Podcast Episode 54 Transcript – Diane Paulus
Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to The Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Now, if you listened to Lynn Ahrens’ podcast from a few weeks ago then you heard her impassioned plea for our industry to put more of a spotlight on the women that make Broadway work, and when Lynn Ahrens talks, I listen. So I immediately reached out to a woman who I believe has had one of the most significant impacts on our industry in the past decade and that woman is our guest today . . . a big welcome to Tony Award-winning director, Diane Paulus. Welcome, Diane!
Ken: Diane burst onto the Broadway scene with her in-the-park revival of Hair that transferred to a proscenium house despite so many people saying it couldn’t make the jump and then she knocked it out of the park there. She followed that up with the acclaimed revivals of Porgy and Bess and Pippin and, get this . . . all three of those shows won a Tony Award for best revival. That’s three for three. She directed last season’s Finding Neverland and is about to go into rehearsals for the new Sara Bareilles musical, Waitress, and during all of this she became the artistic director for Boston’s A.R.T. which is quickly becoming the first choice for out of town tryouts for all of us commercial producers. Her phone rings a lot these days, I’m sure. She’s the “it” woman of Broadway directors and I’m thrilled she has taken the time out of her schedule to hang with us. So, Diane, let’s start with the simple one . . . how did you get started as a director?
Diane: Well I actually trained as an actor. I went to Harvard undergrad and, at that point, thought I would pursue a career in politics. I grew up in New York City and I always had this dream of being the mayor of New York. I looked at New York City in the 1970s and I thought it didn’t make sense to me, that it could be a better place to live. I was very idealistic and I did a lot of political work in high school. I marched for the ERA, nuclear disarmament, I lobbied for Planned Parenthood, so I was on a sort of political path and then, my freshman summer after my first year of college, I interned for Ruth Messinger, this councilwoman for the Upper West Side at the time, and I think I had this lightbulb moment, which we all look for in our lives, where I realized, “I could do this. I could discipline myself and maybe pursue politics,” but it wasn’t what made my heart tick and I just thought about what would I be happy to do and pull an all-nighter for. I guess I was at Harvard, working very hard as a student, and, again, I know how to do that but it couldn’t compare to being in a rehearsal room. So when I graduated college I had spent two summers in Williamstown. I moved from interning for the city council to being an apprentice in the Act One Company in Williamstown and those were the seminal moments where I really thought, “Okay,” because when you’re an apprentice you’re painting sets all night long and you’re running around in the box office, I even taught aerobics to Mary Tyler Moore because I happened to be in the management office and someone turned to me and said, “Who can teach aerobics?” and I said, “I can!” So anyway, I had that immersive experience of 24/7 theater and I graduated college and actually I was going to drive – I had my brother’s car – I was going to drive to Alaska, I had this whole vision. Randy and I – my now husband – we were going to drive to Alaska and see America. The car broke down and I remember coming to New York and I, at the last second, got into a summer acting program here and that sort of triggered this pursuit of acting which led to the New Actor’s Workshop where I went to school, which was founded by Mike Nichols, Paul Sills and George Morrison. Sadly, all three of those amazing artists and teachers are now passed away. But I did two years acting training and then really I started directing when we finished that program and we were all out of work actors waiting for a job . . . and I feel like you can relate to this . . . I was like, “Got to do something about this, got to make the theater happen,” and the first play I directed was Schnitzler’s La Ronde, basically because it’s a form of a play in scenes, two person scenes, so I acted in one of the scenes and I also directed all of my other classmates in the other scenes, and we did it in the classroom at New Actor’s Workshop. I asked if I could use the classroom after hours, and it’s very funny when I look back. I made it into a Viennese cafe with little tables and we made hot chocolate. It was my first foray into breaking the fourth wall and that’s how I started. The next play I directed was Twelfth Night and I did it in an outdoor community garden on West 89th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus because it was one of those plots of land that the community take over when no one else will take it and everybody starts planting their gardens and, before you know it, it’s this gorgeous garden, and I walked by one day and I looked at it and I thought, “That’s a prefect little theater,” so I walked in and said, “Does anyone do any performance here?” and they said, “No, no, we just garden, but if you want to you’d have to talk to the board and they meet the first Monday of every month in the lobby of that building over there,” so I went over and I said, “How about doing outdoor Shakespeare?” Joe Papp was an icon of mine, I said, “We’d do free Shakespeare for the community here,” and they said, “Great, fine, whatever. Only one rule – you cannot stop anybody from gardening. You can use the space but gardening comes first.” So I remember thinking, “Okay, I can take that on. Someone puts down their shovel and watches a play, maybe I’m doing something right,” and that’s how I started. The actors changed in the Claremont Horse Stables which was right next to that garden, no longer there, everybody worked for free. So I was directing really from my acting training, from this desire to just take what I had learned, use my classmates – we had bonded and we had made all of this great work together in school and then everybody was just waiting for the phone to ring. In was in the age – this is the early ’90s – of services. People probably don’t even remember what those were but as a young actor you’d get a telephone number and you would call your service to see if there were any messages. It was totally humiliating, it was sort of testing your willpower – how often would you call? Because I think they would call you if you actually got an audition but you were also allowed to check in. So you’d go a couple of hours and then call in and they would say, “No, no messages,” and I just found it completely . . . what’s the word? Just nonsensical that, as young people who loved the theater and had trained and had made good work under the tutelage of these amazing teachers like Paul Sills and Mike Nichols and there we were, just waiting for the phone to ring. It didn’t make sense to me. So that’s how I started directing.
