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Regional Reviews by Matthew Small

Interview with Diane Paulus

Diane Paulus
Diane Paulus
Following the opening of her new Hair revival in New York, I spoke with American Repertory Theatre's new Artistic Director Diane Paulus via phone about her Broadway directorial debut and her new leadership role in Cambridge's renowned regional theater.

Matthew Small:  Why is Hair important today?

Diane Paulus:  I think it's the right time for Hair to be coming back. It tells so poignantly the story of what our country was going through a mere forty years ago. And yet, as a country we haven't been able to look back at that time openly and honestly and in a way that allows us to see it for all the beauty and hope that the '60s represented. That's a long way of saying there was a lot of cynicism that followed the '60s, which I think we all understand. And a lot of feeling of maybe not wanting to really revisit it. But here we are and I think in the first time in forty years as a country, as a culture, as a nation, there is starting to be a crack in our feelings of possibility for change again. So, the idealism of the sixties, the passion of the youth movement actually has a chance to touch people again.

For a long time, it was all about the fashion of the '60s. All we remembered was bell bottoms and cool clothes. With the change in our administration—and just coming out of the Bush years—I just think we're at a time when people are starting to look at what America really stands for. Even in the economic crisis ... I do feel people are asking themselves, "What are your priorities in your life? What are our values? What really counts? Not just making money. What are the things we really want to stand up for?" and Hair speaks to all those questions.

MS:  You have now witnessed many audiences react to your work, through the recent incarnations of Hair in Central Park and on Broadway. How do you think the show resonates differently with various age groups, all of whom are sitting in the same theatre experiencing the same production?

DP:  What's been amazing is to see the intergenerational reception. That to me is the most thrilling thing. I'd actually say there are three audiences who are coming. There are people who were really active in the '60s. People who were adults. There was a great three-generation moment I experienced a week or so ago at the theatre. There was a guy in his 80s who was a Lutheran minister at a college in the '60s. He was telling me how he was a conscientious objector in the late '60s and was ministering to all these college kids about the war and the draft and their experience in the country. And with him at the show ... was his daughter, who happens to be a reporter for cnn.com, and she said, "I grew up with this show. I never got to see it, but my parents played the record. I grew up with the music and now this is my opportunity to actually experience the show on Broadway. To be live in its presence, to not just be listening to the album or hearing stories about it." Then she turned around and said, "Here's my 14-year-old daughter, who I am introducing to the show." For the teenagers who are coming, 14 years old or kids in college, it's eye opening.

There was another 16-year-old son of a friend who came and said, "I can't believe this is what young people stood for. I'm embarrassed for my generation. We've been listening to Britney Spears and this was going on. People cared enough to protest and stand up for their beliefs. I have to tell all my friends to come and see this."

... You hope you do justice for the material, but I'm so excited that maybe this revival is going to stimulate conversation about a piece of American history across generations and actually turn on the younger generation to the history of their parents and their grandparents, and maybe shake them up in a way that says you can love your country enough to care to protest. And care to say, we don't accept that. That's so gratifying to see that kind of different response happening across generations.

MS:  Some of your cast members from Broadway's Hair will be at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge for a fundraiser on April 27. What can attendees expect to see them perform?

DP:  We're going to be doing numbers from the show, like "Aquarius," and "Let the Sun Shine In" and "Hair." The key numbers are going to be performed at the gala with their full costumes and the whole kit-and-caboodle. The happening will take place here in Cambridge. It's going to be like the Hair party bus from New York. There will be dancing on the tables, I can guarantee you. It's going to be terrific and [the cast members] are so excited to do it. They are a fantastic, enthusiastic cast. Wherever they can go and spread the message, they're up for it.

MS:  What have you learned from directing Hair that will inform your work as Artistic Director at ART?

DP:  My interest as a director, and I think you can tell it from Hair, is in the audience. It's just always been my passion. Whenever I've been asked to direct something, whether it's an opera or it's a musical or a play, I'm always interested in, who is the audience for this? Why are we doing this? Why are we creating this event? And why should I ask people to come and see this? What's the need to do this project now? I think what I've been so craving as a director is an opportunity to get even more involved in that kind of policy decision-making that directors do for their own show, but you really don't have a seat at the table in terms of a season at the theatre or larger issues of how a theater's positioning itself or how they're producing their work.

The idea of coming to A.R.T. was so interesting to me, not only because I went to school at Harvard, so I have a real fondness for being in Cambridge. I grew up at the A.R.T. as an undergrad. I saw all the shows. It was one of the seminal experiences in my life, seeing shows here that actually led me to considering becoming a professional in the theater. So, it's kind of a great full-circle for me. I also felt this is a moment ... where I really want to get involved as an arts leader and take these issues that have interested me as a director and really make them comprehensive to my leadership of an institution. My priority for my season next year, and the seasons upcoming, is really revitalizing the connection with the audience at the A.R.T.

MS:  I have heard you say that you are interested in tearing down the walls that surround the theaters in America. What are some ways you will incorporate that idea into your work at A.R.T.?

DP:  Quite literally, we're taking some of the work out of the building. We have, as you know, two spaces here. We have our Mainstage at the Loeb [Drama Center at Harvard] and we have Zero Arrow [Theatre]. We're going to be programming things in the building. And I would dare say ... there are going to be events happening in the building that I guarantee you, in a very Hair-like way, will be exploding within the building. And then we are literally doing shows outside the building in off-site locations. We're making partnerships with other arts organizations. It's really a vision of saying, come have an experience with us that's not just coming to a play and sitting in the dark and watching a show. It's really saying, come and celebrate with us. Dance with us ... that's what interests me. The whole arts experience. Before, during and after.

