Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Meet Vivienne Benesch

Vivienne shares her thoughts on joining PlayMakers Repertory Company as our new Producing Artistic Director

Photo by Alison Sheehy

Dear Friends,

Greetings of expectation!

It’s been my privilege to direct three productions for PlayMakers: Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) in 2011, John Logan’s Red in 2012 and Deborah Salem Smith’s Love Alone in 2014. And I’m extremely excited to bring you the premiere of Libby Appel’s version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in January as I begin my new role as your Producing Artistic Director.

It’s rare to discover a profound affinity with an organization—its artistic mission, its community, its artists and its values. But such was the case, I happily found, here at PlayMakers from the first time I stepped off the plane at RDU.

What life journey brought me here? Well, I dove into theater at a very early age, actually wanting to become a dancer, like both my mother and grandmother, but with flat feet that wasn’t in the cards. A life engaged with words, movement, ideas, space and emotions, however, was. In other words, my life has been a thread of stories. And moreover, I've been very privileged to make a career of storytelling. 

I went to Brown University, where I studied both Theater and Religious Studies, and while there directed far more than I acted. After graduation, however, I decided to pursue my MFA in Acting, having been wisely advised that that was without a doubt the best training for a career in either acting or directing. So I attended NYU's Graduate Acting Program, where I was lucky enough to study under the leadership of Zelda Fichandler, a fierce female icon of the regional theater movement in America. It was during those years that I learned not only about the craft of acting, but also about what I value most about collaboration: that diverse voices make for better art, better audiences and better conversation.

My professional journey over the last twenty years has been multi-faceted. After graduate school, I had several successful years acting professionally, winning an OBIE Award, working on and off Broadway, regionally and in the West End (with Maggie Smith! I've got some stories...) But my lifelong passion for directing was rekindled in 2001 when I helmed a production of The Skin of Our Teeth for the Chautauqua Theater Company. The die was (re)cast, and I began directing and acting simultaneously. I became Artistic Director of the theater at Chautauqua in 2005 and have had the pleasure of leading its transformation into one of the best summer theaters and most competitive summer conservatories in the country. Now, after ten wonderful years at Chautauqua, I’m eager to serve PlayMakers and this community in a year-round capacity. PlayMakers and Chautauqua have much in common. They are both embedded within institutions that truly value the role that the arts and arts education play in the investigation of what it means to be human and a citizen of the of the many reasons I already feel such a great affinity for this organization.

I believe I have an innate understanding of—and vision for—the role this great theater plays not only in the national arts scene, but also as a cultural center for its local and regional community, as an integral part of a professional training program within UNC’s exceptional Department of Dramatic Art and, indeed, as an essential resource for the University at large. I can’t wait to begin the great work of leading PlayMakers forward on all these fronts.

As a director, actor and producer, I am as much at home with the classics, modern masterpieces and brand new work and have a particular interest in originating interdisciplinary collaborations—among theater, dance, music and visual artists. I love to create spaces and opportunities for artists to collide fearlessly with one another. I also love to facilitate theatrical experiences for audiences and communities to collide with art—to let that art shed light on our humanity, and to provoke dialogue and debate. To ensure that the highest quality art is accessible to audiences of all ages and backgrounds, and to provide a forum that embraces our diverse histories as a means of discovering our common ground as we forge into the future.

The face of America is changing. I am humbled with the charge of serving this great company in a time that I believe will see great transformation in the American Theater—no longer holding up a mirror to just a narrow view of nature—but to the expansive reality of what the human race actually looks like and experiences today. And we're lucky, because PlayMakers is the perfect home for such a collision of art and change to take hold.

Building on its already excellent programming and reputation, PlayMakers stands poised to become one of this country’s theater jewels—a leader in the cultural conversations of the 21st Century. It will be my honor to bring you my passion, invention and dedication in this next leg of the journey.

I look forward to being with you soon, at home in Chapel Hill!

Vivienne Benesch

Monday, October 26, 2015

Seminar Makes the Grade

The "brutally hilarious" Seminar has critics and audiences alike raving about this “bitingly funny” show.

Schuyler Scott Mastain as Douglas and Ray Dooley as Leonard
Indy Week: 4 1/2 Stars
"brilliant" “masterful”
“conveys razor-sharp lessons in a compelling master class”

The News & Observer:
“Ray Dooley in one of his most impressive roles … [shows] masterful artistry”
“highly satisfying”

The Five Points Star:
“lively entertainment”
“the ensemble sizzled”

Triangle Arts & Entertainment:
“an ideal show for a college campus”
Schuyler Scott Mastain as Douglas, Carey Cox as Kate, Ray Dooley as Leonard, Allison Altman as Izzy, and Myles Bullock as Martin
And audiences agree ...
"fun - lots of verbal fireworks"
"reminded me of my graduate school days"
“amazing actors …. such a talented company in our midst!”

