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BWW Interviews: Director Diane Paulus - Part One

It has been quite a year for Diane Paulus.  Already an internationally acclaimed freelance director for nearly 10 years, Paulus began 2008 in London directing the opera LOST HIGHWAY at the Young Vic.  HAIR was on the docket for Shakespeare in the Park's summer season.  And then came the phone call asking if this soon-to-explode director was interested in throwing her hat in the ring for the job of Artistic Director at the famed A.R.T. Theatre in Boston.  

Fast forward to the close of 2009, where LOST HIGHWAY seems like the distant past.  HAIR at the Delacourt has since become one of the most successful Shakespeare in the Park productions of all time, transforming the theater going audience in New York City, extending twice, and mandating that eager viewers take their place in the infamous Central Park line as early as 5:00am just to have a shot at getting a seat.  HAIR went on to open on Broadway to a similar craze in March of 2009, winning the 2009 Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Revival of a Musical, garnering Paulus Best Director nominations from each organization, and collecting a total of 12 additional Tony and Drama Desk nods. In the meantime, Paulus assumed the prestigious job at A.R.T. Having just helmed one of the most aggressive and innovative seasons in A.R.T.'s history this fall, the certified tour-de-force will close out the year recasting the Broadway's HAIR, as the original tribe prepares to move to its new home in London's West End in 2010.

BroadwayWorld recently spoke with the director and, in a special double feature, will be sharing with you her thoughts on her year, her plans for A.R.T., why she just can't get enough of Shakespeare and, of course, all things HAIR. In fact, we learned that with all of the attention she has generated for herself over the past many months, the self-proclaimed populist sympathizer feels most inspired by the passion and enthusiasm she has inspired in new audiences. A woman with a plan, after all, Paulus has been on a consistent, career-defining "crusade" for nearly a decade: to redefine the meaning of spectacular theatrical events that empower audiences to feel ownership of them. 

And that is precisely what she intended to do with the Shakespeare Exploded! series, now playing through January 2010 at A.R.T. and locations around Boston.  As the round-up to her inaugural fall at the theater, in true audience-centric fashion, accommodating those outside of the Boston area, Paulus has programmed a jam-packed New York Weekend allowing out-of-towners to feast upon A.R.T.'s Shakespeare Exploded! offerings from the past several months in one 3 day stretch December 4-6, 2009. Audiences will be able to dance to all the 70s hits they know by heart at The Donkey Show, a disco adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream that unfolds around you as a nightclub fantasy; experience their own sensory journey as they enter the world of Sleep No More (by the acclaimed British company Punchdrunk, in their North American debut), an immersive work inspired by Macbeth and Hitchcock's thrillers; and celebrate the holidays with Best of Both Worlds, an R&B and gospel musical that takes its story from The Winter's Tale.

In this first feature interview, Paulus talks A.R.T. and the genesis of Shakespeare Exploded! In just a few weeks, Paulus will be back for more, giving the inside scoop on the evolution of HAIR and its exciting move to London.

Thank you for your time today.  To start, I have to ask: with the eruption of HAIR-mania and the popularity it generated for you, why did you decide to set up permanent shop at A.R.T?

The reason I threw my hat in the ring for the position was because in my freelance career I had come to a point where I felt I was craving moving into a policy decision making role as a director and joining the larger discussion of what it means to produce and make theater. When you're a freelance director, you are hired to create the art and it kind of stops there. And I had just been realizing in my life as a freelance director that you can spend years and pour all your heart and soul into an endeavor and if it is not marketed correctly or produced correctly...if its not perceived of as a theatrical event in the right way, it might not actually reach an audience as powerfully as it could. I have come to feel that we should not live in a world where there are people who make the art and the people who take care of everything else. We have to be attached at the hip and thinking together from the bottom up about what the event is and what it means to make theater and why we are asking audiences, especially in these economic times, to take their precious few dollas and spend them on a theatrical event. I knew ART was was going to give me this opportunity to expand my role as a director and finally let me have a seat at the table where I could get involved i these policy discussions, and producing discussions, and frankly the financial discussions.

Now that you are settled at A.R.T. in both artistic and policy driven roles, how have you found this synergy?

