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?

By | Boston Magazine |
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Diane Paulus enjoys a moment in the spotlight. (Photograph by Jason Grow. Hair and makeup by Maryelle O’Rourke/Team.)

Diane Paulus’s broadway version of Pippin opens in near darkness. As the audience waits in anticipation, a mysterious figure, lit from behind, creeps downstage behind a circus tent. The woman’s shadow grows smaller and smaller until, suddenly, she bursts through a crack in the fabric with hips snapping and teeth gleaming: a cat-suited vamp who will work the crowd over from the edge of the stage. Moments later the curtain falls away to reveal a riot of acrobats and circus artists. Jugglers, contortionists, aerialists, hand walkers, and tumblers perform their stunts in a lush choreographed chaos of color and movement.

This is the theatrical equivalent of starting a party with champagne, noisemakers, and confetti. Think Dorothy stepping out of her farmhouse and into dazzling Technicolor Oz. Grandmothers gasp in their seats. Small children squeal. All of which signal a pacing no-no—except in Paulus’s hands, the party won’t stop.

Since she was named the artistic director of Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater six years ago, Paulus has brought ever-more-ravishing shows like this one to her audiences, and in so doing, has been hailed as the green thumb of American theater. “This is a Pippin for the 21st century,” said the New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley in his April 2013 review, “when it takes more than style to hold the attention of a restless, sensation-hungry audience.”

Paulus has also become Broadway’s darling. This past November, her revival of Pippin, which started at the ART and earned Paulus the 2013 Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical, was playing at the Music Box Theatre. The marquee on the Booth Theatre directly across the street advertised The Glass Menagerie, the ART revival starring Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto that moved to Broadway following its premiere in Cambridge. A few doors down, Once, which also premiered at the ART, had been playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre for two years. Three blocks away, on the third floor of the Foxwoods Theatre, Paulus was rehearsing the national touring cast of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, another production that began here and went on to Broadway.

As a director, Paulus is a study in dualities: a nostalgist and an innovator, a stylist and storyteller, an ardent team player and iron-fisted leader, and, most important, a Broadway baby and Harvard intellectual. Her ease in these last two seemingly contradictory arenas has enabled her to knock down the wall separating highbrow and lowbrow in the theater world, bolstering the ART’s bottom line by presenting adventurous work with mass appeal.

Yet some say that Paulus’s populist approach may have forsaken the ART to save it. For decades, Harvard’s theater was known as Boston’s venue for serious, avant-garde artistic expression—an elite arts organization at the country’s premier academic institution in a city that prides itself on heritage and tradition. Over the years, however, dwindling audiences put the theater in the red. Now that Paulus has made the ART a launching pad to Broadway, the organization is once again financially stable. But in the process of rescuing it, has she corrupted the art of experimental theater?

 

On a windy day in November, Paulus, 47, arrives at the Foxwoods Rehearsal Studios on 43rd Street at 10 a.m. wearing a belted tunic, slim trousers, and tall boots. Years of ballet training are evident in her lean physique, the straight set of her shoulders, and her turned-out feet. She wears no makeup and dresses in black, which makes her huge green eyes pop. She works incessantly, prolifically, and claims to be unburdened by self-doubt.

For the next three hours she rehearses the Porgy traveling company, alternately standing bolt upright with arms crossed and legs planted in a wide stance, and perched at the end of a metal folding chair murmuring a stream of notes to her assistant director, Harvard grad Mia Walker. They’re running Act 3, Scene 2. Sportin’ Life is trying to persuade Bess to leave Catfish Row and go to New York City with him, and Paulus feeds direction to Kingsley Leggs, the actor playing Sportin’ Life, in precisely syncopated beats between his lines. She’s right in his head, as a director should be. She’s also a coach, and an analyst, and a siren, loosing a mellifluous flow of enticements.

“You’re right in this argument.” “You are so right.” “Move in on that.” “There’s a boat leaving for New York.” “It’s the apple.” “That’s the carrot.” “That’s so cool.” The song begins, and after four bars Paulus stops the action and strides onto the stage, which is marked off with yellow tape. Even the actors who aren’t in the scene, who are milling about the edges of the room with aprons and fishing gear over their sweatpants and sneakers, snap to. All eyes are on their director.