Ken: It’s so funny, people ask me how they should start producing all the time and I say, “Do a Shakespeare reading series in your dorm room. That’s producing – just get started, do something.”
Ken: I love your Mary Tyler Moore aerobics story. I drove Adrian Zmed’s golf clubs to Boston. That was my big like, “I’ll do it! I’ll do anything at this point, just to be around him.” So it’s interesting to see how your immersive theater instincts started at the very first show that you did, La Ronde, and then even Twelfth Night, and then of course The Donkey Show. How did that come about? Tell me a little bit about the beginning of that. It was the first big immersive show that, I think, started the revolution, actually.
Diane: So that, flash forward, I finished acting school, actually had a whole five years in Wisconsin, of all places, where I did theater with a company there that I founded because Paul Sills was my mentor and he had a farm there. After about five years I realized that I wanted more training. Everything that I was doing was from the actor’s perspective so I was kind of hitting the wall and felt like I wanted more input as a director, so I applied to Columbia to the master’s program and got in there and went to train as a director under two phenomenal teachers who really have influenced my directing life – that’s Anne Bogart and Andrei Serban. Couldn’t be more different from one another but I owe everything to the two of them, and Donkey Show came at the end of my three years at grad school and actually I’ll never forget it, it was another seminal turning point where I was about to finish Columbia and I remember saying to Anne, “What should I do? Should I apply for this fellowship program, should I go and do this?” There were all of these opportunities for young directors, the things you should do, or, Randy – again, my now husband – and I had been making shows together in Wisconsin in those interim years and I said, “Randy has this idea for this play and I could work on that this summer,” and Anne said, she actually did something, she took her finger, she pointed to my heart and touched my heart and said, “Follow your heart and therein will lie all your riches,” and I’ll never forget that. Of course, what did I do? I didn’t do any of those things you should do and Randy and I got some of the actors from Columbia School of the Arts grad program, our friends, my friends who I directed in all of these scenes during grad school, and when we started it was just these two women, Anna Wilson and Rachel Murdy, these two actresses, and Randy said, “Let’s do this adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a 1970’s disco,” because he had this epiphany, actually having acted as Peter Quince in a very traditional version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Wisconsin and he was so frustrated. They didn’t have enough actors so he did the role and he would sit backstage and it was your typical cuddly production where Bottom is so cute and Titania is putting flowers in the ass’s ears and it’s all very funny and sweet and he’s like, “This is wrong! This is bestiality! Does nobody see the cruelty in this play?” So he had this obsession. I’m talking about Randy because we dated in high school and we went to Studio 54, that was part of our experience together, so he had this idea of mashing up A Midsummer Night’s Dream, setting the enchanted Athenian woods on the dance floor of Studio 54, where you could run away and be anyone you wanted to be, like the lovers run to the Athenian woods, and there are fairies and there’s magic dust that gets you high and all of that. So I mentioned Columbia because we created it in the lobby of Dodge Hall, which is the arts building on the Columbia campus, only because our IDs still swiped, it was that ghetto. We would show up in the lobby, this marble lobby, and we had a boom box and we started rehearsing it. It was kind of pre-internet and Randy was interested in all of these disco songs so we would get the cheesy disco compilations from the Lovedrug stores back then and we would have Rachel and Anna, who we worked with, transcribe all the lyrics because this was before you could just get any lyric you wanted off the internet. At first he was just doing a study of disco songs because he thought he would write his own and it’s like “Why would I write my own? These are masterpieces,” so he created a structure where every disco song was chosen to serve the plot point and the convention was that these were lovers on the dancefloor and a song would come on that the DJ was playing and they would sing along to it because it was capturing exactly what they were feeling, like Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” that was Helena singing to Demetrius, “Don’t leave me this way, I can’t survive without your love,” and so we made this little show and it’s so funny you bring it up because just yesterday we went down to the Lower East Side, and this is a piece of theater history. I had that feeling yesterday, walking along those streets, because it’s completely changed, it’s all high end boutiques and restaurants and I really had that feeling of, “My god, a neighborhood can be erased.” But I grew up as a young director in those years, I don’t know if they were on your radar even, or you were too uptown on Broadway by then, but Randy and I did all of our work on Ludlow Street at a place called The Piano Store, House of Candles, it was sort of this hotbed of the