, and – most recently – David Bowie’s final project, Lazarus.
But Hadestown, a new musical based on Anaïs Mitchell’s concept album, has a certain magic all its own. The show, based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, combines bluegrass music with the inventive staging by Rachel Chavkin (Preludes; Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; The TEAM). The result is an intoxicating glance into the underworld and a tale about the perils of love in an unforgiving world.
We sat down with some of the cast of Hadestown to talk about the development of the show, what Hadestown has to say about Trump-era America, and why theater – now more than ever – is the ultimate textbook on empathy.
Esther Cohen: How did each of you come to be involved with the show? I know it’s had many iterations.
Damon Daunno: In 2012, I received an email that they were doing a reading of this piece called Hadestown based on a concept album by Anaïs Mitchell, and this gang from Vermont was coming down to New York to try it out in the big city. I happily agreed to audition and was immediately blown away by Anaïs and her cronies and all the beauty that followed.
Lulu Fall: Rachel Chavkin, whom I know from doing Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, reached out to my agents and asked if I could personally audition for the show. I’m really happy that I accepted the audition and that I … did a good job!
Shaina Taub: I grew up in Vermont, where Anaïs is from. I’d been a big fan of hers for a long time because she’s musical royalty in Vermont and beyond. So I’d been a fan of the record and then I was working with Rachel on Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. And one day in a rehearsal she turned to me and said, “Do you know Anaïs Mitchell?” And I kind of just put it together in my head; I was like, “You’re developing Hadestown, YES! That’s perfect! That’s perfect!” I was so happy that they had found each other. And then I got to audition for the 2014 Dartmouth workshop and went to Dartmouth for 2 weeks to work on it and have luckily been a part of it ever since.
Amber Gray: Rachel Chavkin is sort of my partner in crime. Thank god – she keeps me employed. This is may be my sixth show with her, all of which have had many iterations. When we were doing Great Comet, she asked me to audition for Persephone and I GOT IT, yeah! [laughs] I also did the workshop in 2014.
Jessie Shelton: I did a reading with the Foundry Theatre upstairs at New York Theatre Workshop. The casting director saw me there and asked me to come in to audition. There was a long time where I heard nothing, but I went back for an open call cause I really wanted to work on this piece. They eventually called me back to be one of the Fates and that’s how I met everyone and joined the magic!
Nabiyah Be: I met Rachel when I was in college and ever since then I’ve been involved in many of her projects. She asked me to be involved in this, so I did the last workshop in the fall and have been involved since then.
Chris Sullivan: I also joined in the workshop right before this production. That’s about it for me.
Alicia Carroll: Even though this show has been in development for a long time, much of the music is very similar to the original concept album. In what ways have you all seen the show change over the years?
Damon: The core remains the same for sure. The greatest hits are the greatest hits. But what’s on the cutting the room floor is of course always vast. What have you guys noticed?
Jessie: I’m new to the show, but it’s really cool to hear how it started, the audience it had, the people who made it, and how it was made. Anaïs says on her website that the first album and production couldn’t have happened anywhere but Vermont. So to bring it to this city, obviously things had to change. I think that the story has shifted to be more accessible to a wider audience.
Esther: For those of you who have been with the show for a longer time, do you feel that you’ve had a big role in the development of it? What influence did the developmental climate have on the rehearsal room and how much influence do you think you had as actors?
Damon: Whenever I came back into the room for a new iteration it felt very collaborative. For example, I play tenor guitar. Rachel and Anaïs and I had a been in conversation for a long time about “What is going to be Orpheus’ golden gun?” And they were very open to my preferences and skill set and thoughts. The same went for the singing and musical phrasing. They gave me some license but then wrangled accordingly. That was really lovely.
Amber: I work on a lot of new plays and can sometimes be slow to say, “Oh, this isn’t working.” That’s never what I’m trying to do in a two week workshop. I’m just trying to do the thing that the writer has written for that one phase. When we did the workshop at Dartmouth a few years ago, that was the first time it had ever been on its feet in any form. Anaïs had originally written Hades for a tenor. And just by having it on its feet, you figure out, this works or this doesn’t work. And we realized that some cliches and archetypes were right on – like, Hades should definitely be that low bass. So that’s what actors can help figure out. The biggest thing that I’ve seen change over the past two years is that more has been added and spelled out for the audience. I think that’s a bit out of fear that people don’t know the myth.