I'm going to be putting as much attention to how we invite people to the theater. What's the dialogue that we start with our audience, even before they get to the theater? What's the quality of their experience while they're here? What happens when you're done with the show and you've had some kind of transformation? What then happens?  ... You build a theatrical event to transform an audience and then you don't send them home [saying], "Please exit the theater. Take your programs. Thank you. Goodbye." You say, "Now express yourself. Have a moment to take that spirit the next step." Those are the kinds of things that are going to be very much a part of the season: different theater events happening at different times of the night. It's kind of busting the model open.

When I've talked about breaking through walls ... it's [also] taking the mission of the A.R.T. really, really seriously. And that is to expand the boundaries of theater. That's our mission and I love that mission because that's what interests me. Theater doesn't just have to be a formula in a box. It can be so much bigger than that, expanding what we call theater. What's the theatrical event? When does it start? When does it end? Where does it take place? These are all the things that you'll see challenging and opening up in new ways next year.

MS:  You will announce A.R.T.'s 2009-2010 Season at a special event on April 15. How has the economy affected your programming decisions for next season?

DP:  I find the economic crisis, in a great way, has been a terrific challenge to complacency. It can't be, "Well, this is the way we've done things and this is how we do it." It's really asked us to look at ... the priorities, and how are we going to really maximize our resources. And I think you're going to find that in many ways it's going to feel like we're doing more than we've ever done. We're just doing it in different ways. It's not about doing more means costing more. It's just about making partners, bringing new blood into the building; innovative partnerships and new ideas ... The economic crisis has not dampened my ambitions for the programming. It's just made us look even harder and even more seriously and how do we make this happen. But I'm very grassroots. I'm a populist. I'm an entrepreneur. I like to think very practically about how to produce theater responsibly. This economic crisis just pushes all these questions to the fore in a healthy way.

MS:  Can you talk about how Boston-based artists—actors, directors, designer, playwrights—might fit into your vision for A.R.T.?

DP:  Part of my agenda for everything I do at the A.R.T. is really to make Boston a cultural destination. Because, for me to come up here and do what I want to do for the A.R.T., it's not just about the A.R.T.. It's about making the A.R.T. one of many thriving attractions in the Boston area, to which we hope people all over the country—and New York—say, "I've got to go to Boston for a weekend." And it's not just to go to the A.RT. to see that incredible thing, but then the next day to go to the [Institute of Contemporary Art] and the next night to go to the Huntington [Theatre Company] and the next day, go to the [Museum of Fine Arts]. I'm really interested in that kind of cultural club and I've been talking really aggressively with people in the city about how we can all join together to make Boston that presence.

There are specific events I have planned that I hope will allow not only these big cultural institutions, but the theater community in Boston to be able to own itself and say, "Look what we really do here." We could be like another Chicago. Like a real sense-of-theater town. We have all these college kids here and I would love to build a culture here where kids graduate from college and say, "You've got to stay!" That's what happens in Chicago. Everybody stays in Chicago, and you form your companies and you're doing work and it becomes a real theatre-theatre town. I think it's already happening. It just needs to be nurtured and celebrated—and then enhanced. And I have some specific initiatives in mind, including fun things like parades. You know, things like that will give a chance for all the local actors and directors to be a part of the community in a much more inclusive way.

MS:  I'm curious to learn about any plans you have to open A.R.T. work to new audiences. Specifically, how might you be able to include the scores of people for whom attending shows is a luxury they can't afford?

DP:  We have packages next year where you can see all seven events ... and if you go on that ride, you can get tickets that are less than $25 dollar for every event. So, I'm really passionate about that. In addition, we're introducing a section C for all our events that are $25 a ticket so that it's never like, "Oh, I've got to pay 80 or 90 bucks—or not." You can always get to our theater and see a show for $25, which I think is a fair price for an event. I feel really confident about saying, it's here. We're not being elitist. We're definitely opening our doors. I'm really proud of that initiative.

MS:  For professionals in the arts with a family, a work-life balance is challenging. How do you personally find that balance in your own life?

DP:  I have two little girls, a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old. I'm just so grateful to be in the arts because it's a profession that allows you to share your work with your family. My daughters have been all over the world with me. They've been in rehearsals. They've been in recording studios. They've been in my lap at previews and sitting next to me during tech. It's a great profession because you can include your family and I think that's the key. My kids know exactly what I do. They come to all the shows. They sing all the songs. They've been to Hair over 20 times. They know the actors. They know what I do as their mother and they're very proud of it. I also have a great husband [Randy Weiner] who just totally understands what it means to be in a partnership and how to share in the family raising. He's a producer in the business in New York, as well. So, we both have crazy lives. I think it only enriches you. As an artist, I think your work gets deeper the richer you grow as a person. And for me there was no question that a family had to be part of that equation for me. So far, it's been lovely and worked very well.

MS:  What is one thing that you want Boston audiences to know about you?

DP:  I'm so excited to make contact with the audience. It's in my nature as a director. I always love to stick around and listen to what people want to say and what they feel. That's something that is really important to me: that audiences know I care about them. And I care what they think. And also that I think the world of the audience. I think it's a sad thing in the theater profession when shows don't go well. Theater artists tend to say, "Well the audience didn't get. The audience doesn't want art." I never feel that way. To me, it lives and dies with the audience. I have the best faith in audiences. I think audiences are smart. They want great work. They want to be stimulated. They want to be entertained. They want to come out and, in the theater, be with other people. I'm just looking forward to being their partner.


For information on Hair visit www.hairbroadway.com. To learn more about the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, visit www.amprep.org.



Matthew Small



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