CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The controversial decision by Playmakers Repertory Company to consolidate artistic and fund-raising duties into a single role will come under close scrutiny as the professional, nonprofit arm of the U. of North Carolina drama department begins its 31st season this month.
Joseph Haj, 42, a graduate of UNC’s master of fine arts professional actor training program, has taken on the expanded responsibilities that led David Hammond, artistic director for 14 of his 21 years with PlayMakers, to exit after protracted negotiations to pursue other interests.
While Hammond claimed his departure was amicable when it was first made public in December 2005, indicating he would stay on to teach and direct individual productions at UNC, the former a.d. has no planned involvement beyond teaching the current semester.
Also departing Playmakers June 30 were executive director Donna Bost Heins and production manager Jason Pritchard.
Some of Hammond’s supporters on Playmakers’ advisory board have been pacified by the hiring of a UNC alumnus.
However, Haj will not hold a faculty position as Hammond did. While he has full responsibility for shaping future seasons, the new a.d.’s debut season has been selected by a faculty and staff committee. Haj began with PlayMakers July 1, too late to pull together the current lineup.
New season opened Oct. 4 with Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s “The Underpants,” directed by Gene Saks. Scheduled to follow are Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie,” Marie Jones’ “Stones in His Pockets,” Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Tony Kushner’s version of Pierre Corneille’s “The Illusion.” Haj directs that season closer, running April 11-May 6.
Major issue is whether Haj’s promotional skills and emphasis on using more graduate students can increase box office and attract more funds from other sources. Playmakers has an annual budget of $1.7 million for five productions, roughly 40% of which comes from ticket sales, the rest from grants and contributions.
“Opportunities for students at PlayMakers are not readily available elsewhere,” says Haj, stressing that the involvement of grad students with experienced professionals has been a fundamental part of PlayMakers’ history. “I want PlayMakers to return to the moment of its birth 33 years ago.”
A Second Stage series debuts this fall in the workshop Kenan Theater to mount productions deemed too risky for PlayMakers’ more staid mainstage. Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife” runs Sept. 13-16 and is being promoted with disclaimers for adult language and mature themes. In the spring, “Universes,” a hip-hop ensemble from the Bronx, will perform.
Haj has worked internationally as well as with regional theaters including the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Houston’s Alley Theater, Actors Theater of Louisville, Ky., the Ahmanson in Los Angeles and New York’s Shakespeare Festival.