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Monday December 5th

Start to PlayMakers’ 2015-16 season is bittersweet

Joseph Haj says his final goodbye by introducing new season of theater

<p>PlayMakers Artistic Director Joseph Haj</p>
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PlayMakers Artistic Director Joseph Haj

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s 2015-16 season will be their 40th and yet the anniversary was bittersweet. 

PlayMakers held their annual season announcement Thursday night at the Center for Dramatic Art; the announcement event also served as a farewell question-and-answer session with departing Artistic Director Joseph Haj, who has been instrumental in transforming PlayMakers from a struggling company to the regional leader it is today. 

Perhaps his greatest innovation was the 2007 addition of a second-stage theater called "PRC2" to complement the main stage shows PlayMakers typically puts on.

“If we just line up classics, then you’re a very unimportant theater, and the genesis of PRC2 was to make sure that we’re an important theater,” Haj said. “We’re inviting people into conversations that we think we ought to be having as a community.”

The PRC2 shows feature a single actor interacting with an intimate crowd both during the show and afterward with an audience conversation. Despite this being an unprecedented expansion for PlayMakers at the time, Haj said he felt obligated to take the step forward. 

“It’s important as an arts organization that you are at least periodically doing a thing that scares you nearly to death and that you’re not sure you know how to do,” Haj said.

For Durham residents Norman and Roberta Owen, who have been PlayMakers season ticket holders since 2004, the risks taken by Haj are more than welcome. 

“What has happened every year since Joe has been here is that there are some shows I’m familiar with, but many of the others I don’t know much about,” Roberta Owen said. “It’s exciting to be introduced to works that you don’t know as well as to have the comfort of works that you do.”

Norman Owen said the remarkable mix of shows, however, is what remains the same.

“We’ve been theatergoers all around the world in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and London and Hong Kong, and you can see productions any place that are as good as this,” Norman Owen said. “But the consistently high level is just remarkable, and this upcoming season looks to be the same thing.”

In addition to the Q&A session and season preview, McKay Coble, Milly S. Barranger Distinguished Professor of Dramatic Art, announced the creation of the Joseph C. Haj Producing Artistic Director Fund and the Joseph C. Haj Graduate Excellence Award. The awards are dedicated to Haj’s contributions to the community as a leader, artist and graduate student in the program himself. 

Frank Stasio, host of WUNC’s "The State of Things" and moderator of the Q&A, suggested that despite all of Haj’s triumphs and success, his greatest contribution cannot be seen in increased ticket sales, awards or big job opportunities. 

“He proved that theater is not dead, far from it — theater is robust, it’s alive, it’s dynamic and, if you do it well, we can’t live without it,” he said.

“Joe proved that this is something we want, and if you get the right person in here with the right imagination and vision, you can create something special on stage.”

Writer: Ayad Akhtar
Stage: Paul Green Theatre
Run date: Sept. 16 – Oct. 4
About the show: This one-act play revolves around a dinner party at the home of Amir Kapoor, a Muslim-raised Pakistani-American, and his wife, Emily. The tense drama deals with the heavy topics of race, identity and Islamophobia.
Haj, on heaviest questions of "Disgraced": “It’s really wrestling with terrifically important themes, and it’s somehow circling this question of cultural assimilation, and the dangers implicit in that.” 

Writer: Theresa Rebeck
Stage: Paul Green Theatre
Run date: Oct. 14 – Nov. 1
About the show: This new comedy tells the story of a successful writer who turns to intimately teaching a small group of students how to write — but for an exorbitant fee.
Haj, on the tension of "Seminar": “I think it’s particularly great on a university campus. It really explores the dangers of having idols and heroes and getting too close to them.” 

Writer: Rick Elice
Stage: Paul Green Theatre
Run date: Nov. 18 – Dec. 12
About the show: A new twist on a classic favorite, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is a loose prequel to "Peter Pan" but geared toward adults and kids alike.
Haj, on the perfect play for the whole family: “If anybody wants to make a fortune in the American theater, you’ll figure out how to write a play that young people like that adults don’t abhor. “Peter and the Starcatcher” is one of those very few plays that actually fits that bill. It’s delightful, really fun for the holidays; a big, adventure epic and I think a real blast.” 

Writer: KJ Sanchez
Stage: Kenan Theatre
Run date: Jan. 6 – Jan. 10
About the show: This is a PRC2 show. 
Haj’s take: “It’s a true story about Sanchez’s family, who, almost 300 years ago, settled in New Mexico with Spanish land grants; however 11, 12 or 13 generations later, (they) still live in that area and are in an enormous family battling feud about the rights to this land. Once again, it’s a story of home, a story of place, a story of identity.” 

Writer: Anton Chekhov
Stage: Paul Green Theatre
Run date: Jan. 20 – Feb. 7
About the show: This classic Anton Chekhov play from the turn of the 20th century grapples with class, family and love.
Haj, on performing a modern take on the Chekhov classic: “It doesn’t pull it out of place and time. It still belongs very much where it is, but there’s a kind of muscularity to it, there’s a kind of front footedness to it, there’s something that feels kind of contemporary about the vernacular and the language, which really excites.” 

Writer: Jackie Sibblies Drury
Stage: Paul Green Theatre
Run date: Feb. 24 – March 13
About the show: This play tells the tale of six actors wrestling with the weighty topic of the genocide of the Herero people of modern-day Namibia by the government of German South West Africa.
Haj, on the actors in the play within a play: “They have all the best intentions in the world. They come to it from such a place of wanting to get this thing done the right way, and what happens is hysterical. And finally, it’s scathing, because as they pick their way through, what bubbles to the surface is their own deeply held points of view, worldviews, prejudices, biases, privilege, etc., all come to bear in the course of them trying to tell this story through their play.” 

Writer: Stephen Sondheim
Stage: Paul Green Theatre
Run date: March 30 – April 23
About the show: This tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been on Broadway, the silver screen and an even an episode of the Office. The Victorian-era musical thriller will make viewers think twice before returning to the barber shop.
Haj, on putting on a Sondheim show for a third straight year: “How sophisticated that storytelling is, how extraordinary an artist this is, we thought you know what, we should wrap this thing up in the third year with what I think is his magnum opus, ‘Sweeney Todd.’” 

Writer: Dan Hoyle
Stage: Kenan Theatre
Run date: April 27 – May 1
About the show: This is a PRC2 show.
Haj’s take: “Dan Hoyle decided to get in his van and drive across the country and talk to real Americans about real things. The voices of those he interviewed all across the country, spending a lot of time in the flyover states — as those of us on the coast call them — with actual folks on the ground, it ends up articulating the really great distances and frustrations between those who are living in big cities and those who are living across the middle section of this country.”

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