Off-Off-Broadway scene and Alan Bell, who was a little impresario of that neighborhood, had taken over this space, it’s still there, on Ludlow between Stanton and Rivington. It says “Pianos” outside, it’s now a club, a fancy little art restaurant, but it was a piano store that was a front for a speakeasy so in the back of this little storefront was this small little club with a balcony, small like you could fit a hundred people, and so we asked Alan if we could do The Donkey Show there and he gave us the midnight slot. He was doing all sorts of little plays, there were folding chairs and everybody would do their downtown show for 50 people. So the first thing we did is we took all the chairs and we stacked them in the basement so that it would be an empty space like a little dance floor and then Randy borrowed the red ropes from the restaurant across the street – I mean it’s so funny that he now owns the box. He took the red ropes and would put them outside The Piano Store and stand on the street and when we did the show at midnight we would put the boom box in the window and blast disco music and the actors would go change at the coffee shop up the block, The Pink Pony, Titania in her pasties and thigh high leather boots and she would walk down the street, the cop cars would circle around and we would make a scene on the street and Randy would hawk every offer – money back guarantee, two for one, ladies night. We would line the people up on the street and eventually we took the actors out on the street and developed a street version of a portion of The Donkey Show and we did this every Friday and Saturday night at midnight for, I don’t know, six months, and none of the actors got paid, everybody took their costumes home in a shoebox, we had a little piece of white linoleum floor that we would tape down with duct tape and flash colored lights on it to make it look like the disco dance floor in Saturday Night Fever and it was still when you could smoke in New York so people would come and smoke in this teeny little theater and ashes would be all over the dance floor and we would throw glitter and at the end, at 3 o’clock in the morning, the actors would scoop up the glitter . . . this is how real it got . . . and they would come to me and they’d ask, “Diane, is this glitter still good?” And we’d separate it and put it in baggies for the next week. So that’s how we did it, but it was like a religion. I always tell this story because it would never have happened if we didn’t do it out of that passion for the show. And here’s the truth – we were doing another show called Frankenmirror, it was this Victorian adaptation of the Frankenstein story – we were doing that at ten and then at midnight we would do The Donkey Show, and this Frankenmirror show, which was very clever and funny, that got the review, I can’t remember if it was The Village Voice or it got picked in Time Out. We didn’t have a press agent, we were just underground. So we would do that show and eight people would show up – that’s what it was like when you did downtown theater, eight, ten, maybe fifteen – and then midnight would roll around and it was 50 people, 100 people, 150 people and the internet had just started and we had this VIP policy where if you saw the show you could get on the VIP list and you could come back for free if you brought a paying friend so it just multiplied. Randy and I would stand at the door and we were amazed because there we were, we had the listings in Time Out and The Village Voice for Frankenmirror and no one was showing up and hundreds of people were coming for The Donkey Show and we’d say “How did you hear about this?” “Someone e-mailed my office, they said ‘You have to see this!’” It was word of mouth 101 so we kept doing it and every three to four months we’d take the whole cast out for hamburgers on second avenue and say, “You want to keep going guys? Because no one’s getting paid, we could shut the show,” and everybody was working day jobs but it was like a passion thing, everyone just felt the power of the show. It was really an instance where no rules, no unions, just actors feeling something is happening and why stop it? Which drives me crazy in runs, when the run is over, the theater has to kick you out because the next show’s coming in, or the union or this or that. This was just so Wild West, so breaking every rule and every actor said, “No, I want to keep doing it,” and lo and behold we actually moved the show to the Pyramid Club on Avenue A and we did it Thursday nights for a while and eight or nine months into doing this Jordan Roth shows up and comes and sees it and says, “Wow, this is something,” and he was first starting to figure out what he wanted to do. He was maybe going to be a photographer, maybe he would do acting, he hadn’t become the producer he is today and he said, “I think I want to help you move this,” and to make a long story short we sat in a restaurant with a yellow pages – I don’t know if Jordan gave this detail but I’ll never forget this – we were looking at the yellow pages and we flipped to night clubs and we would look at clubs and get taxis and just go around to scout clubs and we found this club on 21st Street, The Flamingo, and it was the right architecture, the right vibe, and the club owner had been a body guard for Hal Prince, he had been involved in the Copacabana so he loved the idea of a nightclub as a place of theater so he gave us our home there and we opened the show there.
