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Diane Paulus Expands the Boundaries of Theater at the A.R.T.

The Tony-nominated director and Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater finds high art in creating "barn-raising" productions.

Diane Paulus
© Dario Acosta
Having a conversation with Diane Paulus is a lot like watching one of her shows: a wholly immersive experience filled with side stories populated by acrobats, hippies, Shakespearean characters, and prisoners of conscience. Paulus has a curiosity about the world and a desire to explore as much of it as she can through the medium of theater.

Armed with her own curiosity, the two-time Tony-nominated director (The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Hair) expanded her theatrical horizons when she took on the role of Artistic Director at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And because pulling double-duty wasn't enough, she also teaches at her alma mater, Harvard University. Between meetings about Hair 's upcoming tour in Japan, readings of a musical she has in development, preparations for Pippin 's transfer to Broadway, and opening The Glass Menagerie at the A.R.T., Paulus sat down to talk about what "theater" actually is, how MBA students are among her target audience, and why the suffrage movement would make a good musical.

When you took on the role of Artistic Director at the A.R.T. in 2009, what did you change artistically to move programming more towards the theater's mission?

The mission of the A.R.T. is to expand the boundaries of theater through works of the canon and the new works of tomorrow. As a director I feel like I am always asking, ‘what is theater?,' ‘how do you define it?,' ‘'what does it look like?,' ‘where do we find it?,' ‘is it in a nightclub?,' ‘is it in a theater?,' ‘is it on the street?,' ‘is it done at midnight?,' ‘is it done at eight o'clock?' The main thing for me…was to redefine what we consider the artistic experience. To broaden it and have our focus not just be the two hours ‘traffic on the stage,' so to speak. I'm also interested in programming a diverse selection.

When I took over, subscriptions had been declining, which was not surprising, not out of sync with what theaters were experiencing across America, but it was rather drastic with the A.R.T. I would say there was a lack of connection with the audience. The gauntlet that was thrown down when I was hired [was]: ‘Can you revitalize this theater? Can you get the audience back in the building?' I thought very rigorously about how to do that. I'm very interested in shaking up the idea of what theater etiquette is…the relationship from a performer to an audience member…so I opened my season with The Donkey Show…because I felt it demonstrated how to use a "club theater." We put it in our Oberon, which [is] a traditional black box. My thought was ‘how do I make [this venue] a black box for the 21st century?'...change the architecture, have a coat check, be in a room where you can stand and have cabaret tables, [a place] where the bar and the social environment is as important as anything, frankly, in that space. So that was highly immersive in this social club environment.

Sleep No More was the next show we did. I felt the creation of that production was demonstrating our mission more than anything. It was asking, ‘what is theater?' Art installation meets live video game, meets classic play, meets Hitchcock in this abandoned school in Brookline, which is a suburb [of Boston], where you...wear a mask [and] wander through forty rooms…I knew I wanted to do something with Punch Drunk…and [have] community involvement—because the production is so massive—it's like a barn raising. We [got] students and [other] people to volunteer and help collect things for these rooms. That was really an exploration about a different kind of immersive theater.

Did you find when you changed the shape of A.R.T.'s theatrical programming that your audience changed as well?

I think every theater in America wants a younger audience…and you can't just hope to have a younger audience, you have to program things that audience is going to connect with.

There is an audience for theater that is untapped…and they tend to have a very limited definition of what they think theater is, so they tend to stay away.The Harvard Business School did a case on the A.R.T. and there was this young MBA [in the class], a guy in his late 20s and the professor asked, ‘have you ever been to the A.R.T.?' ‘No.' When was the last time you went to the theater?' ‘Can't remember.' ‘Well, what do you do? Do you ever go out?' And the guys said, ‘oh, I'm a social person, it's just that I'm not cultured.' And I just feel like that in a nutshell, that's the problem. There's a whole demo of potential audience that doesn't think of themselves as cultured people, so I'm hungry for that audience. There's a sector of our population [who] loves the theater, for whom the theater is a ritual and they will go no matter what. But I just wish the theater had a more central place in our lives as citizens…. It was part of the social season, what it was to engage as a person. So that's been my guiding principle, to keep expanding the theater to include larger sectors of audience. I'm kind of on the mission to make our theater a very democratic and accessible venue where our audience can be as diverse as the world is that we live in today. We have a long way to go on that still.

