New Theater Director Talks Taking Over For Predecessor Killed In Car Crash

By Chicagoist_Guest in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 17, 2016 5:26PM

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Photo courtesy of American Theater Company
By Timothy Parfitt

In February, director and choreographer Will Davis got good news wrapped in tragic circumstances. He had been named the new artistic director of the American Theater Company, replacing the company’s previous artistic director of seven years, PJ Paparelli, who died in a tragic car crash in Scotland last spring at age 40.

“When I accepted this job, people came out of the woodwork with stories about PJ. All of these stories had a similar theme: ‘PJ changed my life.’” Davis told Chicagoist. “These stories stirred in me a deep sense of responsibility and calling to… lift up PJ’s legacy.”

Paparelli, a beloved pillar of the Chicago theater scene, built ATC’s reputation for developing plays that went on to international acclaim; the theater’s 2014 show The Humans, for instance, opened off Broadway last month. Paparelli was especially known for turning personal testimony into compassionate documentary theater, wrestling with subjects from the Columbine massacre (Columbinus) to Chicago public housing (The Projects).

What a daunting task, stepping into Paparelli’s shoes, but Davis, now one of the few transgender artists to lead a major arts institution in America, has decades of experience on his side. Davis started out at DePaul, studying theater as an undergrad. “It was in Chicago that I fell in love with new plays and developing new works. I came up in that old school, storefront Chicago model,” Davis said—and he returns to that model in his new role at ATC, which has operated out of the same converted North Side warehouse since 1985.

From DePaul, Davis went on to Texas, where he earned his MFA in directing at the University of Texas—Austin, and then to New York, where he made his mark on the more adventurous corners of the city’s theater scene.

Davis is quick to explain he didn’t make it in the theater scene on his own. “I was very fortunate that towards the end of my grad school experience I inherited a small chunk of money. I want to help dispel the myth that somehow it’s easy to live in New York, that if you strive and work hard and get the right job, you’ll have enough. That’s just not true about the arts.”

Now that he’s attained this leadership position at ATC, he wants to further cultural discussions of race, identity and representation.

“I make plays through an experimental, feminist lens. Those things are important to me,” he said. “Now’s the moment. People are getting together around ideas and plans and actionable steps to actually make the theater representative of our country.”

In addition to choosing plays for next season, Davis is overseeing the final two productions of ATC’s 2016 season: the regional premiere Kill Floor, and to end the season, an adaptation of the 1980 film Xanadu. The latter is a tribute to Paparelli.

“PJ is known for these incredibly virtuosic works that dealt with complicated subject matters, and his guilty pleasure was Xanadu,” Davis said. “As PJ’s known nationally and in Chicago, you wouldn’t put Xanadu next to his name, but it’s going to be a wild and wooly ride of sophisticated camp. I looked at the scenic design yesterday. Only ATC could pull this off. We’re putting a roller rink in the space.”

Davis plans on continuing to honor Paparelli in a practical way as well, by raising money, writing grants and bringing a level of financial stability to the company. “ATC thriving is how we continue to celebrate what he did,” Davis said.

Kill Floor opens March 25 and Xanadu opens May 27.