Though Vivienne Benesch's official first day as PlayMakers Repertory Company's new artistic director is January 1, she was already on the job last week, visiting Chapel Hill from New York to catch a performance of Peter and the Starcatcher, discuss her January PlayMakers production of Chekhov's Three Sisters with company personnel and confer on pre-existing plans for next season.
Benesch, artistic director of Chautauqua Theater Company and a faculty member at Juilliard, replaces outgoing director Joseph Haj after he was cherry-picked by the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. We met with her and learned about her bold plans to shake up the region's leading professional theater company, courting a broader community by breaking down PlayMakers' reputation as a cloistered institution prescribing theatrical medicine.
INDY: So, what are you going to do?
VIVIENNE BENESCH: I have every intention of leading PlayMakers as a theater of engagement. Engagement has been a motto in my career as an actor, director, producer and teacher. I want to shake up how PlayMakers is seen. It has a certain reputation of being a closed community—a house on the hill. While Joseph Haj and [associate artistic director] Jeffrey Meanza did a lot to reach out, I feel there's a huge opportunity to have PlayMakers go out in order to bring more people in.
I'm really eager to have our company taking work out to our communities. An equivalent of Mobile Shakespeare at the Public [Theater], not just to underserved communities, but to prisons, hospitals, mental institutions—parts of our community that don't have access. Not only is that a great service to provide, if we are asking our young artists to think more globally, we must provide them with opportunities to do that.
I hope I can make PlayMakers not only the LORT [League of Resident Theatres] professional theater of the region, but our theater, this community's theater. I don't say I can do it instantly. But this should be a meeting ground, a home for the region's artists to feel they take pride and ownership as a part of it. I don't want to come in and co-opt what others are doing. But I do want PlayMakers' doors to feel more open.
A number of community members we spoke with for an article about what PlayMakers' new director should do ["Casting Call," Mar. 4] had concerns about diversity.
There's no question that I'm coming here at a time when diversity and inclusion are at the center of the conversation in American theater. We're at a boiling point. And I'm both challenged and excited by the responsibility of being an arts leader at this moment. I want us to be a center of diverse engagement. And that absolutely starts with what we're presenting here: diversity in worldview, artists on stage and parity of gender.
In your time at Chautauqua Theater Company you championed new works, instituting a new play festival. What are your plans here?
It's one of the main things I talked about in my candidacy: to bring new play development more into focus. New work is how we speak to our changing socioeconomic and political topography. Of course, we understand our history through classics and modern work; I'm a big proponent of that. But I also know that PlayMakers, over the years, had a reputation for "take your medicine" kind of theater, where people come and take their dose of culture. Some people want that. But I think we have a long way to go to ensure that there's substance and also innovation.
I don't want PlayMakers to fall behind in being able to tell the stories of today, and that has to do with diversity and inclusion as well. It's not necessarily new, but I'm going to make sure that PlayMakers is a home for the best of new art, established art and veteran art and artists as well. In order to do that, we are going to have to put our attention to it, raise money and do a huge amount of outreach. We have to do that to remain relevant.
In addition to community, diversity and new works, many local theater artists we spoke with think PlayMakers needs further emphasis on education as well.
To me, they're all connected. In fact, I don't see those as four different points. Each is a point of entry to the same place—to relevance.
The General Assembly and UNC's board of governors have stepped up their scrutiny of public voices on campus in recent years, eliminating programs some have found politically distasteful or inconvenient. To what degree do you have the freedom to pursue your goals?
I think I have a responsibility to exercise my freedom. Now add the word "responsibly" to that. It is any good cultural institution's obligation to be the voice of not only the status quo but those who feel marginalized and underrepresented, to push the envelope in having us look at ourselves and how we look at the world. If we are not asking ourselves those questions, which are often uncomfortable, we are not doing our job as artists.
Theater can no longer just be a mirror unto ourselves. If we're reflecting only the community that is coming into the theater, we are not a relevant organization. If that makes certain people uncomfortable, good. Do I want to push them away so that they don't want to come and share in dialogue with us? No. That's where the fine line is. But there is a way to instigate and inspire conversation and dialogue through good art that is more necessary today than it has ever been.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Playhouse on the hill"