Chicago theater director dies after accident in Scotland

  • PJ Paparelli

    PJ Paparelli

Updated 5/21/2015 6:50 PM

PJ Paparelli, the 40-year-old artistic director of American Theater Company in Chicago, died Thursday while vacationing in Scotland.

The writer/director died from injuries he suffered in a car accident earlier this week, theater representatives said.


A native of Scranton, Penn., Paparelli took over ATC's artistic leadership in 2007. He conceived, cowrote and directed ATC's "The Project(s)," a critically acclaimed and recently extended docu-theater piece about the history of Chicago's housing projects.

Documentary theater and new works were Paparelli passions, said longtime friend and collaborator Jaime Castañeda, who came to Chicago at Paparelli's invitation and joined ATC in 2008.

"He loved theater. He loved being around it. He loved seeing it. He loved creating it," Castañeda said. "He spent all his days and nights at the theater."

In 2005, while serving as artistic director of Alaska's Perseverance Theatre, Paparelli and Stephen Karam wrote "columbinus," a provocative examination of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre crafted from witness and survivor accounts, 911 transcripts, official reports, diaries and home videos. The 2005 play premiered in Chicago at Raven Theatre in 2008. In 2013, ATC debuted a revised version, which included a third act containing new material Paparelli collected after returning to Littleton, Colo., in 2012.

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"He was very smart, with a great dramaturgical mind," said Castañeda, who directed Marco Ramirez's "The Royale" and "Welcome to Arroyo's," by Pulitzer Prize finalist Kristoffer Diaz for ATC.

"He was somebody who stood behind artists and invested in them," said Castañeda, who described Paparelli as a big-hearted and easygoing.

ATC issued a statement mourning the loss of its leader: "The theater sends its deepest condolences to his family, and requests all respect their privacy at this difficult time." Plans for a memorial are in the works, representatives say.

Paparelli helmed such ATC productions as "The Humans," "Hair," "columbinus;" the regional premiere of "Speech and Debate" and the 2011 Jeff Award-winning production of "The Original Grease," revised and restored in collaboration with the musical's co-creator Jim Jacobs.

As producer, he presided over the world premieres of Dan LeFranc's "The Big Meal" and Ayad Akhtar's 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Disgraced."

"He loved that theater company," said Castañeda. "He loved the people who passed through those doors."

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