PJ Paparelli: A director with a unique vision for his Chicago theater

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Some directors hide on opening nights. Not PJ Paparelli, the artistic director of American Theater Company (ATC), who died Thursday, at the age of 40, in a car accident in Scotland.

Earlier this month, at the world premiere of “The Project(s)” – the richly evocative and probing history of public housing in Chicago that he devised, co-wrote (with Joshua Jaeger), and directed – he was positively beaming as he gave a brief opening speech to the audience. He thanked those members of the audience who had lived in the projects and been interviewed for the show, and he spoke eloquently (and with his trademark enthusiasm and nervous energy) about how much this particular endeavor meant to him, and all the creative funding possibilities that had made it possible. He then stepped off stage and let the show speak for itself, which it did, brilliantly – a perfect amalgam of research, personal testimony, music, projections and extraordinary ensemble acting.

“The Project(s),” which was extended through June 21 shortly after opening, arrived at the end of a particularly thrilling season at ATC. Preceding it was Marco Ramirez’s “The Royale,” a searing boxing drama (which he produced, but did not direct). Opening the season was Stephen Karam’s multi-generational family drama, “The Humans,” one of several collaborations with Karam that began with the incendiary “columbinus,” a docudrama of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado (it received a nerve-shattering production at ATC in 2008, and then again in 2013), and “Speech and Debate” (about three adolescent misfits and their high school drama teacher).

This was Paparelli’s eighth season with ATC, and while he had enjoyed many successes (and jumped continual financial hurdles) all along the way, it seemed, finally, that he was not just at the top of his game, but that his theater was finally attracting the wider attention it so deserved, and that he clearly craved. And Paparelli was in it for the long haul.

Among the many performers Paparelli championed was the actress Sadieh Rifai. Recalling her radiant work on “The Amish Project,” a searing one-woman show that was a fictional exploration of the 2006 Nickel Mines schoolhouse shooting in a Pennsylvania Amish community, she said: “We could have gone into rehearsal as with any other play, but PJ wanted total immersion. So we flew to the site – where I remember he stuck out like a sore thumb in a bright orange outfit. And we managed to interview the Amish, which people had told us would never be possible – but PJ was just so personable that people opened up. And we visited the graves of the girls killed, and the unmarked place where the shooter was buried. He wanted me to know that world fully, and it was one of the greatest trips of my life. I was terrified of this show, but he said: ‘Yes, it’s scary, and I’m scared, but I know you can do it.”

Dexter Bullard, who directed Dan LeFranc’s “The Big Meal,” another of the many outstanding productions presented at ATC during Paparelli’s tenure, observed: “PJ’s energy and devotion, his wit and grit, and his sheer love of the theater were really unparalleled. It was his life. People always talk about wanting an artistic director with ‘vision.’ Well, he had it.”

“With a theater the size of ATC it was very difficult to put on a show the way he envisioned it and also pay everybody,” said Bullard. “But he wanted his own theater, and really wanted to build something in Chicago. He started as ‘an outsider’ [born in Pennsylvania, he came to Chicago after spending several year’s at Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre, among others], but he was devoted to creating projects about Chicago, and to bringing important projects to this city. And I think he would have stayed here. He thought Chicago should have a strong flagship theater in every neighborhood.”

Although at the time of his death ATC had not announced its 2015-2016 season, Paparelli was always in planning mode. Rifai said he had recently sent her a script about Tonya Harding [the notorious American figure skating champion].

“He also had become very interested in improvisation by way of my brother, who works in that form,” said the actress. “He just had so many ideas.”

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