Necessary Drama: More Small Town Theater Support From a Longtime University Patron

 UNC at Chapel HIill. photo:  Bryan Pollard/shutterstock

UNC at Chapel HIill. photo:  Bryan Pollard/shutterstock

One notable theme across the arts philanthropy space across the past few years is how a surge in regional philanthropy has created mini arts-meccas in college towns across the country. It's certainly one bright spot in a performing arts sector spooked by looming state and federal budget cuts.

Another example of this phenomenon comes to us from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC), where longtime arts patron Joan Gillings gave the school's PlayMakers Repertory Company and Department of Dramatic Art a $12 million gift to expand educational opportunities for students and enhance performance and outreach offerings to the community.

It's the largest single gift ever by a living individual to benefit the performing arts at UNC-Chapel Hill. The Center for Dramatic Art, home to the drama department and PlayMakers, will be renamed the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art.

By doubling down on theater as a cultural nexus point in the region, Gillings' gift resembles Andrea Fischer and Frank Newman's $1 million gift to the University of Michigan's Department of Theatre & Drama, and Elizabeth Hall and James S. McDonnell's $6.5 million gift to fund renovations to Hollis University's Hollins Theatre and to support visiting faculty.

All three gifts find donors doubling down on local theater ecosystems that are far away from major metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or, for that matter, Cleveland.

Gillings' gift will enable UNC's drama department to recruit and retain top graduate students by funding additional scholarships in acting, costume production, and technical production, and will expand PlayMakers’ education and outreach programs, including the Mobile Shakespeare initiative, and its K-12 educational matinee and teaching artist residency programs.

The daughter of a clothing model and the president of Whitman Chocolate Co., Joan Heckler was born in Philadelphia, raised in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and moved to Chapel Hill in the early 1970s. From 1974 to 1976, she worked on the staff of the UNC Department of Biostatistics. It was during that time she met her future husband Dennis Gillings.

In 2007, the couple gave $50 million for UNC's School of Public Health, which was renamed the Dennis and Joan Gillings School of Global Public Health. Additional support went to UNC's Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, Carolina Performing Arts, and UNC Children’s Hospital. She's also funded the scholarships and a creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

In 2011, she was awarded the William Richardson Davie Award, the highest honor bestowed by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, for extraordinary service to the university.

Gillings acquired a love of theater while attending plays on Broadway and in London’s West End. "The high quality of PlayMakers productions, including the work of the graduate students," she said, "has inspired me to make this gift. The future of theater is in the hands of our students. I am excited about what the future holds for them."

At a ceremony announcing the gift, Gillings spoke about meeting a student who enrolled in the department of dramatic art at UNC after growing up in Africa.

“It was amazing to me that these kids heard about UNC, PlayMakers and the dramatic arts department and they had to come here," she said. "And they came. And they succeeded. And they’re going on and on. I couldn’t get over it."