Under next leader, PlayMakers should cultivate new work, increase diversity and keep mending fences with the local theater community | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Under next leader, PlayMakers should cultivate new work, increase diversity and keep mending fences with the local theater community 

Looking for a new arts leader is like looking for a new heart," says theater director Emily Ranii.

PlayMakers Repertory Company is seeking such a transplant, now that artistic director Joseph Haj plans to leave for Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater in July. The search will differ markedly from the process that brought Haj to Chapel Hill in 2005. As we reported last week, PlayMakers is no longer the financially strapped, demoralized organization it was on his arrival.

Trade publication coverage of its innovations and top-level grants and awards have elevated its national prestige. Meanwhile, Haj has gradually turned an audience accustomed to classics toward more challenging contemporary scripts, bringing in new patrons.

"Audiences were once maybe at 60 percent of capacity," recalls production manager Michael Rolleri. "Now, depending on the show, we're at 90 to 95 percent." As a result, PlayMakers looks much more attractive to applicants than it used to.

As managing director Michele Weathers says, "We have the opportunity to attract a caliber of candidate we have not been in the position to before." And now, those candidates know that the PlayMakers post can also be a springboard to even bigger things. But great responsibilities accompany such potential.

Consider the 9,000 cumulative seats that PlayMakers has to sell, six times a year, for its productions in Paul Green Theatre—a number that doesn't even include public school performances.

"When you have a 500-seat theater, to some degree, you have a responsibility to fill it," says Burning Coal Theatre Company Director Jerome Davis. "That means doing plays that are accessible to a large swath of the community. But on a campus as progressive-minded as UNC, you also have a responsibility toward challenging ideas and works."

That's not the only challenge. PlayMakers is a hybrid: a professional theater company recognized by Actors' Equity and the League of Resident Theatres that is also a part of UNC's Department of Dramatic Art, a public university funded by the state.

"That's three layers right there," says David zumBrunnen, former PlayMakers general manager, "artistic politics, academic politics and state politics. Someone has to be willing to take on that balancing act, and it's a delicate one, to say the least."

Current state politics may make that balancing act much harder. With increased scrutiny from the General Assembly and UNC's Board of Governors, director and dramaturge Jules Odendahl-James, associate artistic director at Manbites Dog Theater, wonders, "Is the next person going to have the freedom to take the artistic baton and run with it, or will they just maintain or possibly even backtrack from the status quo?"

We polled 26 theater artists, administrators, playgoers and observers about PlayMakers' future. Unsurprisingly, their views differ widely on the answers to the questions now facing the organization, but there was substantial agreement as to what those questions are.

Many feel generating new works for the stage should be a key factor in the company's future. Observing that "new writing is the most profound and dramatic way a theater leaves a mark on the world," Davis adds, "I imagine that somewhere in Paul Green's dreams for PlayMakers was the idea of nourishing and developing new writers."

Company management seems convinced of this as well. Weathers says, "It is a huge undertaking, but I think it's the next logical step for us, if we're going to continue to be a relevant part of our field in this country."

Odendahl-James envisions the possibilities of a "new play/performance development wing" focused on long-term residencies, taking UNC's Process Series under the company's umbrella, and yearly collaborations with local companies.

Many others cited increased diversity—in management, programming, casting and audiences—as a principal concern.

Playwright, actor and director Mike Wiley, who serves on PlayMakers' advisory board, says the company needs to "build on relationships with minority and marginalized communities," including LGBTQ people. He also worries that ticket prices keep entire segments out of theater.

A number of interviewees wish to see a woman in the artistic director's chair, as well as further outreach—particularly to the Triangle's immigrant communities—and educational programs. And more than three-fourths of the interviewees single out the importance of (or persistent problems with) PlayMakers' relationship with the community.

The company still struggles with long-held perceptions of aloofness or outright disinterest, particularly among local artists. A number of them criticize the former practice of "casting by zip code," where only New York artists were considered for company positions, and worry that a new leader might reinstitute the practice.

Even with the edgier PRC2 series, the sense persists among younger and more cutting-edge artists and audiences that PlayMakers isn't relevant to them. One prominent local independent artist, off the record, says the question of PlayMakers' new director is "like asking what kind of movies should Hollywood make," while another says that the company "doesn't affect me or my world much."

A third recalls her delight at seeing a professor affiliated with the company at one of her performances. "But then I realized, from my reaction, how little relationship I do see between two communities of artists who have so much worth sharing with one another," she says.

Novelist and playwright Monica Byrne, whose play What Every Girl Should Know opens this week in Houston, has been a critic of PlayMakers in recent years. A 2012 essay she wrote for the industry website Howlround.com concluded that PlayMakers "is only marginally relevant to local artists making new work."

Byrne still believes that is the case. "The vast majority of institutional theater squanders the only advantage it has over other art forms, which is radical presence," she says. "Instead, they just produce slick simulacra of it. I don't think any meaningful conversation about the future of American theater can happen without questioning the very existence of places like PlayMakers. But of course, no one there wants to hear that."

Who will have to address these issues? Speculation on the shortlist to fill Haj's shoes includes PlayMakers guest directors Vivienne Benesch and Tom Quaintance (whose An Enemy of the People is reviewed on page 29) and company member Jeffrey Meanza; regional artistic directors Chip Decker at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, Charlie Flynn-McIver at Asheville's N.C. Stage and Paul Frellick of Chapel Hill's Deep Dish Theater; and local theater artist Paul Paliyenko.

Acting UNC Department of Dramatic Art chair McKay Coble says that the company won't seek a "clone" of the departing director. Instead, she raises a possible new frontier for that old theatrical shibboleth, audience participation. Coble says that PlayMakers will "enlist the help of our audience and community" in filling the position.

"I would hate to hobble anyone with trying to be Joe Haj," she says.

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