Last December, the theater critics’ year-in-review essays had an unmistakable dirgelike quality to them, as commentators confronted an unusually high number of deaths in Chicago’s theater community, made all the more painful by the fact that many of those who were lost died suddenly, while still in the prime of their careers.
So far, this year hasn’t gotten any easier, with Chicago’s cultural scene experiencing some significant losses in the past few months: performing arts publicist Eric Eatherly, playwright Margaret Lewis, arts critic Andrew Patner, actress Erin Myers, and Chicago Dramatists guiding force Russ Tutterow. And yesterday another was added to the list: PJ Paparelli, the 40-year-old artistic director of American Theater Company, who died after he was in a car accident while vacationing in Scotland.
His latest production, The Project(s), which he wrote (with Joshua Jaeger) and directed, opened last month to nearly unanimous critical acclaim. A documentary-theater piece chronicling the fraught history of public housing in Chicago, The Project(s) is very much of a piece with the rest of Paparelli’s work, the best-known example of which is probably Columbinus. That alternately chilling and heartrending play (written with Stephen Karam) also goes the documentary route to tell the story of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School.
As the subject matter of those works suggests, Paparelli was perhaps the city’s most socially engaged theater artist, taking seriously ATC’s mission to explore what it means to be an American. During his seven years at the helm, he made sure to include a wide range of perspectives, diversified the ensemble (early in his tenure there was a bitter split with the theater’s founding members, who left to form American Blues Theater), and staged plays tackling thorny topics such as poverty, racial injustice, religion, healthcare, and, in his smash-hit production last fall of Karam’s The Humans, the myriad anxieties pressing down on middle-class citizens of the 21st century. Even the raw, stripped-down musicals he directed—most notably, a back-to-basics Grease and an elegiac Hair—felt somehow political in their revisionist lack of razzle-dazzle.
Last month when I interviewed Paparelli about The Project(s), I asked him why it was important to tell these types of socially conscious stories in the first place. By way of an answer, he kept comparing theater to church—a place where people gather to reflect on what matters and maybe try to change for the better.
“I don’t know what happens when people go home,” he told me, “but I can only hope that they’re thinking differently about something, or they’ve discovered something new and learned something about themselves and something about the world they live in.”
With Paparelli’s death, Chicago theater has lost one of its most vital and passionate members of the congregation.