Ken: I love this idea that there were really no rules for you. Downtown, of course, you could do whatever you want. The actors could work for free, you could change across the street. Then, of course, you make this incredible transition to Broadway where there is nothing but rules. In fact, Randy Weiner, your husband, who I know very well, obviously, I remember him saying to me once, “My wife is such an artist,” and it was half compliment, of course, and half, “She just wants to do these things that have no rules,” and of course to “make it” in this business there are a ton of rules. How did you make that transition? Hair, of course, was the first one, which was a bit immersive in the park, and then going over to what was the Martin Beck at the time, or had it been renamed?
Diane: It was the Hirschfeld by then.
Ken: How was that transition for you, to all of a sudden have everyone saying, “No, Diane, you can’t do it this way, you can’t do it this way,”?
Diane: I think Hair was a symbolic first big musical for me because it’s all about breaking rules. I had grown up on the music. I had never seen a production of Hair but I saw the movie and it was just in my DNA, I think. I always felt I missed my decade, I wished I had grown up in the ’60s. I had this whole kind of romanticization of what it would have been like to have been part of the youth culture at that time. Oscar Eustis approached me, we did it as a concert the very first time and he gave me nine days to do it, so it was already kind of non-traditional. It wasn’t like, “Here’s your musical and here’s your four weeks of rehearsal and your tech,” it was like, “You have nine days and it’s this 40th anniversary and let’s do it in the park. What could you do?” And I think that kind of gauntlet, that challenge, was critical to the inception of that production because I actually said to him, “You can’t do a concert of Hair and not have hair. You can’t not have the clothes and the hair, it would be stupid, it won’t make sense,” and I said “We have to get the casting right,” so we did this mega search and we found this extraordinary cast, a lot through open call, a lot of non-Equity people that all went on to Broadway. I partnered with Karole Armitage because she told me she grew up in Kansas and would take rugs and cut holes in them and make them into ponchos and loved Hair too – we had this shared generational thing, the hippie thing. So we were kind of breaking rules, I don’t even know what contract we were on, it had to have been some non-traditional contract because we staged it, we had costumes, we even had wigs, but we did it in nine days. It was the right moment for that show. I also said to Oscar, because I had read about the history of Hair, how it started downtown at the Public, had gone to the Cheetah Nightclub – I’d followed the whole history of the show and how they got audience to dance on the stage and I think the other thing I said to Oscar was, “We have to have hair and the costumes and we have to let the audience dance on the stage, that’s just such a part of the lore,” and I got to work closely with Jim Rado and Galt MacDermot, Gerry Ragni had passed, so they described to me everything about the history of Hair and all the anecdotes and stories, especially Jim, he was around a lot and he told me about the dancing on stage and I think there was dancing but not like what happened at the Delacorte and I’ll never forget that first night when the show ended and I was standing in the back of the Delacorte with Oscar, like, “Let’s see what happens.” So the show ends and we do the reprise of “Let the Sunshine In” and the actors kind of reached out and you think no one’s going to go on stage, people are too embarrassed. One, two, fifty, a hundred – there must have been three hundred people and I remember the production managers ran into the bowels of the Delacorte because, all of a sudden, there was a panic that the stage, the ground, was not prepared for three hundred people jumping and dancing. So that was a real rule breaker and I remember when we went to Broadway I said, “Fine, we can take the show to Broadway but we must allow people to dance on stage,” and of course you would think, “How is that possible?” Union rules, how do the audience get on stage? Jordan, who was running Jujamcyn, understood that, Paul Libin, when we were moving to the Hirschfeld, he said, “Tear this theater up, that’s my one request,” and amazingly enough, when we did our first national tour, I also said, “We have to have the dancing on stage,” so part of the tech rider that went out with that national tour was that the audience could go on stage and some auditoriums across the country have that built in. Other times we’d have to put in stairs, and I’m telling you it happened in every venue across America. And we also had in the tech rider that the actors could come out into the audience and step on the seats. So it was an encouraging experience of you think you can make something happen and maybe there’s some wiggle room there, even in the biggest of establishments, to break some boundaries.
