From D.C. to Juneau, Alaska, theater professionals across the country are mourning the death of PJ Paparelli, former associate artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Paparelli, 40, who was the artistic director of Chicago’s American Theater Company, died Thursday after a car crash in Scotland, where he was on vacation.
“I feel so terrible about this,” said Michael Kahn, STC’s artistic director. “This is just incomprehensible.”
From 1998 to 2004, Paparelli worked at STC, first as a directorial assistant, then as resident assistant director and then as associate director. He left to take the helm of Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre, a scrappy but respected company founded by Molly Smith, now artistic director at Arena Stage. Paparelli had that job for three years, then moved to the warmer climes of Chicago, where he continued to do groundbreaking work.
“Paparelli’s tenure was also notable not just for the quality of the work but for the high-profile projects he could tease out of the hyper-competitive national world of theater,” Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones wrote in his appreciation.
In Washington, Paparelli is being remembered as an enthusiastic young director who had a unique gift for transferring youthful anxiety to the stage. In addition to directing at the Shakespeare Theatre, Paparelli helmed a fierce “Romeo and Juliet” at the Folger in 2005 and created and directed “Columbinus,” a documentary-style drama about the Columbine High School shooting, at Round House Silver Spring, also in 2005. Paparelli last worked in Washington in 2012, when he directed a U2-blasting, tech-savvy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Shakespeare. Critical reception was mixed, but Paparelli’s return made an impression on the staff.
“PJ was always nice to us in STC’s Box Office,” associate marketing director Austin Auclair tweeted last week. “Something you don’t experience with a lot of directors.”
Kahn said he considered Paparelli’s years at the Shakespeare crucial and formative but also full of promise.
“It was very clear to me, very early on, that he had the potential to not only be an important director, but the artistic director of an important theater,” Kahn said. “PJ’s death came at a moment where everything came together for him.”
In the eight years since Paparelli took over American Theater, the small venue away from Chicago’s Theater Loop had grown from an upstart company to a nationally recognized exporter of new plays, most notably “Disgraced,” the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama that is up this year for a Tony for best play. In the meantime, Paparelli was celebrating the success of “The Project(s),” a docu-drama about life in Chicago’s public housing units.
Kahn talked to him about the show just a few weeks ago. “He was so excited,” his mentor recalled. As associate director at the Shakespeare, Paparelli followed freelance director Ethan McSweeny and now-Red Bull Theater artistic director Jesse Berger. The next man in the job was David Muse, who is now artistic director at Studio Theatre. Kahn said he is proud of all his lieutenants but remains especially in awe of Paparelli’s ability to handle the management challenges of theater while also directing and creating new works.
“I don’t know how he managed to do everything that he did, and he did all that himself. He was reaping the rewards of theater,” Kahn said.
Six Arlington-based arts groups are breathing a collective sigh of relief this week after county officials backpedaled on a plan to kick them out of their office space.
The drama began May 1, when Michelle Isabelle-Stark, the county’s director of cultural affairs, sent letters to the organizations ordering them out of their offices at 3700 S. Four Mile Run Dr., an office and performing space known as Theatre on the Run. The leaders of the six groups — Educational Theatre Company, Encore Stage & Studio, Jane Franklin Dance, American Century Theater, the Metropolitan Chorus and WSC Avant Bard — had until June 1 to find new homes.
They called a meeting with Isabelle-Stark, who joined the county staff in October, and on May 5, she sent a letter extending their leases until Sept. 8. But Tom Prewitt, artistic director of WSC Avant Bard, still wasn’t happy, and neither were the other five groups. They reached out to members of the Arlington Commission for the Arts, an advisory board, and learned that Isabelle-Stark had made the decision without consulting other county officials.
The latest letter, dated May 15, says that the groups can stay and that if a move is necessary, they will be given ample time to relocate and help finding new space.
“I’ve come to realize this was a premature move on my part,” Isabelle-Stark said Monday. “It was a mistake.”
Isabelle-Stark said her intentions were good — that she wanted her team together in one office space. Three county arts employees have offices at Theatre on the Run, but several others work in Ballston. After Artisphere closes in June, four more county employees will need office space.
Isabelle-Stark said that she was still eyeing the building as a potential solution but that she would work hard to make sure that the arts groups, if displaced, would find a new home.
Still, the whole exchange has left a sour taste in Prewitt’s mouth.
“This felt like a step backward in a county that has always prided itself on nurturing the arts,” he said.
Theater fans interested in giving ballet a try have two good options this week at the Kennedy Center: Thursday, the Scottish Ballet brings “A Streetcar Named Desire,” its acclaimed adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play, to the Opera House. In the Eisenhower Theater, St. Petersburg’s Eifman Ballet presents “Rodin,” opening Friday. That’s where you’ll find Irina Tsikurishvili, Synetic Theater’s choreographer-in-residence.
After years of reading about the 40-dancer troupe and watching clips on YouTube, Tsikurishvili said she is excited to see how choreographer Boris Eifman’s aesthetic compares to Synetic’s. Like Synetic, his troupe mostly adapts historic characters and works of literature for the stage.
“He has great dancers, but their emphasis is more on the characters, and the story. I’m glad to see ballet that goes in that direction,” Tsikurishvili said. “I’m going to grab my Synetic ensemble members. They have to go and see it.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.