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BWW Interviews: Diane Paulus Part II - HAIR, The New Tribe, and The U.K.

Talk about a makeover. Just over one year ago, Diane Paulus was merely a freelance director with a hit on her hands.  Now, that hit - Hair - is a Tony Award winning musical, and she a Tony-nominated director, not to mention also being the newly appointed Artistic Director of one of the most prestigious regional theaters in the country (A.R.T. in Boston).  Paulus will soon be triple-tasking on productions on Broadway, in London, and at A.R.T. - all in between raising two young children. 

Last November, BroadwayWorld spoke with Diane for the first time about her transition from being an internationally respected freelance director to being the new gal on campus at A.R.T. With Hair running smoothly on Broadway and still high on her Tony success, the multi-tasker was focused on launching her first series at A.R.T., Shakespeare Exploded!, consisting of three productions inspired by Shakespeare plays: The Donkey Show (based on A Midsummer Night's Dream), Sleep No More (Macbeth), and Best of Both Worlds (A Winter's Tale). 

Not to be stymied by inertia, Paulus is on the move again, and she is about to get a whole lot busier.  As previously announced, Hair will be opening in the West End on April 14 at the Gielgud Theatre, with most of the original Broadway cast. A new Tribe will be coming to Broadway on March 9, with rehearsals beginning this week. And then there is Johnny Baseball: The Red Sox Musical that Paulus will be directing for May 14 opening at A.R.T.

But right now, it is all about Hair, Hair, Hair. Having recently completed a massive non-equity open casting call for the new Tribe (yes, she will be pulling from that pool of 1000 - nearly half of the original Tribe came from a similar crowd of aspiring hopefuls), and rehearsals to begin tomorrow, Hair is very much on her brain.  In this Part II of the interview series, Diane gives her take on how Hair became HAIR (who among us recalls the endless Zabar's breakfasts at 6:00am on picnic blankets in the park waiting in line for tickets?), and how she is keeping everything organized. 

Let's start at the beginning. How did you get attached to Hair? Why was it so important for you to take this job?

It was 2007. I was called by the Public Theater and they said "You know it's going to be the 40th anniversary [of Hair's inception], and we're thinking about bringing it back. Would you be interested in directing?" Hair originated at The Public in 1967. And I, now famously, almost dropped the telephone because I am a Hair fanatic. And I said right away "Oh, you don't understand, Hair is my favorite musical of all time." I knew the music and I loved the score and I grew up on the album.

So clearly taking the job was a no-brainer for you.

Well, that's how the conversation began. I had seen the movie in 1979, but I had never seen a stage version of Hair before, and I wasn't actually informed on what the theatrical version of it was. So I asked the Public to send me the script so I could get acquainted with it. The proposal on the table originally was to do a concert version of Hair in the park in September of 2007. But I knew that if we were going to do Hair, even in concert form, there had to be certain things. So I laid my requests on the table pretty clearly, like if we're going to do Hair, we have to have the right people in it. It can't be just sort of rolling out your Broadway regulars to sing the music from Hair and there's your concert. I knew it had to feel authentic and you have to have people singing that material who were "the Tribe." So we agreed upon an extensive casting process for that concert. I also felt it had to be costumed, that it couldn't be people kind of showing up to do the concert in their fancy leather pants and all the wrong clothes because so much of Hair is about who these people are and what they look like. And what their hair looks like!

What kind of "extensive casting process" did you employ, exactly?

Normally when you do a concert, you think okay, it's not a production so maybe you look at the pool of "regulars" who frequently participate in concerts like this and make offers. I knew that for this concert, we had to have a comprehensive casting process. Which meant a non-Equity open call, auditions that went on for weeks, searching to find the right Tribe to put in that concert. So it was a comprehensive search for the right people, as is done with a full production. About half of the Tribe we found from that non-equity call. And 23 of those 26 cast members went onto Broadway. All of those actors were singers and dancers. That effort really carried through to the production the following summer, and then onwards to Broadway. It was cast very particularly.

How long did it take you to pull the concert together?

We rehearsed it really quickly - we had nine days to do the whole thing. I worked with Jim Rado, who is one of the writers of Hair - the other partner was Gerome Ragni, who has passed away - and Galt MacDermot, who's the composer, to craft our concert version of the show.

