Curtain Speech: Diane Paulus
“CURTAIN SPEECH” is a recurring series where I will focus on a Tony Award-winning director from the last 25 years and examine how their work has shaped the NMT landscape. Today: Diane Paulus!
Diane Paulus won the Tony Award in 2013 for her work on Pippin and in 2014 was listed as one of TIME Magazine’s ‘100 most influential people in the world.’ She is the artistic director of the A.R.T. in Boston where she was responsible for the well-known revivals of Hair, Porgy and Bess and Pippin. Due to the lights of Broadway shining primarily on her work on revivals, it is easy to forget she has also helmed the creation of NMT projects like Prometheus Bound, Death and the Powers: A Robot’s Opera, Best of Both Worlds, Finding Neverland, and soon Waitress. These projects, though not as widely known as her work on Broadway, show us why Diane Paulus is not just a great theatre director but also a global thinker who pushes boundaries inside and outside the theatre.
Ms. Paulus is infamous for pushing the boundaries of audience engagement by challenging her audience to not only be transformed but also have a hand in transforming themselves. In Prometheus Bound, a political protest rock musical based on the Greek play, the second act asked audience to come forward and learn about prisoners of conscience around the world. This production paired with Amnesty International to provide the audience with a Greek play, contemporary rock music, and information about the contemporary political landscape in which we live. With these elements juxtaposed against one another the audience is given a classic story, both a micro and macro context for relevant political issues, and examples of how to leave the theatre and turn their experience into action. It is these instances of incorporating opportunities for education and change not around the theatrical experience but as part of the theatrical experience that allow the audience to engage in dialogue with a production rather than being lectured. It is this dialogue that allows audiences to find their voice in the theatre, a voice that then can be carried into their everyday life where it will be a catalyst for change.
“Audiences like to be challenged; they like to figure it out.”
In addition to challenging the audience to transform their theatrical experience into action, Ms. Paulus also challenges the very definition of theatre itself. In many interviews she mentions the contemporary expectations of an evening at the theatre: The lights go down, everyone gets quiet, you watch the play and no one says anything until the lights come up at intermission and you are allowed to talk again. The audience is passive.
She compares these to the theatrical expectations of audiences before the turn of the century: The lights stay on so everyone can be jealous of where you are sitting and what you are wearing. You flirt with your neighbor and the person in the balcony because going to the theatre is a social event. It’s less about the show and more about the experience of going to the theatre.
And no comparison of theatrical expectations would be complete without going all the way back to the Greeks: Theatre happened in festivals. You would see not one show but many and you would never end with something like Medea. There would always be a satyr play afterwards. Playwrights would be preaching the argument of their play in the streets trying to get votes toward winning awards, and the audience played an active role. “Greek theatre was much more like American Idol than we like to admit,” says Paulus.
Seeing how the conventions of theatre have changed over the years may be jarring but it is important to note that ALL of the above examples are theatre in their own right and perfectly valid. It is merely a question of how can we use past practices to inform what we create now. If the Greeks had a populist, political, interactive theatre, then we know that is an option. If we want to put up a fourth wall and allow the audience to be a voyeur into a naturalistic world, then this too is a viable choice. These examples serve to remind us that we have options with what we create and in how we intend for it to be experienced.
In a world where most commercial audiences find comfort experiencing theatre in a passive way, you might think it is difficult to break the mold without breaking the entire industry. This is so not the case. One of the best examples of how to shake up the expectations of contemporary theatergoers is Sleep No More. This interactive mind puzzle was nurtured under Paulus at the A.R.T. and was one of the biggest commercial successes of the season. Experimental work like this reminds us that it can be ok if people don’t get it all in one go. If they do, things are probably too simple. No game of baseball is complete without a good curveball; your audience is smart – believe that they will hit a home run.
“It’s all about feeling lost in something bigger than oneself.” – Diane Paulus on Spectacle
Be bold. Be loud. Be crazy. Be big. Just don’t be boring. The moments where we see something awe-inspiring or death-defying are the moments that change us the most. Shock, surprise, fear, and confusion are all important tools that once resolved lead to some of our biggest realizations. So put your metaphorical Patina Miller on a trapeze hanging upside down while singing – anything is fair game.