Celebrating an ‘entirely new act’

Chancellor Carol L. Folt called PlayMakers Repertory Company and the department of dramatic art “part of the soul that makes UNC-Chapel Hill the leading public university in America.”

On Monday, Folt announced a $12 million gift to PlayMakers and the department of dramatic art that will significantly increase the University’s performing arts programming by expanding educational opportunities for students and enhancing performance and outreach offerings available to the community.

The endowment, from longtime arts patron Joan H. Gillings, is the largest single gift by a living individual to benefit the performing arts at Carolina. In honor of the historic gift, the Center for Dramatic Art will be named the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art.

“Joan’s legacy of support and leadership spans all aspects of our campus,” said Folt at a celebration at the Center for Dramatic Art. “I’m proud of Carolina’s history and tradition in in the performing arts, but past and tradition are not what this is all about. …Today we celebrate an entirely new act that is really taking [PlayMakers and the department of dramatic art] to a new level. It will help us to advance Arts Everywhere, which seeks to take art as a strength across the University, to unleash in every way possible creativity on and off campus.”

Folt was joined by Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences; Adam Versényi, chair of the department of dramatic art; and Vivienne Benesch, PlayMakers’ producing artistic director, in making the announcement.

Gillings’ commitment will enable the department to recruit and retain top graduate students by funding additional scholarships in acting, costume production and technical production annually. It will also expand PlayMakers’ vital education and outreach programs, including a ­­new Mobile Shakespeare initiative, and its K-12 educational matinee and teaching artist residency programs. In addition, the gift will foster the development of new plays to engage the University and national theater community with innovative and socially conscious work.

Gillings, who has served on the Friends of PlayMakers Advisory Board since 2008 and as its chair since 2013, acquired a love of theater while attending plays on Broadway and in London’s West End. She said that the high quality of PlayMakers productions and her interactions with master of fine arts students inspired her gift.

“I can’t tell you how important this is to me. Having PlayMakers in our own backyard is incredible,” Gillings said. “It’s all about the students. They are our future.”

Graduate students from UNC’s Professional Actor Training program serenaded Gillings at the close of the event with a personalized version of Cole Porter’s song “You’re the Top.” (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Established in 1925, the department of dramatic art is the second-oldest theater department in the country. PlayMakers Repertory Company, the University’s professional theater in residence, recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Gillings’ gift creates a foundation for the future that will continue Carolina’s century-old tradition of educating students and inspiring the community through live theater.

“PlayMakers has a special bond with our department of dramatic art,” said College Dean Kevin Guskiewicz. “PlayMakers’ professional actors and technicians and costumers are not only producing shows, they are also teaching their craft in the department. Our MFA students, in turn, get the incomparable experience of working on productions of the highest professional quality.”

Benesch said Gillings cares deeply not only about PlayMakers, but the community in which PlayMakers is so richly embedded.

“Joan has continued to challenge me to make that relationship the strongest it can be,” Benesch said. “She has supported excellence, relevance and risk-taking and a mission for deeper outward-facing engagement that will increase our footprint on the University, the state and across the country.”

Versényi said department of dramatic art faculty and graduate students transform learning into practice every day.

“We are one of the few theaters in the country to have a resident company made up of faculty members and graduate students in which we’re constantly moving back and forth between our classrooms; our rehearsal halls; our stages; and our costume, scene and prop shops,” he said.

Previous philanthropy by Gillings to the University includes UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, Carolina Performing Arts and UNC Children’s Hospital.

Graduate students from UNC’s Professional Actor Training program serenaded Gillings at the close of the event with a personalized version of Cole Porter’s song “You’re the Top” from the musical “Anything Goes.”

Event attendees had a chance to get a sneak peek of graduate students working on the set inside the Paul Green Theatre. The stage has been transformed into a bake shop for “The Cake,” which begins previews Wednesday.

Read more about the gift.

By Kim Spurr, College of Arts & Sciences