Don't miss Seminar with a stellar cast led by Ray Dooley - onstage through November 1st.

Click here or call the Box Office at 919-962-7529 for tickets.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Seminar: Special Post-Show Conversation Sunday, Oct 25

Join PlayMakers for a post-show discussion with UNC Creative Writing faculty Daniel Wallace and Randall Kenan this Sunday, Oct 25 following the 2pm matinee performance of Seminar.

Sponsored by PlayMakers and UNC’s Creative Writing Program in the Department of English & Comparative Literature, the conversation will feature Daniel Wallace, J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English, and Randall Kenan, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and will be moderated by Gregory Kable, PlayMakers’ dramaturg and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Dramatic Art. Cast members from the play will also join in the discussion.

Daniel Wallace is author of four novels, including Big Fish (1998), Ray in Reverse (2000), The Watermelon King (2003) and Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician (2007). Big Fish was made into a motion picture of the same name by Tim Burton in 2003. Wallace has written one book for children, entitled Elynora. His illustrations have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Italian Vanity Fair, and many other magazines and books, including Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds: Indispensible Wisdom and Cautionary Advice for Writers by George Singleton and Adventures in Pen Land: One Writer's Journey from Inklings to Ink by Marianne Gingher.

Randall Kenan is the author of a novel, A Visitation of Spirits; two works of non-fiction, Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century and The Fire This Time; and a collection of stories, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. He edited and wrote the introduction for The Cross of Redemption: The Uncollected Writings of James Baldwin. Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, the North Carolina Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rome Prize.

All are welcome for this special discussion - join us!

This post-show conversation is free and open to the public and will be held in the Paul Green Theatre beginning at approximately 3:50pm, 5 minutes after the end of the matinee performance of Seminar.

For information and to purchase tickets to the play, call 919-962-7529 or visit

Friday, October 16, 2015

Jade Bettin Brings New York Style to Seminar

In our last post, PlayMakers resident costume designer Jade Bettin (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Metamorphoses, Clybourne Park, Mary’s Wedding) described the influences that inspired her in creating clothes for Leonard and the young writers-in-progress in Seminar.

Now take a look at some of Jade’s sketches for her New York-inspired designs paired with snapshots of how they “come to life” in the production onstage.

Jade's design for Douglas, as worn by
Schuyler Scott Mastain. Photo by Jon Gardiner
Jade's design for Izzy, as worn by Allison Altman.
Photo by Jon Gardiner.

Jade's design for Leonard, as worn by Ray Dooley.
Photo by Jon Gardiner
Jade's design for Kate, as worn by Carey Cox.
Photo by Jon Gardiner.
Jade's design for Martin, as worn by Myles Bullock.
Photo by Jon Gardiner.

Join us and see how clothing contributes to the characterizations in Seminar. Onstage now through November 1st.

For tickets, Click Here or call the Box Office at 919-962-7529.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Presenting Identity Through Clothing in Seminar

by Jade Bettin

Costume sketch by Jade Bettin
When approaching the costume design for a play set in modern day New York City, it might seem surprising that it was the words of an ancient Greek man that would catch my attention and so perfectly capture the sentiment I was aiming for: “Know first who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly” (Epicetus 44-135 AD). Of course this has resonance because it applies just as much to the way we approach dress today as it did then.

In Seminar, we have four young men and women, all of whom are very hopeful that their writing career is about to take off as a result of mentoring from the successful editor/writer they have hired to examine and critique their work. The students are all from different socioeconomic backgrounds, but they have in common the fact that they are all on the verge of something – they are in a state of transition and trying to find out who they are as writers and, most likely, also as individuals. My goal is to capture that state of flux in their clothes as they try to sort out who they are.

Kate's clothing
To go back to Epicetus’ quote, because these students are still figuring out who they are, what they present of themselves through their clothing are works in progress. So, what messages are their clothes sending and what does it reveal about them in that moment? Each of these students bravely presents their written work to Leonard and it is clear after his critique of Kate’s story in the second scene that they are going to get the brutal truth. And so they are arming themselves for these encounters; putting their best foot forward as we might do for an important interview or date. They are largely doing that with the clothes they wear. For Kate, it’s about putting on her best dress and curling her hair just so. For Douglas, it’s about the costume he imagines a successful writer would wear. This is not necessarily their true selves, but their best selves, or in some cases, the selves they hope they become as a result of these seminar sessions.