Nabiyah: During the workshop in October, there were two polar opposite ideas of what Eurydice was in both Anaïs and Rachel’s heads. Either she was the wide-eyed, child-like soul not too experienced with pragmatic things in life, or she was hardened. And I feel like I was very much dwelling and swimming in the wide-eyed Eurydice in the workshop, and that was working for me. But then for this production I really had to dig into the other side of it.
Alicia: Do you see yourself as more of an Orpheus, or more of an Eurydice?
Jessie: It’s all in all of us. It all exists and sometimes Orpheus wins, sometimes Eurydice wins. Sometimes even Hades wins. What I love so much about Orpheus is that he can make something from nothing. I often feel that way as an artist. Maybe I don’t have a lot of skills in terms of making money [laughs], but I can make a lot of things just with my body. Then again, I also need to make sure that someone can give me money to put food on the table. So that’s a bit of Eurydice.
Lulu: If we all dig deep and think about it, there is a little bit of Orpheus in even the most practical people, and a little bit of Eurydice in the dreamers.
Esther: I love the line, “Orpheus has a way of seeing the world in the way that it could be.” Everyone needs a little bit of that hope.
Chris: There are so many moments like that in the life of an artist. You can’t see how anything you’re doing is going to do you any good, but you put all of your faith in your creativity and hope for the best. I mean, that is literally why we’re all sitting here. Because at one point we did it for the first time. And sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t, but we keep doing it.
Amber: When I was a kid, I actually thought art could change the world. And now that I’m 35, I don’t really believe that any more. However, I stay for the community. Having a community of artists is a radical thing and can change things. When I was a kid, I was very much an Orpheus and that’s why I went into theater in the first place. But I’ve gotten a little less Orpheus and a little more Eurydice.
Esther: Because you have to.
Damon: As you get older, you get smacked around enough that you do lose a little bit of the glow. You have to fight to get that back and remember why we do this and what’s so pure and potent about it. But it’s fair enough to move more towards Eurydice as you grow.
Jessie: That’s what brings you back to theater, though. Going through different periods, feeling jaded, having frustration and difficulty. But what I love about theater and the people in it is their child-like desire to always learn and be open to new people and opinions. When you work on a character that is so far from yourself, you have to meet them halfway and get inside their mind. That experience changes you, and you can let it go if you want, but the better artists carry it with them. I find that a lot of artists, even those in their 60s, 70s, 80s, still have a vital curiosity and willingness.
Alicia: Let’s talk about the politics of the show. The first thing out of everybody’s mouth at the talkback was, “Is this an allegory for our election?” The relevance of the message, especially because so much of it was written ten years ago, is astounding.
Esther: “Why We Build The Wall” was written in 2006. That’s amazing.
Amber: But those archetypes have always been around and they always will be. That’s why myths are so great for teaching lessons.
Chris: Exactly. It’s so thoroughly entertaining to see people surprised and offended by Donald Trump saying those things. Politicians have been saying this forever.
Nabiyah: It’s so funny to me because I was born and raised in Brazil, a place where corruption is a part of life. We have had Donald Trumps in our elections many, many, many times. It’s funny to see Americans react to someone who is gaining status through corruption and bigotry. It affirms the existence of this ongoing archetype that lives in any political system.
Esther: The concept of an “Us” and a “Them.”
Esther: So if Hadestown is America, what is our “Wall”? And who is the enemy?
Chris: The wall is money and the fact that we have all been conditioned to seek money above all else. The choice becomes, do you pursue financial security or do you pursue spiritual happiness? And can they coexist? I believe heaven in right in the middle, but that happens so rarely.
Jessie: The idea of a class system is also key to the concept of the wall.
Shaina: And fear. That’s the common denominator of humanity, that we’re all always scared. But it’s about how you channel that fear, and how leaders choose to manipulate that fear in order to unite people, either uniting them against an enemy or uniting them for good. Leaders throughout history, just like Trump, have gathered people based on fear. They say, “This is the enemy, and if this enemy is gone, your fear will go away. So we must build a wall against that enemy.”
