An Interview with Diane Paulus
Written by Victoria Myers
Photographs by Emma Pratte
May 10th, 2016
When we walked into Diane Paulus’ rehearsal room at The New 42nd Street Studios, there were a lot of women in it. Okay, to clarify, yes, Emma and I added two more women to the room, but there were a lot of women in the rehearsal room. It’s something that one would think we’d be past commenting on by now, but I bring it up because it’s actually still rare enough to be comment worthy. The play being rehearsed was Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World, which is premiering at A.R.T. where Diane is Artistic Director. This season, she’s the director of Waitress on Broadway, which is making headlines for having an all-female creative team. She’s also represented on Broadway by last season’s Finding Neverland. Other Broadway credits include Hair, Porgy and Bess, and Pippin. For Pippin she won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical, making her only the third woman to be awarded theatre’s highest honor for direction of a musical. Shortly before opening night of Waitress, while women got ready for rehearsal around us, we talked to Diane about her directing process for Waitress, the challenges of directing theatre in 2016, her work as artistic director of A.R.T., audience engagement, and more.
I wanted to start by talking about the tone of Waitress, since balancing humor and emotion is tricky. It seems like a big part of a director’s job is bringing everything together to have a cohesive tone.
Well, you’re exactly right. I think what attracted me to the Adrienne Shelly film—that I saw and then re-watched when I was thinking of turning it into a musical—is I loved the quirky tone and the fact that it was filmed with humor and whimsy and had a fairytale like quality to it, but behind all of that were very serious issues and a punch to the gut emotional impact. For me, the issue of tone went right to the first choice, which was who is going to do the music for the show. A musical is defined by the music. Finding Sara [Bareilles] and getting her interested was the critical first step to unlocking what this could be. I immediately thought, “Let’s go outside the traditional musical theatre world. This has an indie film feel to it, so maybe we should go to the pop music world and get someone who isn’t necessarily a Broadway voice.” Sara was top of the list for the very reasons we’ve talked about. She has incredible melodies to her songs, incredible searing emotions in her ballads, and yet she’s very funny, very witty. She’s a great lyricist. She has that sense of humor. So the issue of tone was, from the very first moment of my taking on the project, the question, and it led to asking Sara to do this, and lucky for us she said yes. Then it’s led basically through every choice. We knew we had to have actors who were really, really funny. That’s something we learned early on. That really innate comic instinct has to walk in the room with the actors. That’s something you can’t teach. You can build scenarios, blocking, construct everything around a comedic moment, but that innate sense of comedy has to come from the actor. And then, on top of that, we needed actors who could really sing, and sing Sara’s music. And on top of that, we needed actors, particularly in the role of Jenna, who could plumb serious emotional depths. That was a very hard combination to find, and led us to Jessie Mueller who has all of those. It’s really rare to find someone who can sing this kind of pop score with so much range, and be funny and be completely emotionally available, and feel like an ordinary person. I think what makes Jessie so special is that when she performs on stage she feels like a real person. That was also important to the telling—that this not be a musical that looked like perfect Broadway performers, but that this was about messy, real people.
Can you talk about how that affected the design elements? How did you conceive the visual clues to tell the audience, “This is the type of show you’re going to be watching tonight”?
There were several choices. We made a choice very early on that we would see the band. That’s always one of the first questions when you’re putting together a musical—“Where is the music coming from? Are they in the pit? Are they on stage?” It was very clear to Sara that the band was an ingredient in the storytelling. That led to the band being on stage and the band being one of the ingredients of the pie, so to speak. I’ve worked with Scott Pask, our set designer, for years. We’ve done many, many shows together, from Hair to Pippin to Finding Neverland and lots of others. We wanted to make a world that felt very real and earthy. It couldn’t look like a theme restaurant. It had to feel real, and yet it had to have air in it, it had to have fantasy, it had to have whimsy to it. On Broadway, we’ve added this brilliant proscenium that I just love. There are these 27 pies that are featured in the proscenium and it’s taking the natural framework of the theatre and saying, “You’re in a pie diner.” And the fact that they can turn and spin and that we can use them is so delightful. The set had to have reality. It’s real, there are real chairs and tables and food, there’s real stuff. And yet, if you look at the way the action plays out, there’s a lot of room for fantasy, a lot of room for things to transform and change.
