Laura Penn Speaks in Memory of Rachel Rockwell

Rachel Rockwell

The Chicago theatre community gathered last night to honor the memory of SDC Member Rachel Rockwell, who passed away in June. SDC Executive Director Laura Penn was asked to speak on behalf of the Union. These are the thoughts she shared Rachel Rockwell as an artist and colleague. 

It is an honor and a privilege to be here this evening, and it is with a huge dose of humility that I attempt to find some way to share with you the collective heartache of our national community of directors and choreographers upon the passing of Rachel.

It was 2008, the year Rachel became a card-carrying member of SDC, that I found myself at the desk of this odd and wonderful Union that represents some 3,000 professional artists across the country.  Recognizing that I am in a room likely filled with mostly theatre makers, I risk taking a moment to say, they are funny people, directors and choreographers.  A complicated, loving, terrified bunch who against all odds, with singularity, forge a path that lead us towards the footlights. How they do that is as individual as each of them.  It has been described as alchemy.  A just right mix of vision and skill, rigor and flexibility, ambition and sensibility, resiliency and vulnerability.  Directors are historians, jugglers, engineers, parents; while staging they are mathematicians, they are poets… and they are often lonely.  The only one of their kind in the room, and they are there for everyone else.

What then separates the good from the great?  And what allows the great to break through and head towards brilliance?  I’m not completely sure, but I don’t think it is luck. I do know it takes work, hard work.  When I think about what Rachel built her for herself and her family, her Chicago community, and what she was on the brink of nationally, it doesn’t appear to me it was luck. She had a kind of fierce devotion, a relentless pursuit of excellence, and dedication that opened doors and kept them open for her. She had Chicago. You saw potential in her and gave her space, opportunity, and she didn’t let you down. She was loyal, and you cared for her. That is not luck; it takes work to have such a full life. She respected the past while pushing through to something new. And we were all going with her for the ride she was poised to take us on. “She” It’s hard to believe, but Rachel was one of far too few women who were working at the level she was, while raising a child, serving as a community leader.

She was a member of the SDC Choreography Committee and was always available to serve. The only “no” anyone can remember hearing from Rachel was when she was approached to consider running for the SDC Executive Board, to represent your region.  She declined graciously, and then some days later called my colleague, Adam Levi, our staff area rep to Chicago. She wanted us to know that she had just been diagnosed and that it was no reflection on her commitment to the Union and her fellow artists. She wanted to be sure Adam knew she was there for him. Whatever he needed.

She was passionate about cultivating respect and protection for artists and the work that they create. She pushed everyone around her to continue growing and exploring new and better ideas – including those of us at SDC. She never took a “pass.” Rachel often provided an unexpected, simple, yet razor sharp idea that opened it all up – moving us towards a successful resolve, whatever the challenge.  I expect this was your experience with her in the rehearsal room or around the table at the production meeting, and maybe the dinner table.  The thoughtful way that she served the Union showed respect for both herself and her fellow artists as well as deep admiration for, and commitment to, the Chicago theatres she loved working in.

Last fall, she was awarded the Callaway Award by the SDC Foundation. It’s the only peer award given to a director or choreographer for their work on a specific production, in this case, an off-Broadway production. It was for Ride the Cyclone. 15 directors and choreographers of note see over 300 productions off-Broadway each year. To rise to the attention of this committee is no mean feat. To win is extraordinary and is truly a marker for future success. When an artist comes along who has made a play and is building a body of work that has captured the imaginations of their peers, it is thrilling.

She took a moment in her remarks to thank a few of those who inspired her, a few women who made her believe she could do anything.  Susan Stroman, Graciela Daniele, Susan Schulman, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Kathleen Marshall. I know they would not mind if I spoke for them today to say that in turn, she inspired them. She closed her remarks by saying, “and now it is my great pleasure and most solemn responsibility to do the same and pay it forward, and to make sure that I nurture and I support, and I open doors.”

Rachel was breaking through, with a force and spirit. There is an ecosystem in our field, a diversity of artistry in the SDC Membership. We have interpreters and creative artists, stars, auteurs, and craftsmen and women, re-stagers and generative artists. Each plays a critical role in keeping the theatre industry vibrant. When we lose a star too soon, a leader too soon, it becomes incumbent on us to ensure their work and legacy holds, and somehow permeates the next generation.  We are up to the task.  We will remember Rachel.

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