I am fortunate in that I get to tell this story of the characters’ identity over the course of the play as there are nine scenes and in nearly every scene the characters wear different clothes. For instance, I am able to explore the fallout of Leonard’s critique on Kate through her clothing. The clothes she wears in the middle section of the play are probably a closer reflection of who Kate actually is at that moment. Just as she needs Leonard to challenge her writing and jar her out of complacency, she needs those revelations about self so that she can discover who she is and dress accordingly.

Join us to see how these young writers evolve, as Seminar takes the stage tonight through November 1st.

Click here or call our Box Office at 919-962-7529 for tickets.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Seminar: Let's Be Brutally Honest

by Adam Versényi

Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, with its conversation surrounding mentorship and education is, in many ways, the perfect play for production by a theatre company like PlayMakers located on a university campus. That conversation is even more relevant when it quickly becomes clear that the seminar in question is concerned with creative writing, a discipline with a long strong history on the UNC campus. The South is a region known for the strength of its fiction writers, many nurtured by programs like ours here in Chapel Hill.

Rebeck’s biting comedy is set in a New York City Upper West Side apartment where four young writers gather for a master class taught by Leonard, once a young fiction phenom himself, who is now a highly sought after editor and a journalist covering war-torn, strife-ridden areas of the globe in the style of Christopher Hedges or C.J. Shivers. The old lion Leonard circles and snipes, pokes and prods, insults and incites the young feral cats that are his charges. In the process, Rebeck explores these writers and all of our life-long cycle of self-identification. The question at the root of this seminar is not so much what it takes to be an artist, but more provocatively, what it takes to be a human being. Rebeck’s characters expose themselves to one another and to us, moving in and out of states of vulnerability and rawness, struggling with how the nature of authenticity contrasts with the perception of authenticity.

Perhaps the central vehicle Rebeck uses to explore these questions is the various shades of honesty we encounter in the play. Like us all, her characters are honest with one another in different degrees, at different times. Leonard’s teaching technique of brutal honesty with his students motivates a great deal of the play’s dramatic action, but also raises questions. Is he being truly honest, both with them and with himself? And is brutal honesty, the tearing down of a student in order to build her or him up again, an effective teaching technique, or simply an exercise of power, an unadulterated ego-trip? Through her characters Rebeck allows us to come to different conclusions in answer to these questions as Leonard and the young writers explore nature vs. nurture, the quality of experience vs. innate identity, as they work to become the type of artist they want to be. The feral cats act on instinct while the old lion offers sage advice gained on the killing fields of the savannah. Rebeck’s play is certainly full of witty dialogue, but it is much more than people sitting around pontificating. This is a muscular, active experience for the audience member. Pull up your chair for this Seminar; join the debate.

Seminar is onstage beginning October 14th.

Click here or call our Box Office at 919-962-7529 for tickets.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Ray Dooley: Finding and Becoming Leonard in Seminar

Ray Dooley as Leonard
In Seminar, Ray Dooley plays the ruthless and frank character of Leonard, a writer/editor who conducts private seminars with young writers looking for both expert criticism and connections to the field of publishing. "Leonard's brain moves so quickly that one sentence can last the better part of a minute. His mind is continually turning over new images and thoughts, and new thoughts are pushing the previous thought out of the way as he strives to make his point the most effective way he can," says Ray, describing how Leonard's grammar is connective and that learning it requires intuitive leaps, one of the largest challenges of playing the role.

With a cast of five, the play "adheres to the unities of time, space and action" more closely than some other productions. The scenes lead to a final showdown, which creates a tighter and smaller canvas. Leonard is moving on a straight line towards an climactic encounter, which is easier to get one's mind around, "but just as a sonata or a quartet, it's not necessarily easier to play." Ray says that although it's different, it's more focused, and in some ways more demanding.

Through a series of metaphorical exercises led by director Michael Dove, Ray was able to uncover the underpinnings of each scene and the skeleton beneath the surface which provided structure to the action.
"Near the end of the play, I have a long speech where I am including one of the young writers in a pointed and emphatic critique of his life, my life and the writing profession. Myles [Bullock], the actor playing the young writer, in order to 'protect' himself, started building a wall around me with chairs. It became that he was putting me in a prison so that I couldn’t get to him with my critique and attack. At the end of the speech, what happens in the play is that my character leaves his character in a very exposed and bleak position. As I got near the end of that speech, I walked around, took him by the hand, walked him into the prison he had created, and as I finished the speech, I close the door on him. We had a visual metaphor of what my character had, in essence, done to his character, leaving him locked in a prison of his own creation. It was a beautiful visualization of that moment."
The four actors playing the writing students in PlayMakers' production are actually Ray's students in UNC's Professional Actor Training Program. "There's always extra pressure when you are working without a net with your own students." He describes the pressure to practice what he preaches, as they can see whether or not he's applying the things taught in the studio. "It's also a great joy when I see these early career professionals doing so well," says Ray.