Paulus in a rehearsal room is in the zone, in the same way other people are when they meditate or do yoga. “It’s freeing,” she says, “to not be caught up in your own personal baggage.” Suddenly she bursts into the song’s opening line in a brassy voice: “There’s…a…boat that’s leavin’ soon…for New York!” and as she sashays diagonally downstage she wonders out loud how to make this moment bigger and splashier. Half a dozen people pipe up with ideas: Leggs, choreographer Ronald Brown, music director Dale Rieling, associate director Nancy Harrington, and a couple of others with indeterminate jobs. Paulus listens, muses, has Leggs try out a few of the suggestions, and settles on a series of pointed leg kicks and crisp finger snaps. They run it. Leggs delivers, like a snake-oil salesman on a chorus line. Perfect. Paulus nods and lets the scene play out.

“You’ve got her,” Paulus says matter-of-factly and so quietly she may as well be talking to herself. “You’ve got her. That’s such a turn-on.”

Two and a half years ago, when Paulus unveiled her version of the beloved opera, it caused a very Pauluslike dustup—one in which her creative license again clashed with a sacred cow. Her adaptation includes additions and deletions, punched-up dialogue, and invented biographical details. Before it even opened it ruffled some feathers, including Stephen Sondheim’s. When he read about the changes Paulus was making (with the blessing of the Gershwin estate) in the New York Times, Sondheim wrote a scathing letter to the editor, which read in part:

Then there is Ms. Paulus’s condescension toward the audience. She says, “I’m sorry, but to ask an audience these days to invest three hours in a show requires your heroine be an understandable and fully rounded character.” I don’t know what she’s sorry about, but I’m glad she can speak for all of us restless theatergoers. If she doesn’t understand Bess and feels she has to “excavate” the show, she clearly thinks it’s a ruin, so why is she doing it? I’m sorry, but could the problem be her lack of understanding, not [Porgy author DuBose] Heyward’s?

Asked how Sondheim’s criticism affected her, Paulus responds with silence. She’s in a plane at Logan, waiting to take off, speaking to me via phone. Following numerous failed attempts over many weeks to complete an interview we’d started in her Cambridge office, we continue our conversation on the fly. She finally says in a low, measured voice, “It was a moment of incredible determination on the part of the cast to just put our heads down and focus on the work, and let the work speak for itself.” Then she adds, “I’m sorry that Stephen Sondheim never saw the production.”

 

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A scene from Paulus’s Pippin showcases a full range of circus performers. (Photograph by Michael J. Lutch)

Even during her freshman year at Harvard, in 1984, Paulus was a full-on fangirl of the ART’s unorthodox productions—especially the theater’s adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Set in a bombed-out subway station, the play caused a major stir when Beckett threatened to withhold rights for the production unless the ART agreed to include a statement from him in the program. It read, in part: “My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.”

It was just this kind of controversy that had made the ART a beacon in the avant-garde theater world. For more than two decades, Robert Brustein, and then his handpicked successor, Robert Woodruff, built their theater on radical reinterpretations of the classics and collaborations with experimental directors. The two shared rigorous aesthetics and uncompromising attitudes, and they mounted iconic productions with luminaries like Robert Wilson, Andrei Serban, Julie Taymor, and JoAnne Akalaitis. “The ART completely exploded my mind,” Paulus says. To memorialize her passion, she stole a poster of Endgame from the Loeb Drama Center for her dorm. “It was the first example for me of, wow, you could actually do this with your life.”

Brustein was a towering figure in theater and one of Paulus’s early idols. He had founded the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1966, when he was dean of the School of Drama, and after his stormy ouster 13 years later—the university’s new president, Bartlett Giamatti (father of the actor Paul Giamatti) refused to renew his contract—Harvard invited him to bring his company to Cambridge. The American Repertory Theater opened in 1980, and through the years Brustein’s, and then Woodruff’s, esoteric productions brought acclaim.

