Diane Paulus' March Madness

By Jared Bowen

A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

March 24, 2011

CAMBRIDGE -- Diane Paulus is the visionary artistic director of Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater who bounded in from New York two years ago with a strikingly definitive perspective of what theatre could and should be.  At no other moment has the spectrum of Paulus’ ambition been more evident or more available than in March, when she has opened three of her directorial efforts simultaneously.
Paulus arrived to take over the A.R.T. just as she was also shepherding a dynamic and once again relevant revival of Hairto Broadway.

Now the touring production of Hair, which Paulus also directs, reaches Boston with a three week run at The Colonial Theatre beginning March 22. On Broadway, the show received eight Tony Nominations, and won one for Best Revival. Set during the Vietnam War, it follows a group of counter-culture hippies as they make the passage from free spirits to the socially devastated.
Although set firmly in a distinct time and place—New York in the 1960s—the show has managed to transcend generations divides over the years.
“What the show does now,” says Paulus, “is people are moved by it across generations. You have people who have lived through the 60s who are coming back, and in many cases for the first time looking back at their youth.
“A lot of people get very moved and kind of sad by it, like ‘oh my god that’s who we were, what happened to out country?’ But they are bringing their kids who are 17, 18 or 15 who don’t really know about that time period, even though it is really recent American history, and saying ‘mom and dad, you were like that. You were an activist?  Wait a minute, young people cared enough about their county and loved their country enough to stand up for the values they believed in? Peace and freedom?” 
“What I love about it is it’s speaking to the past, but young people see it today, and think it was written yesterday for them. They put the flowers in their hair and start dancing. They wear the hippie clothes. They don’t look at it as a revival.”
The history of Hairincludes five distinct versions that different productions have drawn from over the years. Paulus says she went back to the original 1967 New York Public Theater version to begin crafting her production.
“I was reading it from a paperback pocketbook edition that was found in a second hand store,” recalls Paulus.  “I found lines that felt to me so relevant. Much more relevant than maybe the funnier lines that went on Broadway the following spring.” 
“So to see and hear things about red China. To hear about the military industrial complex, especially while we were doing Hair [the 2007 Broadway production] during one of the last years of the Bush administration.  I went to Jim Rado, the original writer, and I asked ‘can we put these lines back in?’ And he was delighted. He feels Hair should continue to evolve, and my partnership with him has been crafting to a version that speaks to our audience today.”
Through the storied history of the production, one scene continues to get a strong reaction. That would be the famous on-stage nude scene.
“The important thing to know about the nudity is… it has always been completely voluntary. So when you are in Hair, you choose as an actor ‘do I want to do that or not?’ It’s not like staging that you are required to do.”
“The purity of the audience’s gaze. That’s what that moment’s about. It’s not about looking or being voyeuristic; it’s about a kind of freedom. When you think about the fact when they did this in 1968 in Broadway, I mean certain cities this show was banned, because of the nudity. And the idea that was more threatening and more dangerous than someone with a gun killing someone. I think that was the juxtaposition that was so powerful in the late 1960’s for what that moment stood for.”
Back on her home stage in Cambridge, Paulus recently opened the riveting and searing rock musical Prometheus Bound.
This is a contemporary take on the Greek classic, with a tyrannical Zeus who exacts revenge on Prometheus for sharing fire with humans. It’s especially poignant in this age of unrest and uprising in Egypt and Libya.

Gavin Creel stars as Prometheus in the ART’s rock musical production of Prometheus Bound, continuing through April 2 at Oberon. (Source:Marcus Stern)

As for connections between between her own work, Paulus says, “Prometheus Boundand Hairare both pieces that deal with issues of what it means to be alive, what it means to be a citizen, and what it means to be connected to the politics of our time.”
“They both yearn to break the fourth wall, and create a happening. In Hair, it’s the 1960’s being happening. In Prometheus Bound, it is a partnership with Amnesty International, and we are kind of shedding a light on prisoners of conscience… and taking an ancient Greek play, and saying this play speaks to our time, and speaks to the issues we are living in our world today.”
Much like Paulus’s still running Donkey Show, Prometheusis emersion theatre. The story unfolds all around. gathering us in the bliss of heaven and heaving us into the depths of hell.
Paul explains, “I believe in theatre being live, and pushing the aspect of the live event as far into the forefront as possible.  I just think sometimes we think theater equals ‘I sit in a chair, it’s bolted to the floor, my behavior is to be quiet’.”
“Theater can be ritual; theatre can be visceral as well as intellectual, and emotional. So I am trying with the A.R.T. to stay true to the mission, which is to expand the boundaries of theatre.”
“Theater can look like a happening. Theater can look like a rock concert. Guess what you can stand in a theatre show and put your fist in the air, and sing along. That’s theater as well.”
 Prometheus Boundis completing its run at the A.R.T. on Saturday, April 2.
The third act in Paulus’ theatre trifecta is the opera Death in the Powers,which just closed at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.  This is the story of a wealthy inventor, who finding himself at the end of his life, is able to download himself into his environment; into books, furniture, and walls.
A collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, this highly inventive piece garnered world wide acclaim after its premiere in Monte Carlo last year. Much of the action involves robotics controlled by people off stage, including nine robots, giant chandeliers that move, and walls with electronic data that are being fed off one of the singer’s body.

“The thing about Death in The Powers,” says Paulus. “It’s all-interactive with the stage action. It’s not press go and everything happens.  The robots are moving on stage with the performers.”
“So the attempt in Death in the Powers, how do we make technology a living partner on stage. Not something that is canned and running on it’s own track, but something that is as we know in our lives today, is becoming part of our life, becoming a part of how we live and breathe and act. That is what the opera really does with the technology.”
After this year’s momentous season, the A.R.T. is already preparing to go big in the future. The Gershwin Estate is allowing the company to mount the first major revival of Porgie and Bess since it’s beginning 40 years ago. Paulus is currently planning the premiere for this summer.


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