2019/2020 will mark the 100th season of PlayMakers on UNC’s campus. While the name and history are shared, PlayMakers Repertory Company, which is active today, was actually established in 1976 as a professional company. PlayMakers is celebrating all 100 years with purpose.
“To interweave that concept of the legacy of American theater and the legacy of Carolina and PlayMakers in that history,” Justin Haslett, the managing director of PlayMakers, said. “But also the role that we play now as the contemporary regional theater within the industry and within the cultural landscape of theater, the role we play in moving the art form forward.”
The season opener will be Nambi Kelley’s adaptation of “Native Son.” Written as a novel by Richard Wright, it was first made into a play by UNC graduate Paul Green in collaboration with Wright in the 1920s. Green would later win a Pulitzer, travel around the world as a human rights activist and return to teach at UNC for several years. Green's legacy aside, this season's focus is on the plays.
“For me, it connects to a wider conversation we're having across the country about taking a good long hard look at our inheritances,” Alejandro Rodriguez, a PlayMakers producing associate, said.
For the company, moving forward may take myriad shapes. For PlayMakers, everything from set and tech to critical post-performance dialogue are on the table. Their most recent season wrapped up with one such instance.
“Bertolt Brecht’s 'Life of Galileo' wound up being our highest grossing non-musical in history, which really speaks to the curiosity and integrity of our audience,” Vivienne Benesch, PlayMakers producing artistic director of three years, said. “It was very encouraging to know that our audience loves a challenge.”
"Life of Galileo" featured a layer of technological innovation that Haslett said is now the norm.
“We think that more artists in the field today are expecting that level of engagement and certainly audiences are responsive to and excited by new ways of storytelling on stage,” Haslett said.
While moving forward means pressing on into unfamiliar territory, it doesn’t mean forgetting about the past. PlayMakers' bread-and-butter is the classics, Haslett said. This season’s productions include Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ adaptation of the medieval-morality play “Everyman”.
“At the beginning of every show there’s a lottery and they found out who’s playing what," Benesche said. "So you can come back and there are 120 different combinations. You could come back five times and see completely different versions of the play.”
This season also includes two world premieres, a Shakespeare play new to PlayMakers, and the continuation of the PRC-squared series.
“We try to select works of dramatic literature that will stimulate robust but thoughtful intellectual dialogue, which is why, after every PRC2 performance, we host a usually panel talkback conversation which we call the second act,” Haslett said. “This helps to open up the performance to the Carolina community, students and employees alike.”
With community in mind, the 2019/2020 season stays true to its roots. Playwriting and production arrived at UNC to help expand its public service to the arts. With “Legacy|Now”, PlayMakers aims to move through the past towards the future.
“For me it’s an opportunity to go into our attic or our basement and take out all the boxes and unpack them and look at them and say, ‘There’s so much here to celebrate,’” Rodriguez said. “These are things that we can question and reflect on. And they give us an opportunity to take the best parts of these with us.”
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