Ken: So let’s talk about this trilogy of revivals that you’ve done now – Hair, Porgy and Bess, Pippin. For me, all three of those things have one thing in common, which was when I heard they were coming, if you just told me the title, I would have said, “You know what? I’m not so sure I need to see that,” yet every single one of those productions I saw and I loved because of your perspective on it. How do you find your way into these to make them so fresh and new and give someone like me, who’s seen seventeen productions of each one of those shows, how do you make me feel like I’m seeing them for the first time? What’s the process?
Diane: Well I think those productions were very carefully matched for me. I’ve been asked to do many revivals and I would pass on them because I don’t have a feeling for them. As I’ve said, I grew up with Hair, so it was a dream come true to give an audience an experience of Hair that, in a way, I wanted to have. I think that’s how I go about it – is there a potential in the show that I can viscerally, emotionally connect to, that I want to live inside? Porgy and Bess I didn’t know as well. I more or less knew it from this production at City Opera I had seen and I remember seeing it and thinking, “Okay, this is an opera with a lot of hit songs,” and I remember weeping because it’s so emotionally powerful and I’m thinking, “Maybe one day I’ll be asked to direct this opera,” and working on Porgy and Bess was a whole immersion into the history of that work, the creation of it, and also the production history of it and how complicated that was. It was such a larger undertaking, just historically, or looking at American culture and social history. Hair as well. When I finished directing Hair I did ask myself, “This is fun. What would I want to do next?” and Pippin was next on the list because I had grown up with Pippin in the ’70s. I grew up in New York City, I saw Pippin three times in like ’89. I hadn’t looked at the script ever but I just remembered something visceral and powerful and seductive about Pippin and I loved the score, but the rights were held up with some other ventures in London, so Porgy and Bess came along, that was a little detour for a couple of years and then I finally got to Pippin. But all three musicals, they couldn’t be more different, but when I look at all three they all have to do with community. Hair is about a tribe, Porgy and Bess is about Catfish Row, Pippin is about this troupe of players. In each case each project was this incredible undertaking of casting this ensemble and giving every ensemble member a purpose and a life and a creativity on stage, for different reasons. I think that was my way it. Maybe Pippin is the one where people say, “What did she see in Pippin?” because Pippin is thought of as, “You’ve done it at your summer camp,” and I had so many people say, “Really, Pippin?” In fact, it’s a very funny story. Peter DuBois, who’s a dear friend, when he first got the job as an artistic director in Boston, this is in 2008, he took me out to breakfast and he told me about how we wanted to reach audiences, both of us, we were going to break down Boston and reach audiences, and then he looked and he said, “We’re not going to pander. It’s not like I’m going to do Pippin at the Huntington.” Of course I remember sitting at the breakfast table thinking, “I’d like to do Pippin!” but that’s because I think I saw something in Pippin and when I actually looked at the script I was like, “Oh my God, this is like a medieval morality play,” you know, when you really look at what Fosse did with it and how dark it was, the story that we could potentially put into relief, of a trial by fire, literally, of life. So I think all three musicals, I was very interested in what they were in their original time – in the ’60s for Hair, early ’70s for Pippin, coming out of the horror of the Vietnam war. So if Hair was the summer of love, the beginning of the end, Pippin was kind of after all of that, and of course Porgy and Bess, the radical work by all of these white guys writing about black people in the ’20s and ’30s and all that craziness that came as a result of that work over the course of the century. I really wanted to understand what made them tick in their time and how could I recreate that experience for an audience today, which is not about replicating it, it’s about finding out what was the visceral experience. I’m sort of obsessed about that, like I read about the premiere of Marriage of Figaro, the Mozart opera, and you read about how people stayed in line all night long to get in and there was basically a stampede because people were so each eager to be at the show that they pressed each other and someone almost died because they got squished to death at the premiere of this opera and that there were eight encores to the point that Joseph II, the next day, banned encores because he would not tolerate all that repetition, that kind of idea that Marriage of Figaro could feel like a rock concert in its time. How do you do that? You go to see Marriage of Figaro today and it is the completely most removed thing from that experience. So that’s my interest – how do you take what was alive then and make it alive now?