In the scene changeovers there are all of those moments where fantasy takes over.
Yeah, her imagination. And the one choice we made going to Broadway—it was different at A.R.T.—was making Earl’s house the one thing that’s not part of the diner. We just wanted, dramaturgically, to have that not part of her world at the diner, which in a way is her escape, her sanctuary, her ability to have this other life outside of that home with that husband. That’s a new choice on Broadway that everything just kind of eclipses and it gets very claustrophobic and her house is this little thing forced in front of the audience.
I read in a previous interview that you always ask yourself why this show is necessary for an audience now. So I wanted to ask you that about Waitress.
I feel that this is a musical that for so many reasons is an important one for this moment for the audience. Look—it’s a musical, it’s on Broadway, it has a lot of fun songs, but underneath it there’s the subject matter of domestic violence and of this woman who is stuck in this relationship. We know the stats that one in four women in the United States has or will experience some form of sexual violence. In particular, domestic abuse just gets shoved under the carpet and people don’t like to talk about it or think about it. Obama did that public service announcement at the Grammys last year saying it’s time to talk about it. So we’re at a moment where I hope this musical, in its own way, can contribute to that conversation. You’re out for a fun night at a Broadway musical, and this subject matter is brought to light through humor, through song, through music, and perhaps you as an audience member can empathize with the themes and subject matter in a way where if you were just reading another article in the newspaper about domestic violence, you’d turn off to it. But there’s something that I think the theatre can uniquely do through empathy, through story, through narrative. We’re working with SAVI—the Mount Sinai Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention program—and their representatives came and talked to the cast during rehearsal. It was the actors also who said, “When you’re in a Broadway show, you see a thousand people every night, and they come to the stage door and they want to talk to you, and sometimes what they want to talk to you about is their personal life.” We’ve already received letters from women who really appreciated the story and it gave them courage to find their own voice and get help. We have all the SAVI cards at the stage door so the actors can hand them out. It’s an amazing organization where if you’re in any kind of trouble, you can just call this number and get help. So I think for those reasons it’s an important musical. I think when people ask how this is different, I don’t think there are many Broadway shows that end with a woman who is raising a child on her own and is running a business on her own, and not running off with a guy. I was looking at the curtain call the other day and I was struck by how often, in a show with men and women, do you see a curtain call where the men bow and then the final three bows are all women? It doesn’t really happen.
People in Hollywood have said that when they have movies where the leads are female and the men are in supporting roles, it’s harder to get male actors to agree to the parts.
I don’t doubt that. We’re very lucky with the men who are in Waitress. They are incredible actors and they really get the show and they get that they’re helping to tell Jenna’s story and they’re on board for that. They’re very special performers, and they are egoless in the sense that they understand that they’re at the service of a woman’s journey.
There’s been a lot being made of the all-female team, which is great. But have you found any downside to that? That maybe people are using that to not talk about the specifics of the actual work or treat people like individuals?
I haven’t encountered a downside. I feel every woman is in their job in this production because they’re at the top of their game. They’re not there because they’re a woman. There wasn’t a casting agenda like, “We have to have a woman choreographer, we have to have a woman writer.” It was, who’s the best person for the job? And guess what? It’s 2016, and there are women who are at the top of their game in all of these areas, so I’m happy to reflect that in the production. I think it’s an important landmark because we can send a signal to the next generation of women who are out there training, aspiring, dreaming, that they can see this happens—“I can visualize this, I can be there.” I think it’s important that there are those kinds of role models. It was important to me as a young artist seeing people like Emily Mann and Anne Bogart, and producers like Daryl Roth and Carole Rothman. Without those women to look at, I wouldn’t have that visualization. I have had people say to me—mostly women—that it’s a humanist story, it’s a family story, it’s a story about finding love in the most unexpected place and then gaining the courage to find your own voice—and the fact that it’s written by all women is sort of incidental, and in that way, it sort of makes it even more of a breakthrough. I kind of like that point of view.
I wanted to go back to what you were saying about the more serious themes of the show. I was wondering how you worked on that in rehearsal?