Esther: At the end of the show, everyone says, “We’re going to tell this story again and again and again in hopes that it turns out differently.” Can you guys talk a little bit about retelling stories and, partially why this story now, and also what the point of retelling stories is in general. Is it because we hope they’re gonna turn out differently?
Chris: The point of telling a story again and again is because every time you tell it you’re at a different point in your life. And the people watching it are at a different point in their lives. And you learn something different from it every time you tell it. Every time we perform this on an acting level I learn something. So that repetition and that reintroducing it into the ether is – it might be the same story but it’s never told the same way twice.
Esther: Which is the magic of theater.
Jessie: Yes. Live theater is such an amazing space and I’m just at the very tip of the iceberg of discovering how amazing it is. People come back to see the show many many times and they learn something completely new. The four of us [The Fates and Hermes] watch the entire show every night – for one thing, we have to stay activated, so obviously I’m watching everyone and trying to figure things out afresh. But it’s not hard to do because if you just think thinking about – like I was hit by a bunch of new stuff today that I just never –that didn’t get me before. And that’s because every day, we go through a different day before we get to the theater. We have different conversations with each other, with other people, we have different experiences walking down the street in New York City. And that all comes into this story. And because it is so specific and yet so universal it’s – there’s constant turnover.
Damon: There’s a new audience every day.
Chris: The themes are why this story has lasted for thousands and thousands of years. There’s something primal. No matter how hard we try to evolve, we will never evolve out of this story.
Esther: And as you said, every person has a little bit of every character in them. And that’s why myths survive because every human being can identify with them.
Jessie: And I was taught growing up that we learn history so it won’t repeat itself. I don’t believe that is true because I’ve seen it repeat itself so many times, and it’s horrible – or great! And I think that’s another reason why retelling stories in different places, different times, even this show as written now with different people versus us a year from now is going to be completely different. And I think that’s because, yeah, to check back in, now that you’ve been in that headspace, now that this election is coming, whatever it is, you will see everything differently. And you can watch film over and over again and have a similar experience, but something about everyone coming to the table fresh every time is – that’s chemistry.
Esther: And people come to the theater to experience something, not to just see – if they already know what the ending is, they come to experience the story overall.
Nabiyah: I also think there’s something unique about retelling myths and tales, which is the aspect of dissecting archetypes. Because you can dissect an archetype as it is outside of yourself and in the external world, but you can also use it to dissect aspects of your psyche and learn so much about yourself, and therefore learn about other people and be more compassionate and be a little more understanding. So I think there’s something special about the classics.
Shaina: Specifically musicals, musicals that join sort of the canon of musicals that become a part of our international vocabulary and are done over and over again – and I believe Hadestown will join that canon – is that unlike films that get passed down over generations or paintings or other art forms, theater is constantly re-taken on. Like everyone does Fiddler in high school, there are these stories that generations of people grow up actually getting to embody and immerse in and it’s just this amazing shared dialogue of the generations that is unlike any other art form. Especially the musicals, what musicals do for community. That we gather to tell stories, the great ones again and again and again. Something that is simultaneously timeless and interacts differently in the ‘50s and the ‘70s and the ‘90s…2016, 2050…and will hold that mirror up to us again and again in different ways.
Damon: And that is the way in which art can change the world. I mean, this medium is epic; it is storytelling. Before the modern world, people gathered. And so, this kind of piece, that asks you to think about whose side you’re on, or where do you stand, what do you stand for. Do you want to fight for that, do you want to stand for that, do you wanna find that within yourself in this otherwise cold world? This hard world? It’s beautiful and magic, but it is hard, so it’s natural to wither sometimes. So to have children and young folks step into these themes and to have audiences, like waves, come in every day to take this really beautiful question into themselves. And hopefully they say, no, I am a light, I do want to stand for goodness, and can carry that into the world and can be that for their mini worlds, y’know? That’s how you do it. That’s how you change the world. You start on an individual level and ask people to find their humanity and then you find that humanity is a bit richer for it.
Esther: And one thing Stage & Candor is trying to do – it’s amazing going to this show and seeing such a diverse cast onstage, that’s incredible, and to see women in creative roles, directing and creating new musicals. But we also want to look around in the audience and see that reflected in the audience.
