Getting to Know Vivienne Benesch

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The new producing artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company talks can’t-miss shows, change and Chapel Hill.

Vivienne Benesch

What drew you to taking on the role at PlayMakers?

I directed shows in three previous seasons at PlayMakers and had great experiences every time. I felt an immediate kinship with its mission and values, its artists and staff, and with this community. Right away I found it to be a place where I could take artistic risks and be both challenged and supported by a fearlessly curious audience. I was also – and still am! – impressed simply by the excellence of the theater and its rightful reputation. So, I guess you could say I was looking for long-term relationship with PlayMakers after having had an exciting affair! PlayMakers also shares a lot with Chautauqua Theater Company, where I just completed my twelve year tenure as Artistic Director.

Why do you think the arts are important?

We live in an age of access to so much information. What isn’t at our fingertips – and what I believe is lacking today – is access to meaning, and that’s what I believe the arts can provide. Theater is the one place where it is our job to deceive and pretend in specific service of finding meaning and possibly even some truth. I also believe strongly in art as an agent of change and a forum for discussion. Since I started at PlayMakers, events have transpired locally in North Carolina and nationally that make it crucial to provide pathways to empathy and creative outlets of expression.

Can you speak to some of the highlights of the upcoming season, including “The May Queen,” which you are directing?

I’m thrilled by the overarching journey of transformation that unfolds throughout our season, beginning with Mashuq Deen’s “Draw The Circle,” the contemporary story of one Muslim-American family’s struggle with their child’s gender transition, and ending with Lerner and Lowe’s “My Fair Lady,” the musical adaptation of Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” which re-tells the oldest transformation story in Western mythology.

Along the way we examine the idea of transformation from several different, less literal angles: Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” which closes two days before the 2016 presidential election, tells a cautionary tale of a town transformed by fear; Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” one of the most beautifully-written plays of this century, follows the struggle for financial and personal independence of a young African-American seamstress in early-20th century New York City; new Associate Artistic Director Jerry Ruiz will direct an eight-person version of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” in which antics and disguises give way to the true courses of the heart; and a brand new work based on Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis” invites audiences into the artistic transformation of a work in progress.

And then “The May Queen,” of course, has several highlights for me. As a new play, and one that I commissioned at Chautauqua, “The May Queen” represents a key part of my vision for bringing more new work and work in development to Triangle audiences. I’m excited to bring to PlayMakers the voice of playwright Molly Smith Metzler, one of the foremost female comedians writing for stage and TV today (she currently writes for Hulu’s “Casual” and Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black”). Finally, I’m delighted to announce that the production will bring rising star and UNC alum Megan Ketch (who stars in CBS’s “American Gothic”) back to her native Chapel Hill, in a part written with her in mind.

What do you hope PlayMakers audiences take away from shows this season?

I really hope that they feel energized by the work being produced and find a new sense of relevance in it – to feel that they absolutely can’t miss what’s going on at PlayMakers because it’s in touch with them, it’s in touch with the rest of the world. And I hope they’ll appreciate the rare gift they have in our company itself: PlayMakers is one of the few remaining true repertory companies in this country, and it is attached to one of the top training programs, so in addition to renowned visiting guest artists, our audiences get to develop relationships with the most transformative and experienced actors in the nation alongside fierce upcoming talent.

What’s been your favorite role to perform or show to direct during your career?

My favorite role to perform – if I have to choose just one! – would have to be Hannah in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” The play itself is one of my all-time favorites. Hannah is simply as smart and articulate as I could ever dream to be and yet, protected under all that intellect, is a huge heart that guides her.

In terms of directing, I’d have to say the “Romeo and Juliet Project,” an inter-arts collaboration I did at the 5,000 seat amphitheater at Chautauqua that interwove Shakespeare’s play with Gounod’s opera, Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Berlioz’s symphony, Bernstein’s musical, and even a 1960s pop hit by the Reflections!

What kind of impact do you hope to have on PlayMakers?

Building on the excellence of my predecessor Joe Haj, I hope to bring exciting actors, directors, designers and multidisciplinary artists into conversation with our community and to challenge and feature our phenomenal resident company in new ways. More specifically, though, I hope to focus some of our conversation more specifically on social justice. PlayMakers is embedded in a community with historically deep roots in social activism and a historically deep need for social justice. A very related hope for me is to diversify our audience base and deepen our community engagement: to grow our community outreach programming so that we can serve audiences who either cannot or have not yet come to know us in Chapel Hill, and make PlayMakers known as a point of access to art that is truly open to everyone.

What drew you to Chapel Hill?

Nowhere else on earth do I feel the combination of motivation and relaxation that I feel here. I love the mixture of small-town life and gorgeous nature with rich cultural sophistication and intellectual brilliance. As a native New Yorker, I’ve never lived in a place where people have such love for their home and such pride in their community.

You’ve lived here since January. Any favorite spots so far?

Given that theater-makers tend to work late nights, the bar at Lantern has become a favorite haunt of mine already. I’m looking forward to more time at the Ackland Art Museum. I can’t wait to get to another Tar Heels game (as long as they don’t conflict with my theater schedule!) When I’m in need of some nature, I enjoy going to the botanical gardens, which I just recently discovered – in fact, I’m already in talks to bring some theater performances there, so stay tuned!

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Jessica Stringer

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