If Vivienne Benesch could get her hands on a slice of Portage Pie this week, she would be happy.
“I miss Portage Pies on a weekly basis,” said Benesch, the former leader of Chautauqua Theater Company, referring to the Westfield bakery.
But it’s not pie Benesch is here for, it’s cake. Specifically, birthday cake. She’s the director of Birthday Candles, which resumes its run as part of the New Play Workshop at 4 p.m. Thursday in Bratton Theater. Written by Noah Haidle, the play follows the life of one woman from her 17th birthday to her 117th birthday.
“The main character, Ernestine, talks about the ritual of baking a cake and having the family in one place to stop for a second,” Benesch said. “She doesn’t like Christmas, Thanksgiving. For her, it was the ritual of making the cake with her mother, and continuing that tradition on through the generations.”
Last July, Benesch departed CTC after 12 seasons as co-artistic director to commit to her new role of producing artistic director at the PlayMakers Repertory Company, which is in residence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She started the job at the beginning of 2016, and current CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba stepped up.
Benesch didn’t expect to be back so soon. That changed when Detroit Public Theatre, where CTC Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy is co-producing artistic director, commissioned Birthday Candles. Benesch has known playwright Noah Haidle for almost 20 years, and she agreed to direct its premiere in Detroit next May.
Borba said he always knew Benesch would return to CTC for one project or another. When he and Corporandy started discussing Birthday Candles, they immediately thought of Benesch.
“It’s a good play for her; it really plays to her strengths,” Borba said. “She’s good with new work, but she’s also good with the type of magic realism that Noah likes to write in.”
CTC conservatory actor Kelsey Jenison, who portrays several roles in Birthday Candles, said before rehearsal started that she was looking forward to working with Benesch.
“She’s such a rich part of the Chautauqua history,” Jenison said, “and so I feel very honored that I’ll get to work with her, and at least know her through that.”
The New Play Workshop launched during Benesch’s tenure at CTC. Past productions from the New Play Workshop have gone on to receive productions in such notable Off-Broadway theaters as Manhattan Theatre Club, Primary Stages and Playwrights Horizons, as well as regional theaters across the country.
Being back at Chautauqua, Benesch said she is seeing how conversations and initiatives are continuing. After attending Saturday’s performance of Detroit ’67 and its talkback, she found herself thinking back to conversations that occurred after CTC productions of Clybourne Park in 2013 and A Raisin in the Sun in 2014.
Benesch said she was interested in taking the job at PlayMakers because she wanted to build on lessons she learned at Chautauqua.
“I had such an amazing experience here developing a relationship with the community, but it was a summer community, and I was really interested in what it meant to develop a year-round relationship with a community,” Benesch said.
She was used to the “sprint” of the CTC season, which occurs over three months, but is now experiencing the “marathon” of a PlayMakers season. Chautauqua has never been far from her work. This past winter, PlayMakers produced Molly Smith Metzler’s The May Queen, which was commissioned by CTC and the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, and produced by CTC in 2014; the PlayMakers production also starred CTC alumna Andrea Syglowski.
Here for only a week and concentrated on Birthday Candles, Benesch said that’s not enough time to take in Chautauqua.
“Next year, I hope to come here and vacation here for a week and not work here,” Benesch said. “I will never say no to work if we can make it work, but I actually can’t wait.”