Last month, Vivienne Benesch made her directorial debut on the stage that most thespians only dream of – Broadway.
Benesch, currently in her sixth season as producing artistic director for the PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, directed "Birthday Candles," written by Noah Haidle.
The show, which debuted on Broadway on March 18, details the story of a woman searching for the significance of her life. Each year on her birthday, she recreates the same birthday cake until she eventually reaches her 101st birthday.
"Birthday Candles" first premiered at the Detroit Public Theater in 2018. Benesch said that the play eventually transitioned to Broadway in March 2020, but the show's opening date faced delays as a result of COVID-19.
During her time in Chapel Hill, Benesch said she always felt connected to a greater community that generated new ideas.
"The creating the work is one form of alchemy, but the sharing of the work with the community is an equally important part,” she said.
Although Broadway allows for larger audiences and more resources, Benesch said she wanted to treat "Birthday Candles" the same way she would for any of her previous works.
She noted how important it is to make sure that the story keeps its integrity — regardless of the stage's size.
“My motto for it all is 'do the work, treat it like any other collaboration and creative process that you have',” she said. “And then you will stay true to the story of the play.”
From the first day of rehearsals, "Birthday Candles" cast member and UNC alumna Arielle Yoder said she felt connected with fellow castmates.
"We all were sort of woven together through different six degrees of separation," she said.
Benesch's support, Yoder said, helped foster these relationships, citing how Benesch made a clear effort to create an open and inclusive environment during the rehearsal process.
Yoder explained that that environment allowed everybody involved in the play’s production to be open about their emotions — helping them feel confident in the art they were making.
Benesch's prioritization of inclusivity also extends to her work for PlayMakers in Chapel Hill. Jeffrey Blair Cornell, a teaching professor in the Department of Dramatic Art at UNC and resident actor for PlayMakers, said Benesch's compassion made her an asset to work with.
Cornell said Benesch often emphasized the importance of work-life balance and understanding how acting can sometimes be intense and emotionally taxing for actors, and how that in itself can affect company morale.
“The material we’re working on can have emotional consequences on the people telling the story,” Cornell said. “She’s been a leader in helping us deal with that.”
Benesch said creating an open and collaborative environment is crucial for the creation of art. She also stressed the importance of further representation of female directors on Broadway.
“There are so many wonderful working directors and still so few of us have gotten to the Broadway platform,” she said. “So any part that I can play in changing those numbers and being an inspiration, I’m thrilled to get to play that role.”
Benesch's Broadway experience isn’t only limited to directing. She's also acted on Broadway in several productions, such as "After the Fall" and "The Deep Blue Sea."
She said that she has been sure to implement parts of her Chapel Hill background into the show. There are currently several members of the cast and crew who are UNC alumni in the production.
There is also a special Easter egg within the show — a stuffed Ramses hidden on the stage.
Benesch said she is confident that "Birthday Candles" resonates with the UNC spirit, and hopes that it is a show that will someday be put on by PlayMakers.
“It’s a show that Tar Heels far and wide would love,” she said.
"Birthday Candles" will continue to run through May 29 on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre.
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