Ken: So you go from these revivals and now you’re on to new musicals. So last year Finding Neverland, brand spanking new and a mammoth of a show, and of course Waitress this coming season. Do you have a preference for doing something new or finding life in something old?
Diane: You know, new musicals are the hardest thing on the planet, that’s what I’m going to say. As hard as a revival is, at least you’re really focused on execution. Actually, every revival I did, I worked with the authors – in the case of Porgy and Bess with the estate – on crafting the revival, a kind of revival production script, but you’re not questioning, “Is the story working?” or, “Do we need a new opening to Act II?” You’re not questioning the actual architecture of the piece and what’s so hard in a new musical is you have to work as hard on the execution of it and then, while you’re putting all that time and effort into the execution of it, you have to kind of stand back and say, “Okay, do we even have the book right? Do we even have the right song here?” So you have to let go, back up, maybe drop a song or rewrite a structure, rewrite scenes, so it’s kind of like a revival on steroids and it’s just so, so hard, but in many ways perhaps you don’t have to worry because you’re creating something new. When you get it right there’s nothing like it. I do think there’s something for an audience when they come to see something new, a story being unveiled for the first time.
Ken: Finding Neverland, you came on later into the process, because there was a London production, etc., and Waitress you’ve been around the process since the beginning. Do you like to get involved with new musicals from the get-go or do you like them to be delivered to you, “Here’s the script, here’s the songs and now we’re ready for you to come in and put on a reading for us?”
Diane: In my experience it’s always been the former, that writers and composers want a director involved pretty early to help shape the piece. In the case of Finding Neverland there had been another version of it but when I was brought in, early on in my time with the show we basically started all over with Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy and James Graham, so it was a completely new score and book so it really was starting from scratch and we went back to the film. In the case of both Finding Neverland and Waitress the source material was film – the Johnny Depp/Kate Winslet film and also, in Waitress‘ case, this fabulous independent film by Adrienne Shelly. So that’s another challenge because you’re doing an adaptation, it’s not quite original original from scratch, and what’s hard in that case is you want to follow the film but you actually can’t follow the film. You want to follow what’s good about the film but, in both cases, the more I worked on the shows, the more I’m working on Waitress, the liberation, theatrically, comes when you say, “Well we’re not going to do that like they do in the film, we’re going to actually do something completely different.” If you’re slavish to the film it’s very, very hard to make it pop as theatrically as the show needs to. In Finding Neverland the best example of that was I remember early on, if you’ve seen the film, it’s a quiet, beautiful period film and at the very end when Kate Winslet, who is Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, she’s dying and she sees the whole play in her living room, she gets up and she walks through her window doors and she walks into this incredible Neverland and it’s Technicolor in the movie and there are creatures, it’s like a Bosch painting, and I remember early on thinking, “That’s it, that’s the meta-theatrical moment, when we actually get to go to Neverland.” So Scott Pask, the designer I worked with, we were thinking about the whole design based on that, something very staid and simple that would then explode into something fantastical at this eleventh hour. Then we finally realized, I think one day I was like, “That’s exactly why we can’t do that, because we’ll never achieve it as well as the film,” and Mia Michaels, who came onboard as our choreographer, sent me this YouTube video one day of Daniel Wurtzel’s work, who’s the air sculpturist, and I had used his work in my Cirque du Soleil show, Amaluna, and Daniel had emailed me, flukily, that day, saying, “I’m thinking of doing more theater and if you want to see what I have up my sleeve I’d love to show you some of my other things,” and Mia the same day sent me this video saying, “Have you ever seen this?” A little YouTube video of fabric blowing in the wind. I was like, “Okay, this is weird, that’s Daniel, I know him, I’ve worked with him and he just emailed me.” And then we went out to his warehouse in Brooklyn and he had this setup of fans and he was throwing everything into this air sculpture wind – Styrofoam peanuts and he lit fire and then he threw this bag of glitter in this wind thing and I was like “Oh my God!” All of our breath was taken, we were like, “That’s it, that’s it.” I had my assistant Mia walk through it. I was like, “Walk through it, walk through it, put your hands in the air,” and we have this little video of her and it was freezing in this garage in Brooklyn. We were like, “Okay, that is Neverland,” and it couldn’t be more removed from that literal representation and then we hid it from Harvey for months. “Don’t show it to Harvey, he’s going to can it if he doesn’t understand it!” And then finally I showed him the video. I was like, “I know it’s not going to seem like what you think it should be but I think this could be pretty incredible.” So you can’t find the one-to-one mapping, you have to find the theatrical equivalent of what’s in the film. So it’s kind of like a revival as you’re looking at a source and dealing with the source but trying to make it present in a different way.