The truth is, when you do any show, but particularly a new musical, you are involved in years of development. I’ve been working on this since 2012. We’ve been through different readings, workshops. Every time you go at it you learn more about the power of the show, the potential of it, how you want to tell the story. I think in terms of the psychology of the characters, the source was the movie, of course, but we were always asking question of, what makes these characters tick? In the film, you can zoom in on a close-up and leave a lot unspoken and leave it to the camera. In the theatre you have a different scale, it’s a different type of dramaturgy. We’ve inserted songs into this, so we have to justify the arc of it all. How did we attack the darker subjects? A lot of research. A lot of talking to experts. A lot of collaboration with the actors. Jessie Mueller brought a lot to the table. Also, [book writer] Jessie Nelson brought a lot. She did her own huge level of research in terms of women who have been in abusive situations, what’s the psychology, why do they stay in the relationships, what are the factors that make it hard for them to feel that they can get out of those relationships. So all of that was discussed and discussed and put through the mill of, “is it in the script enough.” And there were so many changes to the script, even up till last week, to try and get it right.
One of the things I wanted to ask you about in regards to the script, and this might just stem from the source material, is whether was any discussion around the fact that the word abortion isn’t actually said in the show, especially since so much is being made of the show being so woman-centric?
We talked about that a lot. That is the source material. That’s how it’s handled in Adrienne’s original screenplay. We added a line for the character of Jenna, actually, because we didn’t want anyone to misinterpret this as a pro-life kind of choice. This is a woman who, in her particular situation, is assuming she’s keeping the baby. In the first doctor scene, when she says that she’s not happy about it and the doctor says, “We don’t perform…” And she says, “No, I’m keeping it. Not that I judge that. I’m just keeping the baby.” So we actually added that line in to make it clear to a modern audience who might think, “She has other choices, why isn’t she considering them?” Wanting that to be clear was very much on our minds. It’s interesting, since the women on the team, some of us have kids and some of us don’t. Jessie Nelson and I have been through childbirth and have kids, but what’s interesting is Sara never has but she’s the one who wrote the song about how in the glow of that baby, everything changes. And Lorin [Latarro], our choreographer, has said her greatest challenge was how do you do that labor and delivery scene on stage. I think the beauty of theatre is that you’re putting yourself in other people’s shoes. You’re operating from your own viewpoint, your own values, but you’re also trying to get outside your skin and into other people’s choices that are defined by the given circumstances of their lives, their upbringing. That’s the beauty of theatre—we’re not just looking at facts. This is what drives me crazy about the world we live in—everything is facts, quick polarization on point of view, what’s right or wrong. It’s just so polemic. The theatre is a way to get to a more nuanced discussion of all of these situations and stories. Don’t get me wrong; I lobbied for Planned Parenthood in high school. I’m a staunch pro-choice advocate, and I feel like what’s happening in the country and that these rights are being rolled back is alarming and insanity. But I feel like our musical is about something else.
You studied politics as well as theatre, and I was wondering how you thought that affected your views on theatre and your work in theatre?
I was always an idealist as a young person. I grew up in New York City in the ‘70s when it was an abysmal place. You can’t imagine what New York was in the ‘70s. It was a rough place to grow up. You’d walk out onto the streets and you’d just assume you’d be mugged or attacked. You’d go on the subway and clutch your bag. I think as a young person I didn’t understand it. I just thought, “Why can’t we make New York a better place?” I was ten years old and didn’t understand why the South Bronx was bombed out. I was pretty naive. But I was the girl who on my bicycle would organize cleanups in my neighborhood where we’d pick up garbage off the street. And I did a fair amount of activism. I marched for the ERA, I marched for the disarmament movement, I lobbied for Planned Parenthood. And I think it came from a place of feeling like change is possible. If we make enough noise and we organize, change can happen. And as I got older, that aspect of motivating people and inspiring people was something I could do more directly through the theatre, through the arts. I spent my freshman summer interning for an Upper West Side councilwoman, Ruth Messinger, and her chief of staff was Gale Brewer, who is now the Manhattan Borough President. I loved working for them, but I think I had this experience where as much as I could appreciate everything that it took to be a politician, it’s not really what I loved to do. I was a good student, and knew how to apply myself to whatever it was that I thought I wanted to do, and in college I realized that the theatre was something that I’d do willingly and it would never feel like work. I would stay up all night thinking about theatre or rehearsing a play, and I wouldn’t care. I was also studying the Living Theatre of the 1960s for my thesis in college, and looking at the lives of Julian Beck and Judith Malina. they were committed to a pacifist, anarchist revolution through theatre, through art. And I was really interested in ‘60s counterculture and how theatre ensembles were making art in that time and speaking to politics and speaking to social change. So for me, I looked at it and I thought, “This is intellectually stimulating, this is emotionally fulfilling, and lastly it’s physically invigorating.” You do the theatre and it makes your heart beat. I think my very primal impulse that I had as a young person that the world could be a better place, I found that I could channel that into the theatre. Every time you start a production it’s impossible, it just feels impossible. So every time you’re taking on a theatre project, you are making the impossible possible. And it’s very concrete. It’s not like, “will we effect change?” It’s like we’re going to bring these people into a room, we’re going to build something, we’re going to get people to get beyond themselves and their egos to an idea or point of view; we’re all motivated towards unlocking something. As a result, I’m very choosy about the shows I do because I want to pool all my life and passion and time and energy. It has to be something you believe in.