Wow. Those nine days must have been intense because those guys were not just standing and singing for that concert.

I knew people standing behind music stands would not make sense. But when you have a proposal that's that extreme, like "You're going to do Hair, you're going to do it in nine days," it gets you to the essential core of what you're doing, which I think in the end, looking back, was so useful. Because it really forced us to uncover the heart of that piece, and test it to see how powerfully it resonated in front of an audience. And that's how it all started. And then that process actually led to the decision to move forward and continue to work on it and do a full production the following summer in the park. And then after that we would move to Broadway.

You have worked on so many shows, and I would think that, naturally, the hope is that they all will go on to live a healthy life. But at any point in this process did you feel that Hair was special, or more special than others? Did you have any sense in your gut that it would become the powerhouse that it is?

I did feel it for the first time in 2007 during the concert. We only did 4 performances. And I was going home late one night - in the park you tech through the night - and I went to Central Park West around 4:00am to go home and there were all these people hanging around. I went home and said to my husband, "My God, we have to get out more, because there's all this life going on in the street!" After sleeping for five hours I went back to the Delacorte at 9:00am the next morning, and all of those people were still standing there. Then I realized--they were there already lining up to get their tickets for Hair. That was the first glimpse I had. And then out came the tents and the cardboard boxes, and people were sleeping overnight, waiting for the concert to happen. This was the very beginning of my sense of "Oh my God, this is not just a musical." And then during the concert, seeing all these people mouthing the words to every song - not just one demographic, but young people, older people, people in their 60s, people in their 40s, all ethnicities and diversities - it was like "Oh my God, the power of this music and this story really has an audience out there."

Whose idea was it to mount a full production of the concert in the park the following summer?

I knew it needed to be done. And I really advocated to The Public Theatre that we should do this show, and this was the year. That was the summer of 2008, it was the election year, and I just knew that if there was ever a moment for Hair to come back and have meaning, it was the summer of 2008. There was a kind of tension the country was experiencing. On the one hand there was the case for "we‘ve had enough, we want change, we cannot tolerate this administration any more." And then on the other there was this sense of "look at what's possible." For the first time in years it felt like there was a crack starting to happen and people were beginning to believe again that you could make change in American politics - like we could elect a president that stood for things that we felt like our administration had not stood for, let alone an African-American. All of that was stirring that summer we did Hair in the park. And I'll tell you, we were riding the ups and downs of that election summer. I mean people were crying up in the theater the night that Sarah Palin spoke at the Republican convention, for example. It was just this moment. It really seemed like the show was happening at the right confluence of time, where a certain kind of cynicism about the ‘60s and a cynicism about politics was melting away and cracking open with the Obama possibilities.

I remember that. I (for one) tried to get into the show four times that summer and couldn't. I can't remember a Shakespeare in the Park show that has generated more popularity.

You look at that and you realize that this is not just about the show and the show being a good production. That kind of a response indicated that this show is speaking to the audience in a way that‘s very powerful. And we had moments... I'll never forget after one of the shows, there was a guy in a business suit. And the show ended and we had the dance party on the stage and he was curled in a ball crying, with his glasses in his hand. Ushers and some of the actors came over to him and were asking him "Are you okay, did you fall?" And he looked up and he was sobbing and he said "I was tear-gassed in Vietnam." And then he said "But I got my arms and I got my legs and I got my body and I‘ve got life." And he started interpolating lines from Hair into this kind of flashback memory he was having of fighting in Vietnam. And it just made you think "Oh my God."

What surprised you most about the reaction Hair was getting that summer?

When Hair was done originally several decades ago it was so in the thick of things. The [Vietnam] war was going on, young men were coming to Hair who'd just received their draft notices that day. Now we're 40 years later. And at this moment, people are finally be able to look back at what we went through as a country and relate to it. It is like they don't know it was written 40 years ago and they are relating to it as if it were written yesterday for them. And all the while you have parents and grandparents sitting side by side with their teenage kids and saying "Yeah, that was me up there, that was our childhood and our youth."

Hair had a somewhat unique Broadway trajectory. Unlike most shows, it was a certified New York hit before it opened Broadway. What was that like? How did that make opening night?