I come from a generation of directors where we are chomping at the bit to be a part of those discussions. My generation of director has no illusions that we are going to be fed and cared for by subsidized theater in America. I guess to fight for it is a noble cause for some. But I am interested harnessing theater in ways that works side by side with the capitalist economy that we are in. We are not Europe and this is not the land of subsidized European theater. This is a business-driven economy and I don't think that cheapens theater. That's the challenge: to think about audience, to think about producing, to think about what makes a theatrical event necessary for an audience. These things are fuel for the artistic process, not things that are a burden or that take away from the purity of the art experience. They fuel me and that's been my mission here to crack that nut. 

What do you mean "crack that nut"?

Re-conceiving what the whole event of theater is. What counts as theater? What does it look like? Does it mean its just a play on a stage in a theater where you sit in the dark and hold a program? No. Can it be in a nightclub? Can it be off site in giant abandoned school? Can it be at 10:30 or midnight? Cracking the nut means imagining and re-imaging what happens before, during and after the event.  We have stripped away much of the social "event" from 20th theater and it has become a very puritan experience - an elite kind of good-for-you art with very specific rules. I have been on a crusade to say, you know what, we have missed the broader definition of theater and if we can just open up that definition, we can invite audiences back to an experience. We will be able to get people back to the theater who have decided that they don't want to go anymore or people who are coming of age who just don't go to the theater because it is so narrowly defined in their mind.

This touches on your unique audience-centric philosophy of theater. 

Absolutely. I have a very audience centered vision of theater. I believe in making live event theater spectacular - spectacular because the audience feels that they are part of something that could not happen without their presence. To me that is the heart of theater...that theater is alive and it is something that we do crave and need as a society and need as human beings. And for me, that has everything to do with an audience feeling empowered and having ownership and participating in a way that has ritual and magic and social occasion.

What responsibility do theater creators have, then, in your view, to the problem of decreased attendance that many organizations are facing now? 

My crusade in life is to not point the finger at the audience and say "oh well audiences don't want to come and see theater anymore, audiences don't have an attention span, audiences would prefer to play with their computer and not come to the theater. That's completely wrong. And I think the burden falls on the theater creator/producer to ignite the audience to a much more broadly defined theatrical experience that they feel they can't miss. You can't just say I am making theater, come to my shrine and worship in my shrine. No. its really an idea of saying this theater is civic, its community, it belongs to you, you are in the show, you are as much as part of this theater as I am and if that happens then I believe people will make theater a part of their life.  

So how did the Shakespeare Exploded! series come about?  For your inaugural season, of all of the shows you could have programed, why did you select The Donkey Show, Sleep No More, and Best of Both Worlds? And, why the festival structure?

Well, with all of these ideas in my head, I thought you know, you can walk the walk but you've got to talk the talk.  That is why I aggressively programed in my very first season within a completely new model of a social festival. We have The Donkey Show that performs in a nightclub on an alternative schedule of late night shows over several months, turning my second stage into a nightclub venue with a full bar; Sleep No More in association with London's Punchdrunk in their American premiere, performing off-site so that A.R.T. is no longer about what goes on in this building but more about the idea of what we do and how it can pop up anywhere - like a four story abandoned elementary school. The school has a bar and just in that gives the audiences a new relationship to this theatrical event, where they create thier own narrative of space and time while wondering through a 44 room installation that is laboriously designed to create the world of Macbeth seen through the lens of a Hitchcock thriller; and then show that I'm doing on the main stage, Best of Both Worlds, where people can have the more traditional experience of sitting in a chair. It's a gospel version of a Winter's, a musical, that has an all African American cast representing a kind of diversity that I feel is so important that we reflect in the theater we create. Our finale moment features a differet choir every week from the local community in an effort to, again, give the audiences ownership of the event --to make it theirs.

Why Shakespeare?  

I am a Shakespeare fanatic. That's probably why I have done so many adaptations of his work. The depth and continual learning you get from living with Shakespeare...I love Shakespeare because he was a man of the theater. He wasn't just a playwright. There was no such thing as being just a playwright in the written text back then. He was a theater producer, he was out making theater. He was reaching working class citizens and the Queen of England at the same time. He had the high and the low and he was a populist. I love Shakespeare not only for the plays and the text that remain but for my fantasy of who he was and how he created theater in his time.

So is it from this period that you draw most of your influence?

