think that we need to do just more diverse
work, broader work and more of it.”
This year is Haj’s first to schedule programming for PlayMakers, and he has been
ambitious — the number of programs
offered has almost doubled, to nine productions from five, and a new progressive
theater series has been launched called
PRC2. After every PRC2 performance, a
panel of artists and academic experts leads a
discussion with the audience.
This season’s three PRC2 plays, all staged
at the 200-seat Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre, deal with what Haj calls “hot-button
issues.” September’s production of When the
Bulbul Stopped Singing was a one-man show,
starring Haj, about the Palestinian conflict;
other plays have addressed the Holocaust
and capital punishment.
“We needed to preserve a place where
we can make challenging work and explore
controversial themes. The audience doesn’t
just receive the play but actually engages in
a conversation. There are few safe places
left where people with opposing views can
sit and dialogue.”
That’s not to say all PlayMakers offerings this season are necessarily provocative
or incendiary — the schedule includes
more traditional plays, including Romeo and
Juliet and The Little Prince.
Haj, who during his three years as a student at UNC performed in 11 PlayMakers
productions, has sought to make graduate
students an integral part of the productions.
Last year, Haj and Dooley traveled across
the country auditioning some 500 candidates for six spots in the department’s Professional Actor Training Program. They will
make similar recruiting trips early this year.
In the past, Dooley says, PlayMakers
may have used 20 or so outside guest
actors in a season; this year, because more
graduate students are involved and faculty
members continue to perform, the company has only seven guest actors.
“[Haj] has gone back to the model for
training and the model for PlayMakers
where the graduate acting students form a
large part of the core acting company,”
“We’re in an apprenticeship game,” Haj
said. “I think of it [as] a great deal like a
teaching hospital. You’ve got to get in the
room and have practical, real-life work. …
That was the model when I came to grad
school, and that’s the model that PlayMakers is reverting to.”
Haj also has looked outside the University community to collaborate with community arts leaders. Last year, he called up
ArtsCenter Executive Director Jon Wilner
and asked if he wanted to help put together
a summer theater camp for children.
“We had to find a way to be busier. We
wanted the building to feel more like a
cultural watering hole. The summer is normally so quiet for us.”
Wilner supplied the kids and community connections, and Haj brought in a
professional director and choreographer,
and 43 children from the community got a
taste of professional theater.
“It’s something I had been looking for
since my earliest days,” Wilner said. “It has
been difficult to reach out and collaborate
with the University, but that is changing.
… Since Joe Haj arrived, we have been
able to collaborate. That’s not to say it
might not have happened with the people
before, but with Joe it is happening.”
Haj hopes to pursue an endowment for
PlayMakers that would help stabilize
finances through “good shows and bad
shows.” He and his staff also plan to ratchet
up community involvement, offering more
educational programming and collaborating
with different arts groups in the area.
In the next few years, Haj says, he’d also
like to branch out as an actor and work
with different companies on at least one
production a year.
“We live in a culture [where] we’re deeply
suspicious of anybody who does more than
one thing,” Haj said.“We think someone’s a
dilettante if they do two or three or four
things well. I don’t think of my own life or
work in that way. There are a lot of things
I’m interested in, and some of them I do very
well. It all feels to me part of a single thing,
which is living a life in the theater.”