Have you found any challenges with that? Commercial limitations, but also a trend of anti-intellectualism and, like you were saying before, a culture that’s into 140-character explanations of things rather than critical thinking?
The biggest resistance and frustration to me is when people look at musicals and think they’re not serious theatre. I think there’s an idea in America, especially among the intellectual elite, that musicals are commercial and entertainment. Let’s not write off the power of the musical. Not to mention, it’s a uniquely American form that we pioneered and should be proud of. I think I’m a populist at heart; I’m not an elitist. I know that if you ask most Americans what has been the most transformative artistic experience—this has been studied—most people cite a musical experience, whether it’s in their community theatre or high school, or in their camp or their local theatre or Broadway. So I know there’s power in the musical. I think also because of the power of music to move your heart and soul and make you feel alive and cut through to your core. So sure, there are commercial pressures. Sure, my saying musicals are a serious art form doesn’t mean that every musical that you might see out there is intellectually rigorous.
But not everything has to be.
Exactly, they don’t have to be. But because it’s a musical does not by definition make it something that is not serious theatre. So I think my interest in the American musical theatre is in shows that can do all of those things: they move you and they entertain you. And to be entertained, that’s a human need, the idea of diverting oneself to see something, that’s part of what we need as human beings. We also have a need to learn. We also have a human need for spectacle, which to me is defined by seeing something larger than yourself. Why do we go to a mountaintop and look at the horizon or go to an ocean? Because it’s spectacle, and you feel awe in the presence of something larger than yourself. The human need for ritual, that’s also why I love theatre. We move through something as a group. I love to do theatre that tries to drive on a lot of those cylinders. It would be great if it could be entertainment, be spectacle, be ritual, and also make us feel and think and teach us something.
Right. And of course that’s true of all narrative forms. All the great pieces of literature have spectacle, it’s just done in a different way.
You’re a director with a strong point of view, and you are known for strong visuals and strong uses of space. How do you think that’s evolving, especially with so much stuff happening in film and TV that’s theatrical and changing the way we watch things? Do you feel that affects your work or how the audience views your work?
I think we’re in a really exciting time. I think the audience can piece together narratives in many different ways now. I think the necessity for totally linear storytelling is kind of going away because audiences are exposed to piecing together things in more complex ways because of the storytelling going on in film, and mostly television. I wish theatre would learn more from the kind of storytelling that’s going on on TV right now. And I think we will. The problem that we suffer from in theatre, especially on Broadway, is that it’s a very small arena, we’re dictated by theatrical architecture and union rules. That’s going to bust open. It’s going to happen.
That was going to be one of my next questions. How much do you feel theatre, especially in New York, is limited by the fact that we have x number of theatres and they’re all set up in a certain way?
It’s completely limited. Let’s be honest. It is completely, 100% limited and manipulated by a monopoly. But there’s an audience for it and there’s a brand. Whether that will ever break open, I don’t know, but something else will rise in reaction to it. And it’s already happening in immersive theatre. It’s happened historically. It was the birth of Off-Broadway, the birth of Off-off-Broadway, but I think we’re on the verge of really understanding how to engage audiences and tell stories.
