TheaterMania Logo
Home link

Art for A.R.T.'s Sake

A.R.T.'s new artistic director Diane Paulus is committed to moving theater forward and challenging audiences.

Diane Paulus
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
When it was announced last year that the visionary director Diane Paulus would become artistic director of the venerable American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there was little question she would be bring a new kind of theater to the area. So it's not surprising that she's more than matched that expectation with her initial two productions of her Shakespeare Exploded! season: The Donkey Show, a disco-filled variation on A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Sleep No More, described as "Macbeth Meets Hitchcock," which marks the U.S. debut of the esteemed British company Punchdrunk.

"I was in London in 2008 directing the English National Opera production of Lost Highway, and I kept hearing about Punchdrunk from opera people, theater people, all sorts of people were talking about them. They're like rock stars over there," says Paulus. "And I knew they were getting the kind of audiences I want at A.R.T. They are at the top of the game when it comes to the immersive experience. Sleep No More is like an incredible art installation meets theater meets video game. I think it could change the course of the American theater. At the very least, it will put a wedge in your brain."

Far from a traditional theater piece, Sleep No More actually invites theatergoers to take an individual trip through the Lincoln School, a 100,000-square-foot facility in Brookline Village, which has been completely transformed by the company. "It's this gorgeous imposing building with long hallways, and I actually had shivers when I saw what they've done with the space," says Paulus, who helped transform Broadway's Al Hirschfeld Theatre earlier this year for her Tony Award-winning revival of Hair.

For those who think this production means sitting in some dusty school auditorium, think again -- and wear comfortable shoes. There will be no sitting going on! "There are staggered, timed entrances, and up to 300 people can come on any night, but you're not aware of the other audience members until you're all back at the bar for what I call a debriefing," says Paulus. "What I truly love about Punchdrunk is that they've mastered the form of how to take the audience on a real journey. You might get keys to open doors, you might have a private encounter with an actor, or you might go into a room where you can open the drawers. They have the Macbeth residence in one place, and then upstairs, there's the army hospital, and so on. And I never felt like I understood the psyche of a play the way I do here."

A scene from The Donkey Show
(© Marcus Stern)
As Paulus points out, Sleep No More is, in many ways, a 180-degree turn from The Donkey Show, which takes place in the "Oberon," a nightclub-like setting. "The Donkey Show is a very communal experience, and I love having an 18-year-old in the same room as an 80-year-old," says Paulus. "And while the two pieces are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, they're still on the same spectrum of how theater can be done."

Another similarity between the productions, says Paulus, is that both shows are being embraced by A.R.T.'s subscribers as well as new, younger audiences. "We made conservative projections for how many of our subscribers would come to these shows, since they're different than what they're used to, and we've already exceeded demand by 250 percent. It proves that A.R.T. people are adventurous," says Paulus.

But it's the younger crowd that truly excites Paulus. " College are kids crawling out of the woodwork to see The Donkey Show -- and as a professor now at Harvard, I know how busy they are," she notes. "I think they're coming because this is not their parents' theater. We're inviting them to come take part in nightlife; that's one reason it's not running on a traditional schedule."

Indeed, Paulus loves the fact that her theater is part of one of America's most renowned universities. "Harvard is all about what's new and showing leadership in all areas," she says. "They have been the most stalwart supporter of the arts as vanguard. So I feel like I couldn't be in a greater playground than this one, which is allowing me to take our mission to the max."