Rachel Rockwell, a Chicago-based director and choreographer, died on Monday, May 28, of ovarian cancer. She was 49.
When I first met Rachel Rockwell, she was a dynamic actress and dancer who could light up a stage with every entrance she made. She performed in countless musicals in Chicago and several national tours. I will never forget her Mrs. Potiphar in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, in which she demonstrated her uncanny ability to align virtuoso dancing with impeccable comic timing. She was such a great performer—a natural.
What I did not know about her at the time, however, was that a directing talent, so signature and extraordinary, was waiting to emerge. In 2006 Rachel called to see if she and I could talk about her desire to direct. She was certainly not the first to approach me about making a similar career move. Actors, disheartened by the insecurity of piecing work together, had often reached out in search of other employment opportunities. After the first five minutes, I knew this conversation was going to be different. Rachel’s passion, vision, and determination were all so authentic and perfectly clear. She was going to be a director and, whether I could help or not, she was going to make it happen—and be successful at it. There was no question in her voice. She knew it was a truth that, quite honestly, simply needed to be realized.
And realize it she did. From that point forward, Rachel took Chicago by storm. Starting with TYA productions at the Marriott Theatre, Drury Lane Theatre, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, she quickly became known for her impressive work and vast creativity. Everyone loved working with her—actors, producers, designers, and crew (truly everyone). Soon she was directing major productions at theatres across Chicago and the country. The energy and vitality surrounding her and her work could only propel Rachel to greater recognition and to more opportunities to come. Her career was indeed astounding and prolific, with more than 50 productions in 12 too-brief years, hit after hit.
Rachel was a force of nature. When she entered the rehearsal room, she did so with a confidence and certainty that made all involved not only feel safe and secure, but excited for the artistic journey ahead. She knew where she wanted to take the show and knew the path to get there. Brilliant at visualizing how a show moved and equally powerful in her moment-to-moment work with actors, she knew how to engage and challenge everyone to realize their best work. All was done with a perfect blend of compassion and high expectations. Rachel’s work was rigorous, and she expected the same from each collaborator.
She lived life to the fullest and brought that humanity to her work. Her family was precious to her. Watching her with her son Jake was a beautiful lesson in parenthood. She loved deeply and brought that absolute joy of life to all she created.
Two weeks before Rachel passed, she called me to check in, sharing the outpouring of support and affection she had received. She was truly astonished by it. And I in turn was floored by her astonishment. She had no idea how respected, how loved she was—for her incredible talent, yes, but even more for her kindness and generosity to all.
Rachel led with empathy. I loved hearing and watching her in production meetings, rehearsal rooms, and techs. She always had a strong vision for a show but knew that vision needed to be guided, nurtured, and executed by a whole team of individuals, all with specific focuses and crucial perspectives. It was not uncommon in tech rehearsals for her to change a character’s blocking to help facilitate a wardrobe crew’s track backstage. She understood theatre as a collaborative form, knowing instinctively that respect and care for all involved created the best art.
The proof was in her work. She gave us some of the most beautiful musicals and plays seen in Chicago. At Drury Lane Theatre, she directed one of the most stunning, moving productions of Ragtime I have ever witnessed. It was perfectly Rachel: brimming with detailed and powerful scene work, poetic movement and choreography, and a magnificent design. She won Jeff Awards for both Best Musical and Director of a Musical that year, just two of the many accolades she would achieve in her career. In total, she won four Jeffs, was nominated 18 times, and was named Chicagoan of the Year in Theatre for 2012.
Rachel and I collaborated on 11 projects at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The last production we worked on together was a wonderful and quirky new musical called Ride the Cyclone. She sent me the script and score to see if Chicago Shakespeare would be interested in developing and producing it. Just as I read the last page, the phone rang. It was Rachel. “Don’t read it…it’s a funky read…it’s really special and needs to be up on its feet to really be understood…can we please do a staged reading?” Two months later, as I watched and listened in our studio theatre, I realized she was so right: The movement of the piece was crucial to its impact, and the show was incredibly special. We produced the musical the next year, with Rachel directing and choreographing our critically acclaimed, sold-out production.
It was an experience and show I will cherish forever. Ride the Cyclone tells the story of six teenagers whose lives are cut short by a freak accident. It is surprising, extremely funny, profound, and very moving. The show asks: What is a life well-lived? What significance do single moments of time hold? And does the length of one’s existence determine a life lived well? The themes of this play will forever resonate with me, reminding me of my dear, dear friend and collaborator.
Rachel Rockwell died far too soon. There were so many more stories still to tell and so many more lives left to touch. But, oh, did she have a life well-lived. And all who knew her, worked with her, and loved her, were honored and humbled to join her for any portion of that ride.
Rick Boynton is creative producer at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.