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BWW Interview: Vivienne Benesch of PlayMakers Repertory Company

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The Producing Artistic Director talks about PlayMakers' recently announced update to their 2020-21 season.

BWW Interview: Vivienne Benesch of PlayMakers Repertory Company

I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing Vivienne Benesch, who is the Producing Artistic Director of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. At PlayMakers, she has helmed productions of Life of Galileo, Leaving Eden, The May Queen, Three Sisters, Love Alone, RED, and In The Next Room (or the Vibrator Play).

For 12 seasons, she served as Artistic Director of the renowned Chautauqua Theater Company and Conservatory, presiding over the company's transformation into one of the best summer theatres and most competitive summer training programs in the country. She directed over fifteen productions at CTC including an acclaimed re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet featuring the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, Theatre, Opera and Dance companies. She brought CTC's production of Amadeus, performed with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and Buffalo Philharmonic, to the Virginia Arts Festival featuring PlayMakers company member Ray Dooley. Vivienne has also directed for the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Trinity Repertory Company, and Red Bull Theatre, among others. In 2018, she directed the world premiere of Noah Haidle's Birthday Candles for Detroit Public Theatre and will be directing it again on Broadway, starring Debra Messing in the fall of 2021. As an actress, Vivienne has worked on and off-Broadway, in film and television, at many of the country's most celebrated theatres, and received an OBIE Award for her performance in Lee Blessing's Going to St. Ives. Vivienne is a graduate of Brown University and NYU's Graduate Acting Program. As an educator, she has directed for and served on the faculty of some of the nation's foremost actor training programs, including The Juilliard School, UNC-Chapel Hill's Professional Actor Training Program, Brown/Trinity Rep MFA Program and at her alma mater, NYU's Graduate Acting Program. She is the 2017 recipient of the Zelda Fichandler Award given by the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation.


To start things off, how have you been doing during this time of quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic? I understand that you were in the middle of rehearsals for your Broadway directorial debut when the shutdown began.
VB: Right. We were just in the second week of rehearsal and that came to a close. So it was a very, like it was for everyone, a very trying time, not knowing what was happening on Broadway happened very quickly. The shutdown happened, but we thought, because we were just in rehearsal, we thought we were going to be that lucky little show that could keep rehearsing and stay in our safe bubble and everything would be resolved. And two weeks, three weeks, something like that, which of course very soon became clear was not the case, but I stayed in New York and then was dealing with everything closing down here in chapel Hill, at Playmakers repertory company at the same time, but on a very different schedule. So I was handling it on two different fronts.

Luckily, Roundabout Theater Company has rescheduled the play, Birthday Candles, for the fall of next year. So fingers crossed there'll be a vaccine by then.
VB: Thank you. I think we all hope so. And it's such a really beautiful play of Noah Haidle's that I think it's going to be a sort of breath of fresh air for everyone to come and share that particular story. So I look forward to that.

Would you mind talking a little more about Birthday Candles? How did you first come across that play?
VB: It was actually a commission by the Detroit Public Theater. The woman who runs it, I have known a very long time. In fact, one of the founders was the Managing Director at the Chautauqua Theater Company where I was Artistic Director for 12 years before coming to PlayMakers. So when the founders of Detroit Public Theater commissioned the play, they attached me to the project before a word was written, which was really exciting for me. So I really got to watch and help develop the play from its very inception. We did our first workshop of it at Chautauqua Theater Company in 2017, and then we premiered it at Detroit Public Theater in 2018. Then the year after that, we brought it to The Goodman Theatre for their New Stages Festival, and that's where Roundabout saw it, and loved it. We then organized a reading for it in New York and brought Debra Messing, who was my graduate school classmate at NYU, into it. Noah and I both thought that she would be just exquisite in the role and sent her the script and she loved it. So that's how it all sort of happened. One of those two wonderful moments where we did the reading and Todd Haimes responded to it just the way everyone before had and said, "We really want to bring this to Roundabout," which was a happy surprise. He also said, "We want to bring this to the Broadway stage, not to one of our Off-Broadway stages because we believe a new work like this deserves that broad of an audience and production," We were obviously thrilled about that because on a personal note, I had made my Broadway debut as an performer at the Roundabout. So it was very exciting to be making my Broadway debut as a director with the Roundabout as well, many years later.