First of all, I'm fascinated by the Globe theater...that microcosm of society where you could be a groundling in the pit standing like in a mosh pit at a concert rubbing elbows with the people who are the royalty in the boxes, and you were eating and drinking and transacting business. It wasn't this puritan experience that has become the definition of theater in the last 100 years. I've always said, I look back in time as much as I feel like I am pushing the model forward. Where I get my inspiration is looking 5th century Athens B.C. when theater was at the heart of society -- it was civic, religious, social.  I look to those greek festivals where it was Aeschylus vs. Euripides vs. Sophocles competeing for the prize of best tragedy. All of those occasions were done in festival structre. They were social events. You would never just send an audience home having seen Medea, about a woman who killed her children...no, you would have a satyr play to celebrate after that horrific tragedy. I look to 19th century opera with all of those beautifully guilded opera houses where people got dressed up to go and be seen. You know why were the boxes jutting out over the audiences designed that way? So you could be seen and show off what you were wearing and you could flirt with people while you were at the opera. Today, theater should not just be something I go to that's good for me and there is a lecture afterwards that tells me what I am supposed to think about...and then I read the paper and see what the critic says. That model is gone in the 21st century. And it is not where the power of theater is going to lie. The theater is about the vibrant transferral and connection between an audience and performers. That's what I want to put in the forefront. 

What advice would you give, then, to aspiring directors who will be carrying this torch?

Get your show up in front of an audience. Find new ways to produce it. Don't be limited by the construct of what you think the theater is, and think about the larger context of what you're doing. What is the event you are creating? For a year we ran The Donkey Show at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays down on the lower east side before it finally had enough attention from people who could support it and take it off-Broadway.  I just such a great believer of that entraprenuerial chutzpah of finding a way to get your work up and get it in front of an audience and learn from that.

What can we expect from the rest of the season at A.R.T.?

Even in this first season we have a variety of things. We have adventure passes to shows like those in the Shakespeare Exploded! series, but we also have the Clifford Odets play Paradise Lost and Red Sox Nation, a new musical about the Boston Red Sox. These are more traditional ritual theater experiences where you come to a theater and sit in a chair. But certainly I felt in this ecomonic time, expecially being my first season and especially how aggressive I've been in my kind of pulpit preachings, that I had to show what I meant. You cant just speak about these sort of these things in the abstract, you have to put it into action. And the phenomenal, exciting report is that audiences are astounded. Audiences are coming out in ways that they have never come out before. The demographic we are reaching especially in terms of new audiences is staggering here, with the student population in particular, who are coming out multiple times. Historically we weren't a huge draw for students and I know that audience is the future of theater. Our biggest markets are coming through new technology and we have already surpassed our targeted income for projected income.

Congratulations! And as for future seasons?

The idea when I came to A.R.T. was to come up with a new aristic vision and producing model that would change the future of institutional theater. The good news is that there are people out there who want to make theater like this. In my first couple of months here I have been flooded with e-mails from artists and like-minded producers that say 'I get what youre doing,' 'I want to be part of that,' 'I have this show,' 'I have that piece.' I believe that when you crack the model, that nut, you start to create an opportunity -- or I should say, when there is an opportunity people start to create work for it. I really believe that this is how we're going to change the form and the course of American theater. And it won't just rest on me. We will now be nurturing that next generation of artisits who we will be inviting here to come and create work and take the torch forward. 

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The New York Weekend featuring shows from the Shakespeare Exploded! Festival runs from Friday, December 4 - Sunday, December 6. The Donkey Show, a disco adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, plays Friday, December 4 at 8:00 p.m., and Saturday, December 5 at 8:00 or 10:30 p.m. Sleep No More, inspired by Macbeth and Hitchcock's thrillers has nightly entry times Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., 7:20 p.m. or 7:40 p.m.). Best of Both Worlds, an R&B and gospel musical that takes its story from The Winter's Tale, will play Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 and 7:30p.m. See below for location information. The Shakespeare Exploded! Festival runs through early January 2010.

Premium Weekend Packages are available that coordinate accommodations, dining and all weekend activities. This ultimate VIP experience will provide the following luxuries: a 2-Night stay in a Deluxe Suite at the Charles Hotel, a special dinner at La Morra Restaurant, breakfast at Henrietta's Table and tickets to the three unique Shakespeare Exploded! productions plus VIP preferred seating at additional events, such as Robert Brustein's new play Mortal Terror part of the Shakespeare Exploded! reading series featuring new plays inspired by Shakespeare's life and works, and a panel discussion with Oskar Eustis, Marjorie Garber and Diane Paulus.

