The Daily Tar Heel

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Tuesday October 4th

Q&A with PlayMakers producing artistic director Joseph Haj

PlayMakers Repertory Company recently received three grants, one for $250,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and two from the National Endowment for the Arts for $45,000 and $25,000, to support its upcoming and future seasons.

Arts Editor Josephine Yurcaba spoke with Joseph Haj, producing artistic director for the company, about how the money will be allocated for different performances and community outreach efforts PlayMakers is planning.

Daily Tar Heel: Why do you think PlayMakers received these grants? What do you think it says about PlayMakers as an artistic institution?

Joseph Haj: The particular honor of the Mellon Foundation grant, unlike the NEA where any theater arts organization can apply for a grant, there’s no application process for the Mellon Foundation. If Mellon hears that you’re doing interesting work they sort of tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Come talk to us,’ so it’s an honor to even be invited into a conversation with the Mellon Foundation, and then to be able to pitch an idea to Mellon to discuss with them about a way that we could be a real service to the community is an enormous thrill.

For an organization like the Mellon Foundation to give us their attention and their resources towards making work, I think, is evidence of a company that is doing work that is meaningfully placed in the life of its community and meaningfully placed in the national theater scene. The honor of the NEA grant is a little bit different. It is made up of peer adjudicated panels of leaders in the field who are running other not-for-profit theaters … they decide the level of funding. So it’s quite an honor to be acknowledged by your peers as a theater that’s doing both outstanding work, both in the artistic excellence in the work that’s being made and on the community impact of the work that we’re doing.

DTH: What will the $250,000 grant go towards? Will its use be spread out over time, or does PlayMakers have plans for a big project/season?

JH: We initially got funded three years ago in our first conversation with Mellon and then in a subsequent proposal, and what was agreed upon was a three-year summer residency program for companies that make devised work. They’re saying, “We have an idea, let’s get in a room and see if we can create a play around this theme and this idea.” So, they aren’t starting with the text. Most of the work we do at PlayMakers, they are starting with a finished script. For companies that make devised work it can be monetarily challenging for them to find the support hat they need to incubate their work … because, until it’s finished, there isn’t money in the incubation side. Mellon invited us to reapply for another round of funding and they increased the amount they gave us to $250,000, which will be very roughly divided as one-third for each of the three companies over the next three summers. We just formalized that the company we’ve invited in for this coming summer is the Rude Mechanicals from Austin, Texas.

DTH: Now the press release says that the $45,000 NEA grant will be used for the Mainstage finale – what is that?

JH: The last mainstage show is the musical “Assasins,” which is Stephen Sondheim’s master work, and it looks at nine presidential would-be and successful assassins of American presidents over the course of history. So, the $45,000 will go to support what is going to be a very big project for us, and support the intended outreach of that project, which is, I’m hoping, going to lead us to a community-wide conversation about guns, gun control, about our cultural identity as related to guns in America.

Then the closing of our second stage, we also commissioned a piece from monologuist Mike Daisey to make a piece called “The Story of the Gun,” which is again about guns in America. I’m hoping in that time towards the end of the academic calendar year that we can be the meaningful community dialogue around guns and the gun control question, which I think is a rather urgent issue.

DTH: The $25,000 grant will be used for “The Tempest,” correct?

JH: So that’s a really cool grant, we’ve received it several times from the NEA. The whole target of that grant is to ensure that we’re getting Shakespeare to young people and … each time it allows us to go further out into community to serve underserved kids. But often the people who can come are students who are close to us or schools who have the resources. But what that NEA money allows us to do is to still further underwrite the costs of tickets when necessary for an underserved school, provide transportation if necessary, and what’s really fantastic is that it allows us to send teaching artists out to schools to prepare the young students before they come see the play, help give them some context, a way to look at the play, so that they have a very rich experience when come see the play.

Then we send teaching artists back out to the schools after they’ve seen the plays to talk about what their experience was. That’s a very powerful way to engage students. You can’t underestimate what funders like the Mellon Foundation, the NEA, the Shubert Foundation, how much they mean to the field in terms of allowing us to get our work as broad of an audience as possible and allowing access points for all members of our community, regardless of ability to pay. They have a very important part in the landscape of not-for-profit theater.

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