Arts & Culture

Vivienne Benesch’s new era at PlayMakers

For the past few months, Vivienne Benesch has been working on two productions. Both “Three Sisters,” which opens Thursday at UNC-Chapel Hill’s PlayMakers Repertory Company, and “The Heidi Chronicles” (which played last month at Trinity Repertory in Providence, R.I.) are essentially about women trying to get to new places in their lives.

That’s more than fitting for Benesch herself right now, given that she has just taken over PlayMakers as the company’s new producing artistic director.

“Sometimes life and art find a way to give you the same message,” Benesch said on a recent afternoon in her office during a break between rehearsals for “Three Sisters.” “It’s been amazing to live inside these particular plays at this major turning point in my professional life. It’s a new chapter in my personal life, too, coming to this community.”

Benesch succeeds the well-regarded Joseph Haj, who led PlayMakers through a fairly prosperous decade before departing last summer to become artistic director at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Benesch has spent the past decade as artistic director of Chautauqua Theatre Company in western New York, while also teaching at Julliard and acting.

She has impressive bona fides in multiple theatrical capacities, especially as an actress. Along with winning a 2005 Obie (Off-Broadway Theater) Award, Benesch has also acted in high-profile television shows including “The Good Wife,” “Sex and the City” and “Six Feet Under” – a resume that will stand her in good stead at PlayMakers.

“Vivienne has such great experience as an actress,” said Washington Post theater columnist Rebecca J. Ritzel, who also watched Benesch’s work up close as critic-in-residence at Chautauqua for three years. “That experience will be important for leading the acting program at UNC. I’ve watched her work with students and she has a very warm presence, but she can also still convey authority.”

That experience should also carry over to collaborations. Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, producer and artistic director of the Charlotte Ballet, has worked with Benesch on a number of ambitious productions, most notably the multidiscipline “Romeo & Juliet Project” at Chautauqua in 2013.

“Vivienne is a passionate person, very creative and a pleasure to collaborate with,” Bonnefoux said. “It was an ambitious project and a difficult challenge because it involved so many different people, but she committed meaningfully to it and that is the definition of a good collaborator. I like the idea of someone who is not afraid to do something so big.”

On Maggie’s bad side

A native New Yorker, the 48-year-old Benesch spent eight of her formative years as a theater kid in London, immersed in artistic pursuits from a young age. One grandparent was a concert pianist, another a museum curator, and her mother and grandmother were dancers. Benesch wanted to follow them into dance, but flat feet ruled that out.

Acting was the next best thing and she thrived as a classical actress, especially adroit at language-oriented plays. Benesch earned degrees from Brown and New York University, while acting on stages and screens and also pursuing directing (which she first did as a sixth-grader).

Benesch earned her acting Obie for her performance in Lee Blessing’s “Going to St. Ives” in 2005, and then came what should have been her biggest triumph. She landed a 2007 role in a London production of Edward Albee’s “The Lady From Dubuque,” opposite Dame Maggie Smith.

It seemed like a dream come true – until the start of rehearsals, when Smith did not take to Benesch at all. Smith’s well-documented reputation for prickliness was exacerbated by the fact that (in those pre-“Downton Abbey” days) Smith was “terrified that ‘Harry Potter’ was all anyone would remember her for.” That added up to a miserable time for Benesch.

“From the start, I could never do anything right,” Benesch said. “The director couldn’t direct her and because Maggie did not like me, he took that out on me. It was a great experience as a director to learn what it means to pick on someone, and the effect that has on a group. I’d never been the bad ‘it’ girl before, and everyone felt sorry for me. But once we got through rehearsals, the performances were much better and she warmed up quite a lot.”

Still, Benesch believes she would have been fired if not for the fact that she got on well with Smith’s son (who was in the production, cast as her husband). And it turned out there were some extenuating circumstances. Smith was in more physical pain than anyone else realized, and shortly after the production she was diagnosed with cancer (from which she has since recovered).

“What made it OK was that I was in great company,” Benesch said. “Some of the best actors of our time were all despised by her. More than one person told me to take it as a compliment. But personal feelings aside, working with her was remarkable. I’ve never experienced someone with that kind of intuition and timing, and I learned so much. So, no regrets. If I had it to do over, I would. I might even do it again. In a life of theater, your ‘failures’ are as necessary as your greatest successes.”

Not here to act

Even though her official PlayMakers start date wasn’t until Jan. 1, Benesch moved down weeks early to oversee “Three Sisters,” which she had been scheduled to direct even before getting hired for the theater’s top job. It’s the fourth production Benesch has directed at PlayMakers, so she has a head start on getting to know the local landscape.

“The first time I came here to work, I got a very distinct feeling about this place as both relaxed and motivating,” Benesch said. “It felt like there was room here to be creative and take risks and connect with people, an intellectual and cultural community pushing you to do great work. Joe had a lot to do with that. There’s a wonderful foundation here to build on.”

Benesch is already working on wish lists for future projects. Her goal is to make the next era of PlayMakers one of engagement, with different communities as well as new works.

“I’d like to bring our programs out to the community more,” she said. “Mobile Shakespeare productions, going to prisons and hospitals, things like that. On the community-engagement level, I feel there is great work ahead to be done. Diversity and inclusion are at the center of the conversation now, no longer just one of the points. Different stories and people are important. It’s important that the theater not just hold up a mirror to the audience, but to the greater community.”

Given the conservative leanings of the state legislature and university leadership, pushing beyond the classics into edgier material might not be well received nowadays. The first PlayMakers show Benesch came to Chapel Hill to direct was “In the Next Room” – an early history of the vibrator – in 2011. How that would go over now is hard to say.

“There is energy in my long-term view that I can’t be held up by fear or wanting to please everyone all the time,” Benesch said. “That’s not going to happen, but I’m also not looking to be provocative just for the sake of it. I’m looking forward to the conversation and the debate. I hope the voices of dissension about ‘our changing world’ will engage in conversation and not walk away. That will be the trick as I look to do my first season of programming, for 2016-17.”

But before bearing down on future programming and long-range artistic visions, Benesch has a busy year to get through. From now until September, she’ll hold down two full-time jobs – serving as Chautauqua co-director for one last summer season in addition to taking the reins at PlayMakers.

One thing you probably won’t see anytime soon, however, is Benesch onstage at PlayMakers. Even though there seems to be some demand for it, she has no plans to do any acting herself, at least not yet.

“Right now is my longest-ever stretch of not acting,” she said. “Other than workshops and readings, it’s been three years and I miss it hugely – the process, not the careerist part of it. It was actually a giant relief to call my agents and tell them I’d taken this job. Juggling everything has been difficult the past few years.

“Still, people keep asking if I’ll act here,” she concluded. “Not immediately, although I do hope the performer in me gets exercised from play developments or readings or workshops around town. But I’m not looking to use PlayMakers as a place for me to act. That’s not my job here.”

If you go

What: Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” directed by Vivienne Benesch

Where: PlayMakers Repertory Company, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art

When: Wednesday-Feb. 7

Cost: $15-$54

Details: 919-962-7529; playmakersrep.org

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