Over the ensuing decades, however, theatergoers lost their patience for somber, challenging productions. Harvard, too, lost its patience with disappointing ticket sales. During the last two years of Woodruff’s tenure, the ART drew a total of nearly $4 million from its endowment to deal with revenue shortfalls, more than double the 4.5 to 5 percent typically used as a guideline for a nonprofit. Advisory board members began resigning. In January 2007, Sam Weisman, the Newton-based film director whose credits include George of the Jungle, told the Boston Globe that he felt he was constantly being asked to bail out the ART with donations, and blasted the theater as being too experimental: “I’m not interested in writing checks for a theater that nobody comes to,” he said.

A new approach was vital if the ART was to thrive, and in late 2006, after deciding not to renew Woodruff’s contract, Harvard launched a 16-month search for a new artistic director.

Paulus was a gutsy selection. A relative unknown, she’d never managed a theater company before. And though her academic credentials were stellar—she was a Phi Beta Kappa Harvard grad with a master’s degree in directing from Columbia and teaching stints at Yale—she presented a somewhat confusing mix of high and low theatrical offerings. She’d directed Così Fan Tutte for the Chicago Opera Theater’s opening of its 28th season. She’d also directed The Golden Mickeys, a revue-style show for the Disney Cruise Line designed as an awards ceremony that had cruise guests walking a red carpet into the ship’s theater while paparazzi furiously snapped their photos.

“She was not your grandmother’s ART,” says Paul Buttenwieser, who has sat on the ART’s board of trustees since 1984, and was a member of the selection committee. “She was go anywhere, do anything.”

 

Paulus describes her first five years at the ART as “incredibly intense.” It’s a cold autumn afternoon and she’s talking to me on the sofa in her light-filled Cambridge office, legs crossed, gaze steady, the picture of practiced politesse. Paulus set her sights on this job shortly after graduating from college, and she radiates the cool confidence of someone accustomed to getting what she wants. Colleagues call her driven, which seems clear enough. She’s also been called charismatic, a quality that she metes out more judiciously. Paulus looks more natural peering than smiling.

She shows me the purloined Endgame poster, which she has pulled from a stack of things leaning against the wall. Then she clutches it dramatically to her chest briefly before returning it to the pile. It’s been more than nine hours since she last ate, and she’s ravenous. When her assistant delivers lunch midway through our interview, Paulus tears into it while somehow maintaining her composure. Nancy Harrington, Paulus’s production stage manager and associate director on numerous shows, swears she’s never seen her tired.

Paulus is an avant-gardist in the tradition of Brustein and Woodruff, but instead of pursuing the abstruse and esoteric, she goes for the gut. She launched her debut ART season with an audacious statement of purpose in The Donkey Show, a disco-themed adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring half-naked go-go dancers, a boozed-up, booty-shaking audience (thanks to the full cash bar, located inside Oberon, the ART’s second stage), and not a word of Shakespeare. The production loudly and clearly declared where Paulus would take the ART: to the people. Her instincts were correct. During her first season at the ART, Paulus’s shows nearly doubled attendance for the theater.

She also spent that year on what she calls the campaign trail, going pretty much anywhere that would have her—the MOMS Club of Cambridge, Mount Auburn Hospital, countless living rooms—to talk about the theater. “Person after person after person would come up to me and shake my hand and say, ‘It’s great to meet you, but I just couldn’t take it anymore at the ART.’ And one by one by one I had to shake people’s hands and say, ‘I understand, that happens, but please come back.’” To that end, Paulus asked a lot of people a simple question: What do you want? “I have the most faith in an audience’s intelligence, in their appetite for work that stimulates and engages them, that makes them think and feel,” she explains.