How do you find your material? Do you have a wish list of shows you always wanted to do?

It's really not about my personal taste or my whims. I am always looking for what piece, what artists, what playwrights, what directors, what subject matter is going to catalyze an audience. So it could be the adaptation of Jung Chan's novel Wild Swans, about the cultural revolution in China, something we don't normally see portrayed on our stages. We don't see an Asian audience at our theater. How can a production catalyze this piece of Chinese history that we can talk about and reflect upon? That extends to Prometheus Bound, when we did a musical version with Serj Tankian [of the band System of a Down] and Steven Sater and…Serj had done a lot of work with Amnesty International and said, ‘why don't we partner with Amnesty International on this production?' So Prometheus Bound became about how theater can herald and bring attention to human rights violations in the world. We literally called Act II, which was the post-show, The Amnesty Portion, and we had Amnesty volunteers at the show. Every week a different prisoner of conscience was highlighted in the production. Amnesty volunteers distributed information and the audience could stay and learn more, sign petitions, and in that sense we got human rights activists involved in theater who had never really been to the A.R.T. So that's how I choose. It's really not about the artists [who] I love—I mean I have artists [who] I love, but I'm looking for artists and shows that are speaking to issues that will unite an audience and build community. That's really how I program.

Can you take me through the development of Pippin from the very beginning to Broadway?

Over half of the people who came to Porgy and Bess had never been to the A.R.T. before and the other half saw our musicals Johnny Baseball, Cabaret, [and] The Donkey Show, so it was clear to my staff there was an appetite for musical theater…and Pippin [was] a show I wanted to direct all my life.

The biggest step in the journey was deciding what I wanted to do with the Fosse [choreography], because Fosse is such a signature with Pippin in its original form. I knew I wanted to do some form of the Fosse to really pay homage to the original. I had been wanting to work with Les 7 doigts de la main, which is a circus company. I met Gypsy Snider [one of Les 7 doigts' founding directors] and started talking to her about Pippin. She connected to it so deeply because the theme of Pippin is how far you go in life to be extraordinary—and that's the life of an acrobat.

Then I met Chet Walker, a member of the original cast of Pippin, who worked very closely with Bob Fosse. He teaches the original Fosse [choreography] when people want to use [it]. He told me that Bob Fosse was so interested in Fellini and the circus and you can see it in Pippin—the impulses of circus are there already.

We did a workshop last summer at the A.R.T. and cast dancers and musical theater people and acrobats and we started to explore the marriage of acrobatics and Fosse and how they would work. We [worked] for three weeks, which was extremely informative; we realized we had to make the two feel completely integrated…which was really hard. Then, we went into rehearsal in October, took it into performance at A.R.T., and on opening night it was official we were transferring to Broadway. And now [we're] still working on it. There are a bunch of new ideas for the Broadway production.

What's on your wish list of projects that you would like to do at the A.R.T.?

Now that I've been at the A.R.T. for five years, [there's] the opportunity to really do long-term planning, so that we're nurturing ideas for productions that can develop over years. It's exciting to develop a relationship with the audience, so changing the assembly line of how theater is made so it's not [just] playwright, actors in a workshop, notes, a reading, and then a production [where] the audience comes for two hours. [It's] how can we really engage an audience over a long process? [This] is a big interest of mine. Because we partner with Harvard University, I'm really interested in how we can work with those intellectual resources to generate new work for the theater. We're in a Civil War project now to explore the American Civil War historically, and the civil war now as it continues in our world today. We're tapping into top scholars at Harvard and looking at their work on Civil War, [the] literature, art, or [even] post-traumatic stress disorder, and we're bringing artists and scholars together in a way I hope that will generate new work for the theater and a new curriculum that we can teach at Harvard.

I'm also interested in developing a new American musical about the suffrage movement, because I think that's a piece of American history that we don't know well enough…we don't know enough about these women who basically sacrificed their lives to allow women the right to vote. I'm always interested in looking—historically—at how theater can animate history and how all of that can make us engage with our lives in an enriching way.