For tickets, show times, great deals and meals, visit www.americanrepertorytheater.org. To book and customize VIP packages including performances, accommodations, meals and extras, contact Julia Propp via phone at (617) 496-2000 ext. 8832.

The Donkey Show:
Directed by Diane Paulus, the disco sensation The Donkey Show lets audience members party on the dance floor as the show unfolds around them. From its six-year run in New York City to a world tour from London to Seoul, the celebrated smash hit The Donkey Show now takes Boston by storm, bringing you the ultimate disco experience-a crazy circus of mirror balls and feathered divas, of roller skaters and hustle queens. Come party on the dance floor to all the 70s disco hits you know by heart as the show unfolds around you. The Donkey Show tells the story of A Midsummer Night's Dream through the great 70s anthems, including "We are Family," "I Love the Nightlife," "Car Wash," "Ring My Bell" and "Last Dance." The enchanted forest of Shakespeare's classic comedy becomes the glittered world of retro disco as the lovers escape from their real lives to experience a night of dream, abandon, and fantasy. A.R.T.'s Oberon houses this magical romp. After the show, the party continues into the night so you can live out your own fantasy of disco fever! The Donkey Show is now in performances through January 2, 2010.

Sleep No More:
Sleep No More is a unique theatrical experience where the line between performer and spectator is extraordinarily blurred. Audiences experience the essence of participation, shedding their customary identity to follow more deeply and enjoy their own imaginations. Sleep No More takes place in the atmospheric environs of The Old Lincoln School (194 Boylston Street, Route 9 Eastbound, near Brookline Village, Brookline, MA). Persons younger than 16 will not be admitted as it contains nudity and may be disturbing to minors. The production involves walking and patrons are advised to wear sensible footwear. Sleep No More, is directed and devised by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, with the Company. Sleep No More is now in performances through January 3, 2010.

Best of Both Worlds:
Bursting with the sounds of R&B and gospel, the musical Best of Both Worlds is a soulful re-envisioning of The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare's timeless story of heartbreak and redemption. Clap your hands, jump out of your seat and feel the power of love with this holiday treat for all ages. Best of Both Worlds takes audiences on a journey through the rich musical tapestry of R&B, rediscovering Shakespeare's characters with smooth sounds and funky beats. When jealousy rips apart love and friendship, only the revelatory power of gospel can restore the enduring bonds of faith, family and forgiveness. The production will feature a rotating roster of Boston's most celebrated gospel choirs, including community, university and church choirs from throughout the city. Book and lyrics are by Randy Weiner, music is by Diedre Murray and the show is co-written and directed by Diane Paulus. Best of Both Worlds runs November 21, 2009 - January 3, 2010.

American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) is one of the country's most celebrated resident theaters and the winner of numerous awards, including the Tony Award, the Pulitzer Prize and numerous local Elliot Norton and I.R.N.E. Awards. In 2002 A.R.T. was the recipient of the National Theater Conference's Outstanding Achievement Award and in May of 2003 it was named one of the top three theaters in the country by Time magazine. Founded by Robert Brustein in 1980, over its twenty-nine-year history the A.R.T. has welcomed major American and international theater artists, presenting a diverse repertoire that includes new American plays, bold reinterpretations of classical texts, and provocative new music Theater Productions. A.R.T. has performed throughout the U.S. and worldwide in twenty-one cities in sixteen countries on four continents. It has presented over two hundred productions, over half of which were premieres of new plays, translations and adaptations. A.R.T. is also a training ground for young artists. The theater's artistic staff teaches undergraduate classes in acting, directing, dramatic literature, dramaturgy, design and playwriting at Harvard University, and in 1987 the A.R.T. founded the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. In conjunction with the Moscow Art Theater School, the Institute provides world-class graduate level training in acting, dramaturgy and voice.

Last fall A.R.T. welcomed its new Artistic Director, Diane Paulus., who is currently represented on Broadway with her direction of the Public Theater's Tony Award-winning production of Hair. Under her leadership, and with major funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Theater has developed a new initiative, EXPERIENCE THE A.R.T., which seeks to revolutionize the theater experience through a sustained commitment to empowering the audience. This initiative recognizes that theater is not just a play on the stage, but also a social occasion for people to come together and experience community. 


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