But by the close of that first season, more than a dozen staffers had left and three high-profile board members, including Brustein, had resigned. A small but vocal band of critics began raising their voices, protesting the new director’s approach. Former ART actor Will LeBow wrote an open letter comparing Paulus’s first season to “a drug like cocaine.” Eileen McDonagh and Bob Davoli, who left the ART’s advisory board and board of trustees, respectively, reacted as if Paulus had turned the theater into a brothel, pronouncing how offensive and smutty they found her approach. “The problem as we see it is that you are destroying the heritage of the ART,” they wrote in a letter to Paulus, “by making it into something completely different—a place to preview musicals heading for Broadway, musicals in general, and sensory-saturated productions generating visceral experiences that often include pandering to sexual appetites.”

To the patrician departed who view music and sex as threats to their theater, Paulus says she simply wants to mirror the world we live in, creating dynamic interactions that deliberately dissolve the fourth wall and muddy the line between performer and spectator. She’d honed this attitude as a student at Harvard, where she examined the Living Theater—Julian Beck’s and Judith Malina’s influential company, which used spectacle and extreme forms of audience involvement as a means to confront complacency and spark social change.

Woodruff declined to be interviewed for this story, and Brustein, a senior research fellow at Harvard who has remained largely silent on the subject, offers a diplomatic assessment. “Diane Paulus has been a mesmerizing leader of the ART, and has created a number of really memorable productions,” he says. “I personally would have preferred less emphasis on pre-Broadway musical tryouts, and more on resident company work, but that’s a tempera mental difference.”

 

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Paulus watches over a rehearsal of the ART’s The Heart of Robin Hood. (Photograph by Jason Grow. Hair and makeup by Maryelle O’Rourke/Team.)

Perhaps only someone who grew up immersed in art could be so comfortable navigating, bending, and occasionally breaking its complex rules. If so, Paulus couldn’t have had a more fitting childhood. She was raised on the Upper West Side, a few blocks from Lincoln Center, by parents who loved classical music and opera, and frequently took their kids to see Broadway musicals. Paulus’s earliest theater memory is of marching backstage after a show in Central Park to complain that there were no hippopotamuses in the cast. She was three.

Paulus took piano lessons and studied dance at the School of American Ballet, joined a children’s theater company, and attended Brearley, an exclusive all-girls school. It was there that she met her future husband, Randy Weiner. When an injury sidelined him from the Collegiate School track season, a friend suggested he audition for a role in Wonderful Town at Collegiate’s sister school.

“I was, of course, Policeman Number 6 or Sailor Number 17, and was truly the worst person in the show, to such an absurd degree that I attracted attention from such a glorious creature as Diane, who was of course the best person in the show,” Weiner recalls. “I really fell for Diane, just like everybody falls for Diane. I don’t need to add to the hagiography or whatever the term is for saints, but she’s kind of like a sainted little creature.”

Paulus and Weiner (inseparable since high school except for a short break “so that we could make the choice that felt informed,” she explains) are the proverbial opposite sides of the same coin. He is unfiltered, fast-talking, zany, brash. She is deliberate, focused, and guarded. But they share a zeal for breaking boundaries, loosening conventions, and blurring lines.

With proprietor Simon Hammerstein, Oscar’s grandson, Weiner runs a successful group of über-risqué cabarets called the Box, where patrons who manage to make it past the bouncer hemorrhage cash to see transsexual clowns, Goth sisters performing an act called Twincest, and a stripper pulling a ringing cell phone from her vagina.

Weiner is talking to me via phone from an empty floor in New York’s Seagram Building, chatting a mile a minute while watching a burly circus performer with an 18-foot whip deflower a girl. He’s rehearsing the centerpiece scene from Queen of the Night, a kinky dinner-theater version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute that will immerse audience members in what Weiner, who also attended Harvard, describes as a “dark debutante ball.” With rough sex and leather. Also, food, magic, and circus acts courtesy of the Montreal troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main, whose cofounder collaborated with Paulus on Pippin.

The show is set to open New Year’s Eve at the Diamond Horseshoe, a legendary Theater District supper club that had been languishing in the basement of the Paramount Hotel since the 1950s. Right now, it’s the middle of the workday and office staffers at the bank building next door are gawking at Weiner’s rehearsal through the windows. “I’ve died and gone to heaven,” Weiner says of the scene. “The absolute perversity of this is so astounding and mind-altering.”