Ken: But it’s a little harder, I find, when a source is newly created in the last decade. It’s easy to take Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream from hundreds of years ago.
Diane: Completely. Also, you know, the scrutiny is different, to be honest. When a revival happens, people aren’t really looking at, “Is the story worthy?” You’re saying it’s worthy by virtue of reviving it, but when you do a new musical it’s sort of like, “Well what’s the point of the story? Why should we even take on this story?” So there’s something about a new musical, you’ve got to get so many things right to really pass, so it’s much more challenging but in the end, I think, rewarding.
Ken: In the midst of all this work you’ve taken on the job of being artistic director for A.R.T. What’s been the biggest surprise of you being the artistic director of a regional theater like that?
Diane: I think the biggest surprise was how pliable, actually, ultimately, a regional theater could be – and I say ultimately because I’ve been there now eight years and in the early days it was tough to change the course of a ship. In any institution, especially an institution that’s been run by a leadership over many, many, many years, there are rules. We talked about breaking rules – you can have rules on Broadway, you have rules in regional theater, the way things are supposed to be done. But A.R.T. had this mission, which I’ll never forget reading when I was headhunted for the job. I was like, “What’s the mission?” because I know when you work for a not-for-profit it’s all about the mission and you’ve got to live and die by the mission, and the mission was the A.R.T. is dedicated to expanding the boundaries of theater, and I thought, “Oh my God, that is a mission I could get behind,” because that’s what I had been doing. Whether it was The Donkey Show or Hair it was, “How do you take theater and push it? Push it, push what we think is theater.” If that is this regional’s theater institutional mission, there’s a lot of permission there for experimentation because that’s in the words of the mission. So was it surprising? Maybe not surprising because there it was, the board of the A.R.T. and the artistic leadership had agreed on that mission, so in the DNA of the A.R.T. that impulse was obviously present, but here’s a way of saying what was surprising about how pliable it was. The audience was really, really eager to embrace a new path and, frankly, so were the critics in the Boston area. Of course there are always people who are going to write whatever they want to write and there were reporters that wanted to question the change that was happening, but the audience was a full partner, they were really ready to go on the ride. I opened my first season with The Donkey Show and I remember thinking the day before we opened, “What was I thinking? Why did we put this on the subscription? This should have been the wild add-on. Am I nuts?” And then I’ll never forget debriefing after the first performance and they were like, “A couple of audience members brought these silver flags,” which is a big part of gay disco culture, so they had shown up with their flags and I was like, “Who were the flag guys? How did they know?” and we tracked them down and they were subscribers. They had been waiting for that kind of a show. It was harder for the staff and the institutional habits to change on the inside but on the outside the change happened really within one year because the work proved it. I was really determined not to just get up there and prophesize about how theater could be this and theater could be that – you’ve got to show it. And even my board members, who were really eager to support me, they would say things like, “Well, let’s wait and see.” I’d get these e-mails, like, “We’ll see,” and they were getting tours of this abandoned elementary school in Brooklyn, walking through rooms with just pieces of paper taped to the walls saying, “This is going to be a forest and this is going to be an insane asylum and this is going to be the witch’s room,” they’re like, “Where are the seats?” Seats? Everyone’s walking. So God bless that board – they approved all of that, they were ready to turn our second stage into a nightclub, take on Sleep No More, but it was always, “Let’s see. Let’s see how it goes,” and I think the proof was in the connection with the audience, which the A.R.T. had slightly lost. Everyone knew that that fundamental transaction was not happening at that theater. People weren’t coming, there was no energy going on in the building and that, for me, I remember taking on the job thinking I was a Harvard student. I saw all of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass and Andrei Serban, Julie Taymor, I saw all their seminal work at A.R.T., Andrei Serban in the 1980s. Bernstein was an idol of mine, I interviewed him for my college thesis in his office, which is now my office, that really rocked my world, seeing all of that theater energy, so when I heard A.R.T.’s not doing well, subscriptions are down, they’re playing to 50% capacity, I remember thinking, “What is wrong? If A.R.T. isn’t flourishing, this avant-garde cutting edge theater at Harvard in Boston with all those young people and colleges, then that’s not just a failure on the part of A.R.T., that’s like a case study for the American theater. If I can figure out how to reignite that then maybe it’s a worthy undertaking for just the field.” That’s how I