Going back to the beginning, how did you first get started in the theatre?
VB: I have to say I'm one of those people who comes from a family of artists. Not necessarily theater, mostly dance and music, but I was exposed to the arts. I was incredibly lucky to just be sort of thrown in very young, I took to it, and sort of never looked back. I always was sort of an actress, director, and teacher. I feel very blessed that throughout my life, I've really liked that the fabric of my career in the theater has come from many different angles. I hope if I come back in another life, I want to be a lighting designer. I feel like I grew up with incredible mentors as well. I had great teachers in high school, college, and then again in graduate school. So for me, it's sort of been a pretty direct path, and I have to say with the pandemic right now, we've all spent a lot of times thinking about our path forward. I don't take it for granted that I have had the incredible privilege of being in the office all my life. Yes, I had lots of temp jobs. Whether it was waitressing or copy editing or doing a lot of things, but for a good portion of my career, I've been able to spend my life in the field.

How did you first get involved with PlayMakers Repertory Company?
VB: Joseph Haj, who was the previous Artistic Director (he is now the Artistic Director at the Guthrie Theater), had invited me to direct here. I directed at PlayMakers three times before I came as the Artistic Directors, so I loved it down here. It was a great mix of the things I care about most, which is the highest level of professional theater mixed with the highest level of education for theater. I felt very at home here. So when Joe moved to the Guthrie, he called me and said, "You should definitely apply for this position." So I did, and I thought it was a really good fit. AI had been at Chautauqua for 12 years, which is just a (wonderful) summer theater, but I had been really interested in what a year round relationship with a community would mean rather than just a summer relationship. Being a New York City native moving down to North Carolina and to Chapel Hill was a big adjustment, but I've really loved it. I've been here for four and a half years now. This was supposed to be the beginning of my fifth season. It will be a different kind of season, but I have found the curiosity and artistic sort of the breadth of the work that's going on here on all levels of arts and culture. Of course, PlayMakers is embedded at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which in terms of my own interests to develop new work and wanting PlayMakers to be a home for that has been really interesting to do at a research university because I really believed that it's a universities is the home of the creation of new knowledge. Then, the theater company within a research university is also responsible for the creation of new work, new expressions of arts and culture. I feel very lucky to be here.

Recently, PlayMakers announced an important update to their upcoming 2020-21 season, which was reimagined in response to this current pandemic. Would you mind telling us about it?
VB: Yes. Like so many theaters across the country, PlayMakers has been working on a series of contingency plans between March and now constantly adjusting with the new information that was coming out about how, and if we could produce theater safely. I think ultimately again, because we are in residence at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, beyond just the national and state local regulations and protocols the university is calling, we've been in constant communication with them. Just last week, it was made clear that the decision for our entire season would be to go virtual given how much planning is necessary to produce theater. What kind of commitment that is to personnel, to financial commitments, all of those things. But most importantly, because of the constantly shifting ground about audiences, students, artists safety, we finally had to call that we would go virtual for the whole season. Now the great thing is that we have of course been thinking about this a long time. So I'm really excited about what we are going to be producing virtually. I've been watching a huge amount of content that's being shared from different companies and different goods organizations around. It is a fascinating array of innovation, and what I call feel-good, this is what we know and doing a lot of the work of opportunities to use this season. Which I think is a sense that we use this time to discover who we want to be on the other side of this and not just kind of fill in the gaps until we can go back to who we were. I know I'm not saying anything original. This is the sort of Clarion call of the industry and of the nation in terms of the reckoning, but we are doing around race and equity, but it infiltrates to the form of theater as well. So to look at this time as a time of both experimentation innovation, we have nothing to lose with taking some risks with experimenting and seeing what is possible.