After college, Weiner and Paulus created many theatrical works together. “You can’t imagine how experimental our shows were,” he tells me. As the poster child for theatrical exotica, Weiner is definitely to be trusted here. I can’t imagine. But while Weiner was happy building a lucrative empire of steamy extravaganzas, Paulus attended grad school. Carnality is still a feature of her work, but for her the shedding of clothes and inhibitions isn’t simple titillation. It’s a visceral language for communicating real ideas to the young audience she wants to engage and—avant-garde formalists may want to look away—entertain. After launching The Donkey Show, a co-creation with Weiner that ran off-Broadway for six years, Paulus abandoned the sensual fringes to find more meaningful work.

In 2007, the year before the ART hired Paulus, Oskar Eustis, the 55-year-old artistic director of the venerable Public Theater, in New York, chose her to direct a 40th-anniversary concert of Hair in Central Park. The show became a full production in the park in 2008 and went on to receive critical raves on Broadway and a Tony for best musical revival the following year.

“Diane is breaking down the idea of a work of art or a work of theater as an object or a commodity to be purchased and then passively consumed,” says Eustis, “and that’s something that I think is right in the forefront of the important work happening in the American theater right now. She’s somebody who comes out of an avant-garde theatrical background who nonetheless is deeply interested in reaching masses of people. Diane doesn’t have the sort of high-priestess prejudice of a lot of avant-gardists of my generation, who view with pleasure how few people like their work.”

 

There is a feeling, even among some Harvard insiders, that Paulus is doing the right thing in the wrong place. Several people, speaking off the record, describe an attitude among locals who are glad that an area theater company is doing the work she’s doing, but wish it weren’t under Harvard’s aegis. Eustis, however, argues that “Harvard is exactly the place” for Paulus: “I would rather have Diane rooted in an institution that constantly is reminding her of nonprofit values and the legacy of human history and cultural values, all the things that are outside the marketplace, but within an environment creating work that can reach a mass of people. That seems to me a pretty exciting combination.”

Paulus counters that her generation of directors must be entrepreneurs as well as artists. “You have to think about why you’re asking an audience to come to the theater,” she says. “It’s not that they should come, because it’s good for them, because it’s the vegetables that they should eat and the culture shot that they should get…. It’s about experience and building community and catalyzing dialogue and bringing people together.” It’s also because theaters need the money.

Peter DuBois, artistic director of Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, says, “We don’t have the luxury of the Ford Foundation throwing million-dollar grants at theaters, which is what the founding generation of [nonprofit] theaters had. We don’t have a boisterous NEA celebrating experimentation and filling in the holes. You have to be thinking really strategically.”

To keep the ART relevant, Paulus has beefed up cross-discipline collaborations, brainstormed new ticket-packaging ideas, and deepened its ties with the university. She transformed Zero Arrow, its second stage, into Oberon, a club theater that remains home to the ever popular The Donkey Show and serves as a venue for local musicians, drag artists, and burlesque acts.

Paulus has also embraced partnerships with commercial producers, a growing trend in the nonprofit theater world. Such partnerships can account for up to 50 percent of a nonprofit theater production’s budget, according to ART managing director Billy Russo. Commercial alliances aren’t new: Robert Brustein joined forces with Broadway producer Rocco Landesman, who later became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, to mount Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which premiered in 1984 at the ART. After a rework at La Jolla Playhouse, it went on to run for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway, win seven Tony Awards, and earn the ART more than $300,000 for staging its premiere. But in recent years working with Broadway producers has gone from something like a dirty little secret to commonplace, and Paulus does it routinely.

“The danger,” Russo says, “is if the theater starts relying on that kind of money for their operational model and for how they’re going to balance the budget, if you start asking, ‘What are the plays out there with money that we can do?’ The theater needs to be saying, ‘This is a production we would be dying to do without the commercial partner.’ And the producer has to want to work with the institution, because it produces the kind of work that would give the project the best development.”

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.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/arts-entertainment/article/2014/01/28/diane-paulus-american-repertory-theater/