Gosh, opening night! I remember one of the Tribe members said to me: "Oh Diane, when I'd been outside for six hours outside the Public for that non-Equity open call, I never dreamt that two years later, I would be on Broadway." It just makes you want to cry. None of us thought about Broadway being the point of this. When the opportunity came to bring it to Broadway, it was like "Okay. The hippies are going to Broadway. We're gonna take this message and bring it to even more people." That was really the feeling, that it was another leg on this mission. To bring this kind of show to life, to let audiences in a Broadway house dance on the stage after the show with the Tribe, with 300 people on the stage putting their arms up in the air, singing "Let the Sun Shine In" together... Opening night was so special because so many of the cast members were making their Broadway debut, including me. It's such a young group of people. I'll never forget all of the cast members hanging out the window looking down 45th Street at our carpet--our carpet was not a red carpet, it was like some orange fuzzy carpet, or some hippie take on a red carpet - watching everybody coming to arrive at the theater. And at the end of the show when all the audience and cast was on stage, with flowers everywhere, it was this incredible electric moment of unity in that theater.

Having had some distance from the show since then, have you noticed that it has evolved in any particular way now?

Yeah. I am honestly shocked at the degree of commitment and energy from those performers every time I see the show. Eight times a week that cast is performing as if every performance is the last. How it's changed? Certain things have deepened with time. New moments have been found, especially when we have a new Tribe member and they are welcomed in. Those are the kind of things that have been evolving. And of course the interaction with the audience has deepened. Where maybe we used to get Berger coming off the front of the stage and kind of touch the front row, he is now climbing three or four rows into the audience. They're just better able to navigate the theater since they've been in there a year.

Fast-forwarding a little bit, who decided to bring this Broadway cast to London as opposed to casting locally? Of course London has no shortage of talent.

The producers. My understanding is that Cameron Mackintosh saw the show and it was his idea to bring over the Americans. And it made complete sense to me. Hair is about this unique American cultural, social thing, and this Tribe. This original cast has been on the journey together from the concert to the park to Broadway. It's just the logical extension of taking our message out now, this last leg of our journey: across the Atlantic Ocean to a new audience in London.

Is the whole American Tribe going?

Not every single Tribe member. Some people can't go for personal reasons. Either they have family, or things that are keeping them in New York. But a large portion of the Tribe is going. An announcement about all of that is coming very shortly. And what's equally exciting is having a new Tribe on Broadway.

Let's talk about this new Tribe. The response to that downtown open casting call at the Public was overwhelming.

I've been really focused on these auditions in the last severAl Weeks. There has been this outpouring of talent that is coming forward, of people who love Hair, want to be in Hair, are singing the songs from the show and pouring out their heart. I can't tell you the number of people who have reached out to me, from every nook and cranny of this country, saying "Oh my Gosh, I have to be in this show, you don't understand." And it's not always about "I want to be in this show." It's about the message, the activism, what it means to be in a show like Hair, it's that that performers are being touched by.

So you weren't surprised by the number of people who showed up to that open call, then?

You know, I have to say that I wasn't. I was getting the text messages at 7:30am, like "There are hordes of people already on line at The Public Theatre!" I've had so many new Tribe members who have come into our family over the last year, and when they join the show, they say "To be in a show with a message like this...it‘s changed my life." With this show, you can't just be in Hair, do your thing in Hair. It's not just a gig. It really is a life-changing kind of experience, not only because of the message and the mission of the show, but because of the demands it puts on the performers in terms of openness and their interaction with the audience. The performers have to be open to the fact that things change and there's a different audience every night and that has to be very alive and spontaneous. Performers are responding to that and the number of auditioners is an affirmation.

So you fully intend to cast a good portion of your new New York Tribe from this pool like the first go-round?

God, yes!

Logistically, you're going to be directing the new cast in New York and then going right away to London to launch the West End show, and then head back to Boston to direct Johnny Baseball in the spring, is that right?

That's right, that's my life!

While planning the 2010-11 season at A.R.T...

Yes, exactly, it's crazy but I have the most incredible team working on Hair. It's really a group effort.

You've said before that you're excited for this new cast to come in because it will allow the show to continue to grow to a new level. Do you have any changes planned for either the London or Broadway productions?

