Artistic Director A.R.T.
American Repertory Theater at Harvard
What is theater? Is it a play in an auditorium on a stage or is it a social event? Is it a community event? Where is it? Is it at a nightclub like Donkey Show or is it outside on the Charles River?
Interview by Heidi Legg
What are you trying to change by becoming the third Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater and as a Harvard alum?
The A.R.T. has a great legacy for being a place of vision and radical action, and I thought, 'Where does the theater have to go in the 21st Century?' For me, it has to diversify. It has to open up. Art cannot be looked at as an elite, sacred event anymore. It has to be embraced as an accessible, popular form, which is what I believe theater is at its roots. But that doesn't mean that it isn't challenging or intellectually stimulating. It's all of those.
Part of the problem when you can get into a form of art that is very much 'art for art’s sake', you don't think about the audience. For me, thinking about theater as a popular art form means embracing the audience and thinking about the audience as a partner and participant in the creative act who wants to be challenged. The French Canadian director Robert Lepage is a great theater artist and one of my sources of inspiration. He once reflected that when people have hard days at work, they go to the gym to work out. They don't just sit on their couch and zone out. They want to work things out. They want to feel their heart beat. And I think theater can do that for us as well.
I want to think about theater in a different way, and that's why I'm here because the A.R.T. is a not-for-profit theater with a mission to expand the boundaries of theater. And that's exactly what I want to do as a director and as a producer.
Theater is ritual. Theater can be so much more than just the play on a stage.
It seems these days in theater we have had the A.R.T. high art productions and then The Lion King… Are there two extremes out there?
I think in our culture there's been a tendency for people to blame the audience. There is a tendency in our industry to say, “The audience has left the building. People don't want culture anymore. We're a depraved civilization. All this technology, all the computer games and the iPhones...nobody will sit for art anymore. What a dismaying state of humanity.”
I feel as a theater creator, and now as a producer, that this is the wrong way to think about it. We must ask: What are we doing? How are we responsible? How can we create experiences that will bring audiences back?
When I think about words like “populist,” I crave a theater that is at the center of public discourse. It's where you discuss the moral and political issues of the day. It's the way the theater functioned at moments of great cultural heights like Elizabethan England or Ancient Greece.
In the 20th century there was an effort made to distinguish between “popular” art and “serious” art. My generation of directors, who came up in the 1990s, understands there's no such thing as government subsidy for the arts. So, if I want to make a career in the arts, I have to make a show that connects with an audience. Not to pander, but to draw them in.
Many of your productions – The Magic Flute, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, even Hair, are musically driven. Are you all about the musical?
Music to me is theater and theater is music. Music is rhythm. Music is emotion and it has the power to enter you directly. I have always thought about the theater as the place of emotion and I personally have studied music and I love the theater because it's a collaborative art form. For me the art of working in the musical theater or opera is like... it's collaboration on steroids. You've got your composer and your music director and your conductor and as a director you have the words and the score. I'm very interested in how music has meaning in people's lives, and how you can use that theatrically -- whether that's disco music in The Donkey Show, or the beloved score of Porgy and Bess that people grew up with, these songs are part of our DNA. They're part of our life hymnal.
When you look at something like a David Mamet play, there's no music to it. Those are also powerful?
There is music actually. David Mamet has incredible music because he's such an incredible writer and he writes so rhythmically. He's actually kind of famous for his rhythmical score and the way he writes. When you look at the ancient Greek plays, they were sung. They were recited and sung. They were all chanted. In Shakespeare's time, there were always musicians at the Globe Theater.
The joy of working on great opera is that you have the words and the score, and sometimes the words are telling you exactly the opposite of what the music is saying. The genius of a great Mozart opera is that you're getting words that express 'I love him,' while the score is showing you the distress of the moment. It gives you subtext. As a director, I just love that.
Donkey Show was erotic and fresh and your husband Randy wrote it. What were you both trying to provoke for the audience in Boston and namely, Cambridge?
The Donkey Show, in its creation, was two things: it was creating a theatrical event that broke convention in terms of what you thought theater was. It used a nightclub as its setting where you could stand, dance and watch a show and the setting for The Donkey Show in my secret fantasy is closer to the Globe Theater than the way you see most Shakespeare plays. At the Globe Theater, you stood in a mosh pit. People were eating. They were drinking. There were prostitutes circling and there were boxes for Queen Elizabeth and her courtesans. It was democratic and the whole society of Elizabethan England was on display in the Globe Theater. At Studio 54, which was the model for The Donkey Show, they used to call it 'Democracy On The Dance Floor.' You could have Elizabeth Taylor side by side with the kid from Queens. As long as he could get in the nightclub, you could rub elbows with high society. So there was something to me about the play A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the culture of 1970s disco where you could transgress who you were. You could be a banker by day and be anyone by night and that's Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those lovers run away to the Athenian Forest to love who they want to love and it's like a madcap dream, and what would go in at Studio 54 at four o' clock in the morning was kind of like a dream. The mash-up of high and low culture is a very powerful potent mix for me.