went there. I was also feeling like I wanted to have an official voice at the table as a producer, because when you’re a freelance director you’re really not invited to look at the budget. I think it’s changing, actually, more and more, because the world has changed and directors are changing but that idea that the director is just going to be irresponsible, you can’t show them the budget, they just want to do the art, that makes me crazy because I grew up on the Lower East Side paying for everything with pennies out of a little kitty, an envelope of cash, so my whole experience of making art had to do with the business of it. That’s not what regional theater was founded on. Regional theater was founded on its art. The public doesn’t know they want it, they won’t buy tickets for it so you have to subsidize it – the public will never pay, you can never commercially pay, the public can never subsidize it by ticket sales, you’ve got to support it, and God knows, philanthropy for the arts is necessary. It’s still necessary at the A.R.T., no matter how much we sell at 98% capacity these day, we absolutely rely on the philanthropy, but the philanthropy that we need, I always say, is about R&D. It’s about R&D and I think people in the arts don’t appreciate that. I have a lot of entrepreneurs on my board and any big successful innovation, invention, big business, big buck success comes from many, many failures. You’ve got to do R&D on things and you’ve got to try, try, try, maybe abort certain projects, things come, they go. If you don’t do R&D you don’t have the chance at the innovation and that needs subsidy so the philanthropy is really important.
Ken: I always think about and use the comparison to the pharmaceutical industry about how much money they will pay in R&D to come up with a drug that changes the world.
Diane: Yeah, exactly.
Ken: We have to dedicate that kind of resources. Okay, so last question, which we call my Genie Question, which I ask all of my guests. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to your door, knocks on your door and says, “Diane, you’ve done such amazing work, you’ve made these three revivals that could have seemed very dusty brand new again to whole new audiences, you’ve gotten audiences excited to participate in the experience of going to the theater again, whether it’s your subscribers at A.R.T. feeling like they want to belong as a part of The Donkey Show or whether it’s the Hair audiences at the Delacorte. I’m going to grant you one wish.” One wish – what is the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that makes you so angry you can’t sleep at night? You’re a passionate person, there’s a long list, we’ll take a 15-minute break here.
Diane: Oh my God, okay.
Ken: So the one thing that gets you so mad. What I love about you is how passionate you are about your art as well as the business of the theater. The one thing you’d want this genie to change that you could wish for.
Diane: Okay, I’ll tell you what I want to change. I wish the brand of Broadway could be expanded and not simply confined to the X number of theaters that are part of that landscape. For me it doesn’t make sense, if you look at the innovation in other art forms – the Netflix, the HBOs, cable televisions, the internet, YouTube – every form allows for a development of venue, if we call it venue, and on Broadway it doesn’t change because it’s just defined by an X number of theaters. So there is something valuable about the Broadway brand. We know that, that’s what people want to come and see so it’s not like you can just do a show over here on whatever, 20th Street and 5th Avenue, in an auditorium and call it Broadway. You can’t, or you can but it’s not called Broadway. You’re not going to have access to that brand, that audience. So I think for Broadway to stay as vibrant as we all want it to stay the venues have to be opened up and the architecture of the venues has to change, because we’re also stuck not only with the set number of theaters but also the architecture which, frankly, is very nineteenth century. So when you think about the next generation of audience that wants to experience theater in new ways there’s just limitation. Yes, you could take a Broadway theater and rip out all the seats and be the one that does that and maybe more and more of that will happen – and, look, that isn’t to say there isn’t an audience, clearly there is an audience for the shows that are in those theaters. How many theaters are there?
Ken: 41 with the Hudson.
Diane: 41 now, exactly, so I should say one theater has been added. There’s definitely an audience for those theaters, that likes to come and sit in those theaters, but I just think for the vibrancy of the field it would just be thrilling if that brand could be expanded to a new form of architectural venue.
Ken: I agree, and I think there is audience today for those 41 but I’m worried about tomorrow’s audience, that they, as you said, are not going to want to sit in an old fashioned theater and watch a play like their grandparents did.
Ken: Well thank you so much for being here. Thanks for everything that you do. Everybody, go see Waitress, opening this spring, and we will see you next time.
See the entire list below, including the shows currently running,…
There are seven shows beginning performances on Broadway this month!…
See the entire list below, including the shows currently running,…
Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.