In London there will be staging that will be altered based on the architecture of the new space. The premise of the production is that it really lives in whatever venue or theater it's in. And I think there are certain things that I want to make better. There are aspects of the trip that I want to intensify for the audience. When I was at the show the other day and Claude said "I'm from Manchester, England!" I said to myself "I wonder how that line's going to go over when we get to London!" It's not like we're on a stage and you‘re watching through the fourth wall. The whole premise of the show is that we're doing it with you and for you, and we're together in one space. So when we get in front of an audience in London, I know the show is going to feel different, and will grow, adapt and change, and embrace that new energy that we're going to get back.

As far as the Broadway production, then, things will pretty much stay as we know them in the Hirschfeld?

Yes, but you know, that production now is about those particular Tribe members, so when new people come into that show, it's not going to be about people imitating what happened before them. The heart of the show will be the same but I will be expecting every new Tribe member to be bringing every eccentricity that they have to the stage.

So that's interesting. With this new cast you're not really looking to cast replicas, as often happens when replacements go in. You're looking to cast more idiosyncrasies.

Absolutely. Hair can do that as a show because the Tribe members define themselves. So the heart and soul and shape of the show, the story, all of that will now be about a whole new group of 26 people bringing themselves to the story and telling it through who they are.

Hair has been associated with so many outreach and activist causes. How involved with these initiatives have you been?

Well, you know, every time that comes up, it's always a joint effort. Either the actors say they want to do something and they ask the producers and the producers agree; or the producers suggest something and the actors agree; or they come to me, they ask my help on how to execute something. When the cast said they wanted to go to the March on Washington in October, for example, they wanted to incorporate signs into the after-show dance party, so we collaborated to work this idea into the ending of the show, to see if it would be jarring if a sign went up that said "October--We'll Be There, Will You?" We worked, at their initiation, to incorporate 2009's political events into the show, things that were not said in 1968 or 1967. So I am happily a part of those discussions and decisions. These outreach initiatives are not like a separate activity. It's absolutely essential to how the actors are able to perform and execute that material. All of that is taken really seriously, and we have producers who understand it and support it, which is remarkable.

Shifting Northward slightly, how did things go with Gatz that just ended up there in Boston?

Gatz was incredible. I've been a fan of the creators, Elevator Repair Service, for years. When I was starting out as a young director I admired them from a distance. To finally be an artistic director and be able to host them is such an honor. The show was fantastic, and audiences loved it. We did many installations where people can see both parts, the whole novel - chapters 1 through 5, and 6 through 9 - in one day. Not surprisingly, those marathon days sold out, because people really wanted to do the whole experience. We served dinner in our lobby, and people were eating and talking, making friends at the theater during the dinner break. The whole vision I had of a marathon experience, where the audience builds a community, actually happened.

When we last spoke, you had said that while taking the job at A.R.T. was exciting because it allowed you to get involved in the policy-making decisions, there was a part of you that didn't want to give up the freedom that you had as a freelance director. Now that you have a good portion of the season behind you, are you happy with your decision to set up permanent shop there?

Definitely. And it's funny, I've learned so much. I can't tell you the degree that I've grown as a person, and as a leader. The most gratifying thing has been my community here - the staff, the people I work with at A.R.T., the support network of our board, the community of the audience, and the students at Harvard University and in Boston that have come out for the season so far. When you make work you really need to be fed back if you're going to keep your pilot light going. It takes so much energy and passion, and I think the greatest thing about this fall at A.R.T. has been the feedback from the audience that says "We want experiences like this, we are so excited to be seeing theater in a new way." The letters from students that I've received about how shows like Sleep No More and The Donkey Show are blowing their minds, opening their eyes, reminding them why they do theater and re-committing them to the theater... I was just at The Donkey Show last week, and I met someone who's seen the show 15 times!

Wow.

And she shouted to me over the disco music that The Donkey Show had been her cancer therapy. And I said "What?!" And she said "Yeah, I had an operation, I could barely walk and I've been training so that I can be in The Donkey Show." And all I could think was "Oh my God, today I'm finally fulfilled as a human being!" I just think that's so affirming to the possibility of theater.

This may be a little premature, but I'm very curious: this past season at A.R.T. was very thematic with the Shakespeare Exploded! series in the fall and now America: Boom, Bust, and Baseball. Is there any insight you can give as to what the 2010-11 season might have in store?

We're deep in our season planning. It's a little too early to say! We're definitely looking at continuing to build on the new audience that we've discovered here -

What new audience is that?

