Diane Paulus: Drama Queen
Diane Paulus has saved the American Repertory Theater, for now. But in the process, has she unintentionally corrupted the soul of experimental theater?
The ART’s income in combined ticket sales and contributions has grown by more than 60 percent since Woodruff’s last year, and this year, subscribers are returning in droves, up 60 percent as of press time. “The word is out,” says Kati Mitchell, publicist for the ART. “We had a really good season and a lot of people weren’t able to see several shows because they were sold out. We also did a good job marketing [subscriptions]. To my mind it’s cumulative. Of course, the Tonys help.”
But having a star at the helm has been a mixed blessing for the ART. Several people, speaking off the record, point to Paulus’s newfound fame and the amount of time she was spending in New York as a reason for the staff turnover during her early days. She’s even busier now, dividing her time between Cambridge, Manhattan (where Weiner and their two young daughters live), and wherever else she needs to be for her projects. During one stretch last November Paulus spent 10 days in San Francisco, where The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and Amaluna, one of the latest Cirque du Soleil shows (directed by Paulus and coming to Boston this year), were opening within days of each other; flew to New York to spend one night with her family; then caught a shuttle to Cambridge for three days before returning to New York.
Things reached a new low the year before last, when Paulus was doing Cirque du Soleil and Russo hadn’t yet taken the job of managing director. “I think what we’ve done is say, ‘We want Diane, we have Diane, we want to keep Diane,’ and we’re going to find out what conditions make it possible for her to be the director of ART,” Buttenwieser says. “We have now reached a point, I think, where she can give us what we need from her and still have the temporal freedom to do other things.”
And still the question remains: Without constant hits, without a luminary like Diane Paulus, can a regional nonprofit like the ART survive?
Happily, the ART won’t need to figure that out for a while: Paulus recently signed a new five-year contract. And yet for all of her success, Paulus is a restless star. She will soon direct an opera based on the Civil War diaries of Walt Whitman commissioned from Matt Aucoin, a young Harvard graduate. She’ll put together a touring company for Pippin. She has “tons” of projects under development, among them a stage adaptation of the 2007 film Waitress with the singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles; a project with Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler about the women’s suffrage movement; a collaboration with Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen; and Finding Neverland, a musical about Peter Pan playwright J. M. Barrie. It’s film titan Harvey Weinstein’s first foray into big-budget stage musicals, and Paulus plans to give it an ART run before sending the show to Broadway.
Though she is now the go-to director for musical revivals in the country, she confides that she would very much like to develop a new musical work from the ground up “that will have an impact, that will birth a whole new story into the world.”
While she has developed a handful of new musicals in recent years—Johnny Baseball, Prometheus Bound, The Blue Flower—none has had the impact Paulus craves. This month she’ll try again with the ART’s world premiere of Witness Uganda, with music and lyrics by Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould, based on Matthews’s experience as an aid worker in Uganda. Paulus is excited to mount the show on a college campus because, she says, “it’s about how complicated it is to help, how much you can screw up, and yet what do we do with this impulse, especially in young people who want to make change in the world and connect?”
Before Paulus got involved, Matthews and Gould admit that Witness Uganda was more like a cross between a concert and an infomercial. When she showed up, they say, she started digging. “There wasn’t a desire to layer any kind of agenda onto it,” Gould says. “She wanted to get deep into our agenda, and that’s the way the piece has grown. She really probed into our brains to try to figure out what it was we were trying to create. She pushed us to tell the most dangerous, dramatic, vulnerable story that we can tell, which is what I think directors are supposed to do.”
“She’s a brilliant editor,” Matthews adds. “Diane takes the best people, lets them all say their ideas, and then she knows how to pick the right one. She doesn’t have an ego about whose idea it is or where it came from. Diane just says, ‘Everybody get in a room, as many people as we can get in this room, and the best idea wins.’”
Many would agree with Matthews. Asked to name Paulus’s defining attribute, Eustis points to her skill at articulating a vision and motivating everyone else to buy into it. “I saw her do it with Hair,” he says. “She gets actors and designers and musicians to throw themselves headfirst into very challenging and often scary modes of performing and being in front of an audience, and do it with joy and commitment and belief that they’re contributing to something larger.”
The influential theater director and educator Anne Bogart, who was Paulus’s professor in the MFA directing program at Columbia University, says that there are three things necessary to succeed as a theater director: “You need technique, which you can get in school or by practicing. You need passion. And you need to have something to say. A lot of people have two of those three, but you need all three,” Bogart says, “and Diane has that.”
More than half a decade after the ART hired her, the only real surprise, Paulus says, has been the persistent belief that musicals don’t have a place in serious theater. She has been on a crusade to upend that bias, buoyed not just by her love of the form and its uniquely American contribution to the canon, but her feeling that music is one of the most potent tools a theater creator has.
“It bypasses the brain. It goes right to the heart. Music is rhythm, and all theater is rhythm,” she says. “It’s about tempo and change and pulse, whether you’re doing a verse play by Shakespeare or a musical.”
Or both. At the same time. With cocktails. Those who fault Paulus for her raffish aesthetics, who accuse her of sacrificing the ART’s legacy at the altar of popular culture and spectacle, would do well to revisit their history books. “There was a time,” she says, “when theater was ritual and social. Can we broaden the lens and say, Wow, theater can be all these other things it was in classical Athens in the fifth century B.C.?”
What she’s doing at the ART, Paulus says, “is not about selling out or dumbing down. It’s about making vibrant work that makes the audience feel necessary, that has the feeling of an event you can’t miss.”
In our technology-driven age, when being there can mean being anywhere, simply getting people to show up is an art unto itself. Diane Paulus is a master of the form.