What public attitudes do you want to change?
I was very interested in attracting a new audience to the A.R.T. when I arrived here. We had very loyal and dedicated subscribers but there weren't very many of them. I knew that I had to rebuild the audience.
I taught a case study at the Harvard Business School because they did a profile of A.R.T. I went to the class as part of the case and the professor asked a young man, 'So, have you ever heard of the A.R.T.' and the guy said, 'No.' So the professor asked, 'Well, do you ever go to the theater?' 'No.' 'Well, do you ever go out? What do you do?' And this young man said, 'Well, I'm a social person but not a culture person'. That in a nutshell is our problem and that's the audience I want to bring into the theater. I want the people who don't think about the theater anymore and I want to make them understand that theater is not just that “culture thing”, but a social event as well.
We live a life where we're plugged into our devices and we're all thinking: How are we ever going to make eye contact? How are we going to hold onto being alive together? The theater is a place for that, but more often than not it doesn’t deliver. You get enough energy to organize your friends to go the theater and then you go to a play and what happens? You're seated in an aisle. You can't talk to each other. The lights go down and it's not a social experience. But theater wasn't always that way.
The opera in the 19th Century was the modern nightclub. You would put on your fancy dresses, your jewels and watch La Traviata, and you're looking at the guy in the box and you're flirting and he's seeing you. It was all merged together. Theater and social life weren’t separated.
I'm on this quest to say theater can be a nightclub. Theater can be politics. Theater can be a hootenanny in our lobby. When we did Woody Sez, it was my fantasy come true. We did a show about the life of Woody Guthrie, who believed that music could effect change and be a revolutionary force. Part of the show was the post-performance hootenanny that gave audience members the opportunity to stay and play. People started bringing spoons and forks and their guitars and their washboards to the performance, and started to get hundreds of people staying in our lobby afterwards. I stood on the top of a chair in the lobby and looked at 250 people singing together after one of these performances, and I thought, 'Okay, we’ve done something here.' You work so hard as an artist to transform an audience during the course of the show but what you really want is for that experience to continue. You really want people to leave the theater and feel like the world is different. We've tried to do that with every show we've done here but Woody Sez really captured the essence of that.
What public opinion would you like to change with Pippin?
The musical theater is a glorious and distinctly American innovation in the history of theater. We can't claim the Greeks. We can't claim Shakespeare. We can't claim Chekhov. But we can claim the musical theater as ours. If you ask the majority of Americans what was the most transformative experience they've had culturally, nine times out of ten, people will cite a musical. They will cite a musical either that they saw in their high school or they saw at their community theater or on Broadway. Musicals have touched people for years and there is an undeniable power to a musical that doesn't get its due respect as an art form, which it is.
Pippin has been done so many times but mostly in high schools, and I don’t think people really know the power of the story. This is a story about how far we go in our lives to prove that we're extraordinary and to me this is an idea that is more relevant than ever in our world. It is certainly relevant to young people who are thrown into the world today. Even though I am not an eighteen year old, I look at Pippin and think, 'what are the choices I've made and where are my priorities? How do I navigate a life journey that I want to have meaning? And what is the meaning I want in my life?'
Pippin is not the musical we remember. It is something much more profound and dark and serious and edgy and, yes, you will hear that score that you love and have sung all your life, but it packs a powerful punch viscerally that I'm hoping this production will provide.
Bob Fosse envisioned it to be more surreal and disturbing. Did you spend time thinking about that?
Absolutely. I think Fosse was a genius artist and in Fosse's hands, it was very dark and cynical. It was also written in the early '70s. America was in a different place. We were in the mess of the Vietnam War and it was the birth of the feminist movement, and we were still living in a time when you didn't trust anybody over 35. Today, the musical has a different resonance, but in its bones it still holds these very big themes and ideas and because it's structured to be so meta-theatrical -- it's a play within a play -- as a director, it gives you a canvas with which to play. And in our production we’ve mixed in the idea of a circus and acrobatics that literally asks how far will you go to jump through a hoop of fire? How much risk will you put yourself through? How death-defying are you?
