I really dig Diane Paulus

I really dig Diane Paulus

I think every theater in America wants a younger audience…and you can’t just hope to have a younger audience, you have to program things that audience is going to connect with. There is an audience for theater that is untapped…and they tend to have a very limited definition of what they think theater is, so they tend to stay away.The Harvard Business School did a case on the A.R.T. and there was this young MBA [in the class], a guy in his late 20s and the professor asked, ‘have you ever been to the A.R.T.?’ ‘No.’ When was the last time you went to the theater?’ ‘Can’t remember.’ ‘Well, what do you do? Do you ever go out?’ And the guys said, ‘oh, I’m a social person, it’s just that I’m not cultured.’ And I just feel like that in a nutshell, that’s the problem. There’s a whole demo of potential audience that doesn’t think of themselves as cultured people, so I’m hungry for that audience. There’s a sector of our population [who] loves the theater, for whom the theater is a ritual and they will go no matter what. But I just wish the theater had a more central place in our lives as citizens…. It was part of the social season, what it was to engage as a person. So that’s been my guiding principle, to keep expanding the theater to include larger sectors of audience. I’m kind of on the mission to make our theater a very democratic and accessible venue where our audience can be as diverse as the world is that we live in today. We have a long way to go on that still. 

Diane Paulus really hits the nail on the head in this Theatremania article. I agree with so many of the things she is saying, for instance: a) theatre needs to reach younger audiences b) theatre needs to have a more “central place” in our lives. But as she says, “you can’t just hope to have a younger audience, you have to program things that audience is going to connect with”.

So, how is she doing? Looking at what A.R.T has done in the past couple of years, she is doing incredibly well. It started with Hair the musical — brilliant choice #1. It’s a musical that our parents remember, but that is fun and inviting for our generation now, even if you had no prior knowledge about it. She updated it slightly with a concept of having the ensemble being a traveling troupe — again, very inviting instead of hippies banging on your door. Finally, the show and its message were extremely appropriate to everything going on with the Bush administration and the war. There’s also Porgy and Bess; old show, but with the modern twist of having the book be adapted by the genius playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks. Now, Pippin is about to head to Broadway… which I am dying to see. There is a circus involved, and who doesn’t love a circus? And of course, there is The Donkey Show, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a club. Youth, youth, youth, youth, youth. 

I saw The Glass Menagerie at the A.R.T. Tuesday night, my second experience with A.R.T. after seeing Prometheus Bound two years ago (an activist rock musical with hottie musical theatre extraordinaire, Gavin Creel? Hello, young audiences…) The Williams play is an interesting choice though, in my opinion. Yes, it’s directed by John Tiffany, the guy who did Once the musical, but it’s still Tennessee Williams. If you are the “not-cultured” Harvard guy that Paulus describes — and he’s not the only one — what can be inviting about this play?

The actors are all top-notch, for one. Zachary Quinto’s in it. He’s known for American Horror Story, Heroes, and Star Trek the movie. If one does not know the “theatre world”, one would probably know him. If one does know the “theatre world”, one knows that Cherry Jones is a stage great and that Celia Keenan-Bolger is a Broadway star. Brian J. Smith, who plays The Gentleman Caller, I, personally, was not familiar with prior to seeing the show. 

However, as I sat in the theatre, the play simply speaks for itself. A self-proclaimed theatre nerd, I must reluctantly admit that I had never fully read The Glass Menagerie or seen it. I knew general aspects of the play, but this was my firsI real experience with the work. 

One thing that really lept out to me was the image of “the movies”. Throughout the piece, Tom, played by Zachary Quinto, escapes to go to “the movies” (whether they are actually movies or not is questionable, of course) but the things that were said about the movies, or even the idea of it, rang very true for me as a person living in 2013. It is absolutely astonishing to me that Tennessee Williams could predict, in a sense, what movies, a pretty new technology at the time, would mean to society. They were an easy escape for so many people who had humdrum lives. The connection I see to this is the bombardment of “escape” devices in our modern lives — the computer, the iPhone, Netflix, etc. 

John Tiffany also directed the piece quite beautifully, putting in some contemporary flourishes while still keeping it in good taste. Stage right of the stage, there was a pool of water underneath the apartment with a glowing crescent moon that reflected in the water. The set included a fire escape that kept ascending all the way up into the rafters. Laura entered and exited through the back cushion of the couch. Even though I am not very familiar with the original text, I could tell these elements added fresh new ideas about a play of “memory”. The water is symbolic of us dipping into the “sieve” of our memories. The fantastical elements of the fire escape and the couch add a slight Alice in Wonderland feel… making it dreamlike and not so realistic. Memory is not reality, after all. 

Overall, I enjoyed it immensely. The house was packed too and on a Tuesday night… meaning Paulus is doing good both on the stage AND in the box office. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true: art can be good and profitable at the same time.


2 comments on “I really dig Diane Paulus

  1. Thanks for your post, Julie Ann. Paulus’ MO is something I think a lot about.

    I agree that Paulus is a good business woman with a clear vision and strong leadership skills. I don’t personally care for her directing style, though. I find it kind of one-note and too consistently neon (if that makes sense). It occasionally seems conscious of the fact that it is meant to be in-one’s-face. I do love a lot of the stuff she has brought into the A.R.T., though — Sleep No More, The Blue Flower, etc. (all not directed by her).

    I definitely understand the need to attract younger audiences to what could be considered a literally “dying” art form, but I sometimes worry that the more theatre makers become conscious of this need, the more they produce work that is so self-referential and intentionally strange that it will begin to mow over the emotionally honest mark. I understand what the Donkey Show has done for live performance in this city, but it actually makes me uncomfortable to be there, at the Donkey Show, and think that it is meant to be theatre now, because to me it feels pandering. This all makes me feel like outsider, sometimes, because I want to want to ride the wave.

    I am seeing THE GLASS MENAGERIE on Saturday night, though, and I really look forward to seeing my first play directed by John Tiffany and I think the production sounds fantastic.

  2. I feel ya, I feel ya. Neon does seem to be an aesthetic of hers, haha. And yes, hopefully the Donkey Show is not what all theatre will become.

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