For the previously announced productions that won't be taking place this season, can you see any of them eventually getting produced in a future season?
VB: Absolutely. Not all of them, but some of them. There are some that we are very committed to coming back to. Again, there's so many different factors that are going into our conversations as we start thinking of our future and immediately about the next season through this entire time. I have tried to take an attitude of responsible optimism, that's sort of where I fell in line. I'm the responsible optimist in the group here and sort of with the real hope that we can be live again this time next year. But we also know that it isn't a guarantee. So whereas thinking through all the options again, and really believing the PlayMakers has a role to play in the community for another 50 years. So we need to be resilient to that right now. Like Cheryl West's adaptation of Akeelah and the Bee was going to be one of the first titles that was specifically trying to sort of tap into more of a CYA audience here in the triangle. I was so sad to have to give that up. And so I know that's one of the titles that I want to make sure we get back to their next season. Lauren Yee's fabulous new play, Mother Russia, I hope we get a chance to do. Again, depending on how everything works there, PlayMakers is very particular in a wonderful way because we have a resident company. We are one of the only resident companies left in the country. Part of that is made up of our graduate students in the professional actor training program, so they rotate. We really have to create a season that really takes into consideration the resident acting company as well as our resident designer on top of being sort of the flagship professional theater in the region. Balancing the professional with the educational is what goes into the mix of what we do. So it's hard to know what will fall forward. I'm really excited because one of the things we're also going to do is getting to direct the students in a project that we are devising from scratch a devised piece. Throughout my career, Zelda Sandler, who was one of my great mentors, always had us do an exercise called the universe project. Basically, it was a time that any new students shared their universe project in a sort of half hour creation of anything from the most literal sharing of family albums and photographs and favorite recipes to the most abstract thing of sort of a dance piece that expressed who you were. It's an incredibly creative form to sort of share and look at where are you now, who are you in relationship to your community, and your culture society. These are the questions that so many students and professionals are asking of ourselves right now that I thought would be great. I have used that exercise in nearly every show I do. I asked people to do it for the character that they are playing both educational and professionally. I use that exercise to create a universe project. So I thought a great idea would be for us to create, just start with the base of the student's current universe, and to use that as the sort of jumping off place for the show. Now that is not part of our six show official offering, but it is going to be shared. We're going to find a platform to present the students work on that with our entire community that way, and that will be made. I was hoping to do that in a socially distanced way in person. There is an amazing amphitheater here, the Forest Theater that we will get to spend some time in. I hope if we can't actually do live performance there, that we'll be able to use that space as part of the equation. These are keeping the artists in the community and our audience feeling creatively active and engaged is what I see is one of my responsibilities this year.

Phase 2 for reopenings in the state of North Carolina is currently set to expire on September 11th. What are the plans right now for when PlayMakers eventually reopens to the public?
VB: Obviously, we have been following and developing all of the safety precautions that need to happen. Like we're working with all the unions, with the league of resident theaters to make sure we are ready to be able to produce the way we should be. Because of who we are and where we're situated, my guess is there will be a live production in other venues before PlayMakers is able to have live production. While that is possibly heartbreaking, I have no doubt that we're going to figure out ways to be in the community for using live theater in some way. Then we will come back full force as soon as we are able to. So I guess really the short answer to that is that we are planning. We are looking at all the safety measures, both within our theater, our rehearsal halls, and everything what producing safely is going to mean. But because of where we were situated, it has to wait longer than when the state or other venues can start producing.

In conclusion, for those who would like to have a career in the theatre, where do you think would be a good place to start?
VB: To me, for those who want to have a career in the theater, it is about activating your curiosity, and being a storyteller. Whether that's as an actor, as a writer, as a composer, as a technician, as a props artisan, a lighting designer, all of them. No matter what angle that your curiosity calls for, how we tell stories has to be ignited constantly, you need to ignite it within yourself, but then you have to ignite it within the community and the circles of community that that means who are your collaborators. That's to me like finding the ways to do that, to ignite curiosity within yourself and within your community and collaborator. That actually does apply not only to any time, but to this time right now. Find the artists to excite you. That's my biggest advice, because I think we can get overwhelmed by the path we think we're supposed to take. That's all exploding, we're inventing the past, and that has always been true of artists to be innovative in that way. But now more than ever.

Vivienne, I thank you very much for devoting your time to this interview. It was great getting to talk to you.
VB: You too, Jeffrey. Thank you!


For more information, please visit:
www.playmakersrep.org


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