How is your approach to theater moving society forward?
The world needs theater. I think the arts provide an invaluable discourse on moral development. They provide a place to rehearse your emotion, a safe place where you're allowed to feel and allowed to experience emotion. In our world which is so fast and where you can have every opinion at your fingertips within seconds, where is the place for a more complex discussion? Where is the place for a more nuanced, complicated analysis in our very fast-paced world? I think the theater and the arts are more necessary than ever.
The arts interpret our lives and make us feel present. I really feel that to move society forward, we have to come in touch with the present moment and today we are not very in touch with being present. The primal element about the theater for me is to feel alive, to be so shaken and grabbed in the present moment, and to have a visceral, live emotion. That's the gift of the theater.
The act of going to the theater by an audience is an extremely generous act, more so than ever in our modern lives where I feel everyone is so strapped and stretched. It’s a generous act to come to the theater and I take that very seriously.
Who changed your life, stepped up and made a path for you when you needed it?
My parents gave me the greatest gift in my life, which was to say, 'Do what you love.' I just hope that I can give that to my children.
I've also had some incredible mentors in my life. Andrei Serban was a huge mentor and people here will know him because he directed many shows at the A.R.T. He's a world famous Romanian director, he was my teacher in graduate school, and he took me under his wing and took me to France, where I assisted him with opera. We worked on multiple shows including Hamlet and Cymbeline at the Public Theater in New York. He was one of those teachers who never thought you were good enough. Everything you did was banal, and I think I thrived on his Eastern European tradition of saying, 'You're not good! You're just not good! You can be better.’ He is such a deep human being on a lifelong journey in the theater, and to learn from him, to be at his side, to strive to be better under his tutelage was huge for me as a young artist.
I also had a great mentor in the director Anne Bogart, who also directed a number of shows at the A.R.T. When I was finishing my graduate study, I asked her, 'What should I do?' She took her finger and she pointed at my heart and she said, 'All your treasures will lie there.' It changed my life. That summer, I created The Donkey Show in the lobby of the School of the Arts atColumbia University because my ID still gave me access. We performed the show in this hole in the wall storefront theater down on Ludlow Street. No one got paid, and we did it for six months and the actors carried their costumes every night. At the end of the night, we had to sweep up the glitter that had fallen on the floor. We'd comb through it and say, 'Can we keep this?' and I'd say, 'This glitter we can keep. This one we can't.’
Is there a time when you’ve been applauded that meant the most?
Last year, I won recognition from the Drama League, one of the oldest theatrical organizations in America, [Paulus was awarded the 2012 Founders Award for Excellence in Directing] and it was an award for excellence in directing. That was such an emotional moment for me. In a room of over 1,000 people were all the theater people in the industry, and I remember just thinking the community that supports you is so important. I remember looking out at that sea of faces and thinking back on all the hard times, and all the support that I have received over the years, all those phone calls, all those emails that mattered. A life in the arts is not easy -- and you think how many times can you get knocked down?
And I have to say my husband has been my lifeline. He's a total sports addict and he's given me a lifetime of sports analogies. Just keep your eye on the ball. Focus on hitting the ball.
Describe a day in the life of Diane Paulus with two young children?
What does it look like? Okay, wake up at 6:50 and out the door in 20 minutes. I don't know how we do it. It's an achievement every day. I get up, get dressed, get the clothes, make the breakfast, make the lunch, get to the bus stop, and get the kids on the bus. Then when I'm disciplined and good, I go and swim. Then I'm on the go to rehearsal and work and meetings. I work like a madwoman all day long and into the night if I am able or I race home to see the kids and get them in bed. Often I slip out of bed and keep working. It’s busy.
What event are you most looking forward to?
My daughter's birthday party on February 1st. In my family, birthday parties are productions. I'm also really looking forward to our A.R.T. gala. I think we're going knock it out of the park this year on February 11th. I'm bringing one of the artists from the Cirque du Soleil show that I did called Amaluna, which paid homage to women. It’s going to be really, really special.
Favorite spot for a cocktail that you've discovered in Cambridge?
What website do you frequent the most each day?
The New York Times and weather.com. It's like my life is about weather.com. Which cities will I be in and what's the weather?
Power lunch for the theater crowd?
It’s power breakfast for me and here it is definitely Henrietta's Table at the Charles Hotel and in New York, Orso or Bond 45 or the Lamb's Club. One of those three.
What's next for your career?
An incredible new musical about Uganda. It's not a revival. Stay tuned. It's deeply moving and exciting.