Definitely a younger demographic. It's also the more broad definition of people who had not been going to the theater and who are either discovering it or coming back. What I can say is that I'm really immersed in music in the theater. I've been doing so much work with musicals and operas, so it's safe to say that as long as I direct a show in the season, which I will be next year, it will be something musical. And, we'll be looking to feed the audience's appetite for theater that provides social life, like in a venue like Oberon where The Donkey Show plays. We'll definitely be looking at doing things outside the building again so A.R.T. is not just about what goes on at the local drama center. So, there's more of that to come.

Thank you, again, for your time. When do you think casting will be complete for the new Broadway cast?

Well, we start rehearsals February 10 (laughs) so imminently.

Good luck! And hopefully we will reconvene again soon for a Part III.

Absolutely.

-----

The Tony Award-winning revival of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical will open at the Gielgud Theatre in London?s West End with the most original Broadway cast on Wednesday, April 14, 2010. Previews will begin on Thursday, April 1, 2010. Led by Director Diane Paulus, the complete creative team will reunite for the London production. For tickets and more information, visit www.hairbroadway.co.uk.

A completely new "Tribe? will debut in the Broadway production on Tuesday evening, March 9th, at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit www.hairbroadway.com or www.telecharge.com.

In addition to the Tony Award, the Broadway production of HAIR was named Best Musical Revival by the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama League.

A.R.T. recently closed Gatz and Punchdrunk's Sleep No More (after multiple extensions), on February 7. The Donkey Show, a disco adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Diane Paulus, that unfolds around audiences as a nightclub fantasy, has now embarked on an open-ended run at the newly dubbed club Oberon, adjacent to the Harvard campus. A.R.T. will open Clifford Odet's Paradise Lost on February 27, 2010 for a limited run through March 20, 2010.  For tickets and more information, visit www.americanrepertorytheater.org.

A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus is a director of opera and theater. Her recent theater work includes The Public Theater's revival of Hair at the Delacorte in Central Park, now transferred to Broadway (2009 Tony Award winner for Best Revival of a Musical, nominated for 8 Tony Awards including Best Director, as well as winner of a Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award and Drama League Award for Best Revival of a Musical). She is the creator and director of The Donkey Show, a disco adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which ran for six years Off-Broadway, and toured internationally to London, Edinburgh, Madrid, and Evian, France. Other recent work includes Kiss Me Kate at Glimmerglass Opera; Lost Highway, based on the David Lynch film, an ENO co-production with the Young Vic in London, which received The South Bank Show Award for outstanding achievement during 2008; Another Country by James Baldwin at Riverside Church; Turandot: Rumble for the Ring at the Bay Street Theatre; The Golden Mickeys for Disney Creative Entertainment; Best of Both Worlds, a gospel/R&B adaptation of A Winter's Tale produced by Music-Theatre Group and The Women's Project; and The Karaoke Show, an adaptation of Comedy of Errors set in a karaoke bar. She directed the Obie Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize finalist Running Man by jazz composer Diedre Murray and poet Cornelius Eady for Music-Theatre Group, and Swimming with Watermelons, created in association with Project 400, the theater company she co-founded with her husband Randy Weiner. Other work Off-Broadway: Brutal Imagination, and the Obie Award-winning Eli's Comin, featuring the music and lyrics of Laura Nyro. As an opera director, her productions include Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro, Turn of the Screw, Cosi fan tutte, and all three Monteverdi operas, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, L'incoronazione di Poppea, and Orfeo at Chicago Opera Theater. She is a frequent collaborator with British conductor Jane Glover. In 2002, their critically acclaimed production of Orfeo was presented as part of The Monteverdi Cycle at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music in New York City. Ms. Paulus has taught at Barnard College/Columbia University, and the Yale School of Drama, and was recently appointed Professor of the Practice in Harvard University's English Department. She is a 2009 recipient of the Harvard College Women's Professional Achievement Award and Columbia University's I.A.L Diamond Award, presented each year to a Columbia University alumnus/a who has demonstrated continued commitment to and has found success in the arts. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University with a B.A. in Social Studies, and has a M.F.A. in Directing from Columbia University's School of the Arts.

 

Photo Credit: Walter McBride / Retna Ltd.

 



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