Jessie: There are theaters that have initiatives like “99 cent Sunday” and it’s like, even if you can’t, even if you’re a person who will camp out for something like that, those are often the most fun shows. Because those people really want to be there. Sometimes there are audiences – and I try not to be at war with them, but rather just send more and more energy out to get more back in hopefully – but people who just buy a ticket to be seen at a place. I hope that we will change something in their minds over the course of the show. But oftentimes, it’s like, yeah, you’re here and it’s a status symbol to have spent the money on this ticket, versus someone who is like, “I desperately want to see this!” And afterwards, those people say, “Thank you” after the performance and it’s genuine and real and I miss that a lot of the time. But of course, we have to get paid too so you find yourself at the higher-priced ticket venues.
Lulu: You can learn a ton from kids. My nephew, he wants to be an architect, and every time I visit he has me read the same book over and over again. And I always say, “Sure!” And every single time I read it, same words, same pictures, same everything, he tells me that he learned something different. And that fuels your imagination, that fuels your hunger, that just opens you up to endless possibilities. And going back to why storytelling is important, why doing what we do is important – it’s just to get a different perspective, to chip away at our walls and open up a little bit. And learn something new. And I think that’s so important, to open up to things. We did a student matinee a couple weeks ago, which was great and terrible and funny and weird. And they were with us in the end, they all gasped, they all went crazy. And I hope that they go see different performances; I hope that my nephew, hanging with me, hopefully will be able to check out more performances and be able to open up his world a little bit more – fuel his imagination. I believe in the power of moving the spirit and opening up your horizons and opening up that third eye.
Amber: It’s a human right to have a creative outlet. You have to have it.
Damon: And hopefully they’ll grow up to be police officers who don’t shoot people, y’know what I mean? There’s a sad element, there’s such a crazy element of this waking life, everyone on their own spiritual trajectory, but if you can just tip the scales a bit …
Jessie: I have to do a shout-out – because I’ve had people tell me to my face that they don’t see the need for the arts. And it’s just for all the stuff we’ve said here today – so vital. Because it’s not just about learning to sing and dance. That’s not what the arts mean; that’s not what an arts education means. It’s about looking at things differently.
Esther: It’s about learning compassion.
Chris: The only thing I wanted to say about theater, regardless of the show that is being performed, the mere act of theater is an act of revolution. We don’t have campfires any more, we don’t have anywhere to gather, so the theater is a place to gather and to witness something human and to witness something communally. It doesn’t matter what the show is because the act of doing it as a group affects the group in the same way every time. Now, the better the show, the better the effect on the group. But there’s a reason why – especially musicals, Shaina was commenting on musicals – there’s a reason the word “harmony” has become the most beautiful word in the world. Because if you watch enough people sing together in harmony, you will cry.
Shaina: I’m stealing this phrase from the Public Works program at The Public, but it’s, “When people are singing together, it’s a radical proposal of what humanity could be.” And are all the different factions and boroughs of New York and the world in harmony? No, of course not. But if they’re all singing onstage together, it’s saying, “It’s possible.” So take that out onto the street.
Chris: The most basic song ever written – lyrically, melodically – is “We Shall Overcome.” I mean, it’s a crappy song. But if you sing it with 10,000 people, it’s the greatest song in the world.
Nabiyah: I like to think that art itself, what is being created, is so much farther ahead than whoever is creating it, than us who are trying to figure it out. And whatever it is that we’re doing and expelling out with our bodies and voices and consciousness is much farther ahead. It’s like in music – music is so much more intertwined than the labels [think] – they’re trying to fit in all of these types of music. It’s already there, and we’re here trying to hold it back and categorize it.
Shaina: And it’s unkillable. There’s this quote that “theater artists don’t leave artifacts for the museums.” We put something out there and it happens and you can’t kill it or change it.
With Hadestown, celebrated singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and inventive two-time Obie award-winning director Rachel Chavkin transform Mitchell’s “phenomenal concept album” (Rolling Stone) into a bold new work for the stage. This folk opera follows Orpheus’ mythical quest to overcome Hades and regain the favor of his one true love, Eurydice. Together we travel from wide open plains where love and music are not enough nourishment to survive the winter, down to Hadestown, an industrialized world of mindless labor and full stomachs. Inspired by traditions of classic American folk music and vintage New Orleans jazz, Mitchell’s beguiling melodies and poetic imagination pit nature against industry, faith against doubt, and love against death.