When creating the wardrobe for Leonard, Ray and Jade Bettin, costume designer for Seminar, drew closely from real life models. "There's an actor in New York I admire greatly, who has some similarities to Leonard." To some degree, they based the wardrobe on that real life person's clothing choices, found in professional and candid photos. "When an actor is building belief in a character, it's a great help to know that these are looks that actually work in real life." The duo also considered where Leonard had just come from and where he is going. In doing that, Ray is able to build a backstory for the earlier portion of the day, which may or may not have gone well.

In terms of set, scenic designer Robin Vest has built a sunken living room downstage, close to the audience, where the first two seminar sessions take place. This allows for a more personal, intimate setting, whereas if the play were upstage, "we would have to try to open it out to the audience, almost as if we were playing in a proscenium house, and probably not able to play quite so intimately." Ray says that playing downstage allows the cast to "paint with fine brushes" rather than having to be sure the audience can hear and see them, allowing the cast more flexibility.

Ray feels it has been a rare privilege to be a part of PlayMakers for so long. Being at PlayMakers is the job Ray says he trained for in the 1970s at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. "Among the greatest joys are my colleagues." Ray describes the role of Leonard as a parting gift from former Producing Artistic Director Joseph Haj and calls working with director Michael Dove "a joy." "It's an extraordinary company of people, and in many ways, a family. We have become the fabric of each other's lives and it shows in the work on stage."

"I certainly get inspiration from the audience here; the audience and I have a 26-year relationship now-and that’s a great privilege. I try to live up to that every time I step on stage and try to live up to the responsibility and the implicit promise every time." 
- Ray Dooley

Seminar takes the stage October 14th through November 1st.

Click here or call our Box Office at 919-962-7529 for tickets.

Monday, October 5, 2015

What We Can Learn Through Seminar

Michael Dove, Director of Seminar

Michael Dove, founding Artistic Director of Forum Theatre in Washington, DC and winner of three Helen Hayes Awards, makes his PlayMakers debut directing Seminar. Michael says, "the thing I most often find myself thinking about in rehearsals for this play is how painfully difficult it is to know yourself."
 Life is complicated. People are complicated. If you can’t figure that out, you’ll never be much of a writer.
"Isn't that the truth!" agrees Michael.

When he heard that neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks had died, Michael found himself obsessed with reading Sacks' writings, realizing that no new words would be coming from him again. Sacks' explorations and discoveries helped shape how Michael sees the world, and understanding the self became the soundtrack to his experience with the bitingly funny Seminar. "It's become a dramatization of Sacks' ideas and questions for me... a play about passion and discovering who you truly are."

In Seminar, four young writers enroll in a private class taught by Leonard, a renowned novelist/editor (played by Ray Dooley). Leonard only has time for the truth, unfiltered. His unorthodox methods put their fragile, developing egos on the cutting board and bring their ferocious envy to the forefront. "Here are four young writers all struggling with the ability to perceive themselves and to find their true voice coupled with a mentor whose tough exterior protects the wounded artistic soul inside," says Michael.
To me, the most compelling stories are the ones that are complicated. The brilliant writers are the ones that try to tackle all the contradictions ‪in our world, all the complexities of relationships, all the differings of opinions, all the nuances of a culture within the confines of the page. The best short stories, novels, plays take all that chaos and help you, the reader or watcher, better understand the human condition.
- Michael Dove
Michael says the beauty of Seminar is how it infuses toil and difficulty with humor. Actor Alan Rickman, who originated the role of Leonard on Broadway, described the play as a "comedy of very bad manners."

"Everyone struggles everyday to find their true self and purity," continues Michael, making Seminar a relatable comedy. "Insecurities, pain... how can we not laugh at that."

"Some of the richest stories of our lives are the traumatic academic experience or pangs of heartache that make it up. The characters [in Seminar] combat with 'such animalistic ferocity' that makes for wickedly funny and clever theatre."

"I have long admired the work at PlayMakers and can’t wait to share the pleasure of watching the amazing Ray Dooley with you all as he takes on the role of Leonard. This is one of the smartest comedies to come out of the American Theatre in the last five years, and I am thrilled to share it with this community."

Join director Michael Dove and his creative team for Seminar. Onstage Oct 14 - Nov 1.

Click here or call the Box Office at 919-962-7529 for tickets.