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PJ Paparelli, artistic director at American Theater Company, dies

PJ Paparelli, the artistic director of American Theater Company, 40, has died.

Mr. Paparelli died Thursday while on vacation in Scotland, following a car accident there earlier in the week.

Mr. Paparelli, known for his documentary theater masterpieces such as “columbinus” (co-written with Stephen Karam and based on the Columbine High School shootings) and the critically acclaimed “The Humans,” was in his eighth season at ATC. His tenure also included the the Jim Jacobs-penned “The Original Grease” and the world premiere of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced,” a 2015 Tony Award nominee for best drama.

According to Kelly O’Sullivan, an ATC ensemble member who starred in “The Humans,” Mr. Paparelli was driving a car in the country when he stopped and got out to help move a flock of sheep across the road. An approaching driver did not see him in the roadway. Mr. Paparelli had been vacationing with his best friend David Charles, who was in London at the time of the accident.

“He had such a unique ability to take stories of real people and make them feel universal,” O’Sullivan said through tears, speaking from the theater where members of the company had gathered early this evening. “He wanted the community to engage in conversation about how we fix problems that are universal to all communities. How do we address violence and poverty? Those kinds of questions. He was all about social engagement in that respect. He never pretended to have the answers. He cared about the questions.”

In a statement, ATC said today:

“American Theater Company mourns the loss of its leader and artistic director PJ Paparelli, 40, who passed away this morning from injuries due to a car accident in Scotland. The Theater sends its deepest condolences to his family, and requests all respect their privacy at this difficult time. Details on a Chicago memorial service are forthcoming.”

“He was probably the most amazing artist I’ve ever known,” said David Katz, an ATC board member, of Mr. Paparelli, who was due back in Chicago on Tuesday. “Everyone got caught up in the energy that he put into everything.”

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With Joshua Jaeger, Mr. Paparelli co-wrote and directed “The Project(s),” a world premiere about the history of Chicago’s public housing system, which recently extended its run through June 21 at the theater.

“When he got into something like ‘The Project(s)’ he was inseparable from it,” Katz said. “During rehearsals, for final revision, he inserted as a rhetorical device the disembodied voice of the interviewer, which was him. So he’ll always be a part of the play.”

Linda Bright Clay (from left), Joslyn Jones, Penelope Walker and Eunice Woods in the American Theater Company debut of “The Project(s).”|Photo by Michael Brosilow
Linda Bright Clay (from left), Joslyn Jones, Penelope Walker and Eunice Woods in the American Theater Company debut of “The Project(s).”|Photo by Michael Brosilow

In addition to season’s scheduled productions at ATC, Mr. Paparelli was adamant that the company and his artists immerse themselves in the community through various educational and outreach programs, including the company’s American Mosaic, Chicago Chronicle and The Bridge Program, which brought theater to area schools and exposed students to ATC productions at the theater itself. As part of that outreach initiative, for example, this weekend features a free community performance of “The Project(s)” at Chicago’s Wentworth Gardens Field House at 5 p.m. on Sunday. “We wanted this story to return to the places where it was born,” Mr. Paparelli said in a statement last month about the community tour of the play.

“The Youth Program was one of his greatest passions,” said ATC ensemble member Patrick Andrews. “He was so proud of the work happening at ATC and so hopeful and excited for the future, and a big part of that was reaching out to the young people in the community. He was so invested in telling the truth through his work, and really honoring what our role as artists in the community truly are.”

“As well as being a talented director and creator of new works, PJ was an incredibly astute and effective producer — he was consistently identifying some of the most compelling writers in the country, and producing their work at a remarkably high level,” said Tanya Palmer, director of New Play Development at the Goodman Theatre. “The work he championed and produced connected with audiences and critics and made the whole ecology of Chicago theater stronger. He took risks, he took on challenging stories, he stretched himself and his collaborators, and the whole theater community – local and national – was better for it.”

PJ Paparelli (left) pictured in 2011 with Jim Jacobs during the run of “The Original Grease” at American Theater Company. | Sun-Times Photo
PJ Paparelli (left) pictured in 2011 with Jim Jacobs during the run of “The Original Grease” at American Theater Company. | Sun-Times Photo

“He was the hardest-working person that I’ve ever met in theater,” said O’Sullivan. “He lived it and breathed it and he infused everyone he worked with with that same passion.”

As for his legacy, Katz said: “His vision for the company from the beginning was to have ATC become the Public Theater of Chicago. I think he accomplished a lot of that. If you look at his work, it was born here, it was raised here and it came to maturity here.”

Chicago’s theater community has suffered a devastating string of losses recently, including the deaths of actor Bernie Yvon in August 2014, actress Molly Glynn the following month, improv actor and iO instructor Jason Chin this past January and actress Erin Myers and longtime Chicago Dramatists artistic director Russ Tutterow earlier this month.

Mr. Paparelli’s survivors include two brothers, Vince Possanza and Gino Possanza, and his mother, Jean Marie Paparelli.

Note: A select number of free tickets are available for all performances during the regular run of “The Project(s)” at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron, through June 21 for all former and current public housing residents. Residents can call (773) 409-4125 for details.