Several years ago, Cambridge city officials worried that the American Repertory Theater’s (A.R.T.) second stage, Oberon, “didn’t look like a theater.” Diane Paulus, the newly appointed artistic director of the A.R.T., quickly assured them that the hall — more disco than proscenium — had much in common with William Shakespeare’s famous London theatrical home, in particular its “groundlings,” the audience members who stood close to the stage to watch the show.
“The mosh pit,” she told them, “is the modern Globe Theatre.”
From Shakespeare to vaudeville to artists on the streets of New York City, the history of performance informs Paulus’ dynamic, 21st-century vision for the stage.
During a recent lecture, Paulus explained that even the experimental early endings to her reimagined production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” were rooted in the history of the story and its evolution from novel to play to opera. Her musical moved from the A.R.T. to Broadway late last year and recently garnered 10 Tony Award nominations.
“The show has many different endings, if you look back to the novel and the play,” said Paulus, adding that even the opera libretto leaves Bess’ final physical action on stage largely open for interpretation. “There is a big area to explore there.”
Growing up in Manhattan, Paulus trained as a classical pianist but quickly realized she craved a more collective approach to creativity, she told a crowd at the Cambridge Public Library during Tuesday’s discussion, which was part of the University’s John Harvard Book celebration. The lecture series brings distinguished Harvard speakers and other programs to each public library in Cambridge and Boston as part of the University’s 375th anniversary festivities.
“I remember thinking as a young person I could be on a piano practicing five hours a day by myself, or I could be in a room with a lot of people making theater. And there was no question in my mind where I wanted to be.”
When she was hired as artistic director in 2008, Paulus ’88 committed herself to “expanding the boundaries of theater,” in large part by asking the same questions she had always asked: “What does theater look like historically?” and “Can it look a little different?” Her inaugural season offered theatergoers a definitive answer, with works that both acknowledged the past, and brought the audience onto the stage.
“The Donkey Show” transformed the Athenian gardens of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” into a 1970s nightclub, with the crowd grooving around performers in their midst. “Sleep No More” was staged as a type of immersive haunted house, where the audience roamed 40 rooms of an eerie, deserted high school, encountering actors performing scenes from the Bard’s “Macbeth.”
“It was the living, breathing world of Macbeth,” said Paulus, who was “trying to make the audience feel like they were part of the show.”
The productions in her second season further reimagined the theatrical experience and her notion of the theater beyond the stage. “The Blue Flower,” a musical that unfolds against the backdrop of World War I and the cultural movement known as Dadaism, inspired the creation of a mini modern museum in the Loeb Drama Center’s lobby. Harvard undergraduates and members of the cast crafted the works of Dada-inspired art for what she called the theater “that happens after the show.”
For Paulus, the “whole ritual of the theater” needs to be addressed. “Why do we come out? What is the evening? Does it start before the play begins? What happens after the event?”
The A.R.T.’s current musical, “Woody Sez,” charts the impact the American singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie had as “a crusader for the oppressed,” and incorporates Paulus’ interactive, holistic approach. In connection with the show, Paulus and her team have organized a series of hootenannies informal jam sessions,.
The idea that “you can bring your instrument to the show, and then, when it’s over, you can take your own instrument out and a make a community with your fellow audience members, to me is as important as the show on the stage.”
In the future, she hopes to further tap Harvard’s human capital, inviting experts and scholars not just to discussions about a show after the curtain has gone down, as she has done with recent productions, but into the creative process before the lights even go on.
“We are trying to engage them in the creation of new work … [and] get professors at the table with artists talking about subjects — special areas of research that might spawn the creation of new work.”
A critical part of her expanding audience, acknowledged Paulus, is Harvard’s undergraduate community. In addition to encouraging students to take part in some A.R.T. productions, she has gone into the classroom, instructing and probing them for ideas and feedback on upcoming projects. As professor of practice in the English Department, she has taught courses on Shakespeare and “Porgy and Bess” with Marjorie Garber, Harvard’s William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and of Visual and Environmental Studies.
Offering the crowd a glimpse of the upcoming season, Paulus said she plans to stage the musical “Pippin” in collaboration with a “cutting-edge circus troupe” from Montreal that will add “bold physical expression” to the show. Also on tap are a work about French Queen Marie Antoinette, whom Paulus called “the most famous 1 percenter,” and a five-hour Kabuki-inspired play about a flower trying to find its place in the world, a metaphor, she said, for marriage equality.
Asked about her directing style, Paulus said her operating ethos invites inclusion and possibility. If someone has a good idea to share, she wants to hear it. If she doesn’t have the answers at the start of a show, she doesn’t worry; instead she feeds off “the sense of potential.” She likened her role to that of a motivational coach. “You just have to have enough stamina to keep everybody climbing up the hill nobody wants to go up anymore … you just have to keep pointing to the top of the mountain and say ‘that’s where we’re going.’”
Her approach has made believers out of some who were uneasy at her appointment.
“I was a big skeptic of what she was going to be doing,” said Cambridge resident and longtime A.R.T. patron Nancy Hurlbut after the discussion. “And I have just been so impressed with piece after piece. … She really wants to pull in all kinds of impressions.”
The next John Harvard Book talk will be 6 p.m. May 15 at the Cambridge Public Library, Main Library, 449 Broadway. Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Kathleen McCartney will present “Addressing the Challenges Facing Public Education.”