One of the things that’s fascinating to me, especially in New York, is we have a lot of people—young people—who go to a lot of cultural events, but not theatre. We’ve seen other institutions like NYCB find ways to engage new audiences through cross-cultural dialogue, but theatre hasn’t. As an Artistic Director, what do you think of that? How can theatre engage new audiences?
It depends on what you’re doing. You can say, “Oh we wish we had young people at our show,” but if you’re not doing something young people want to see, stop desiring it. I’ve always felt this way. At A.R.T., we created a whole venue called Oberon. Our black box/second stage became a club theatre because I felt we needed another arena for a different demographic of audience, an audience that is a nightlife audience, an audience that doesn’t think of themselves as theatre people. Harvard Business School did a case on A.R.T., and as part of the case I go into the class to teach. The teacher was doing his own demographic study like, “How many people know what the A.R.T. is?” “How many people have been to a play?” “How many people go to the theatre at all?” And these were young-ish, 25-35 aged people, and he went right up to this one person and said, “Well, what do you do on the weekend?” And this one guy said—I’ll never forget it—he said, “I’m a social person, I’m just not a cultural person.” And I remember thinking, “That’s the death of us.” That there’s a division, and you can think of yourself as social, but not cultural. Because if you look historically at when theatre was really vibrant, or just look over the history of theatre, theatre was inextricably linked to the social activity of the time. Opera in the 19th century: why are there those gorgeous Italian façades? Because you went, the lights were on, and you looked good and you dressed up and it was the nightclub of the day, and while La Traviata was going on, you were flittering with the guy next to you in the box. So for us, creating Oberon and making it a club theatre space where you can arrive with a group of people and you can stay engaged and, guess what, you can keep your phone on like you do at any other nightlife thing.
When our automation failed at Waitress during one of our previews, Sara, because she’s from the pop music world and understands fans, she turns to me and said, “Should I get up there and sing ‘Part of Your World’?” I said, “Are you kidding?” And she said, “I do it at all of my concerts when something goes wrong.” I said, “Okay.” She climbed on the stage and, of course, what was the first thing that happened? A thousand phones lifted it up. Then I saw the Broadway ushers start to attempt to run down the aisle telling people to turn off their phones. They didn’t know, they were just doing their jobs, but I almost went ballistic. I grabbed our producer and was like, “You cannot let them turn off the phones,” and we overrode that and the house manager said to the ushers to leave it alone. But it was such an x-ray into the problem of the theatre. We have certain rules that are not in sync with the ways audiences engage and participate, in the way audiences make art out of their own experiences. It’s a creative commons zeitgeist. Not every artistic event is that suitable for; I get that Patti LuPone doesn’t want people eating popcorn during her shows. Fine. But that doesn’t mean all theatre should be that way. So for us [at A.R.T.], creating a venue where you can keep your phone on, where you can socialize [was important]. I’m not saying every theatre should open its portals to all sorts of behavior, but I think as a field for us to be open to an appropriate experience as broadening the audience experience, if the art on the stage allows that to happen and feel organic, that’s when we’re really going to find that next generation.
And in London they’ve managed to make it more social and they also have more young people. Of course there are cheaper tickets there.
Ticket price is an issue. It’s a huge issue. But it’s also habit.
Right, I think for the young people who do have money, and in New York City there are plenty of young people with money, they don’t consider theatre some place to spend it.
Yeah, they’ll spend a lot for Beyoncé ticket. Will they spend it on a Broadway show? I don’t know.
As an Artistic Director, do you feel like there’s been more pressure put on you to program women or program more diversely than your male counterparts? Or an added microscope to your choices?
No, I don’t feel that way. I just feel, not to beat a dead horse, if we’re not reflecting a diverse portfolio then what are we doing? If the theatre is on the planet to reflect the world we live in, and if that’s part of our values, and it is at A.R.T., it’s really important that we’re not programing the same five white men. Up at A.R.T. we are in a college town, which I love, it’s why I took the job there. I just thought I could provide an experience at A.R.T. where they want to go to theatre. They might not be a theatre major—hopefully they want to go into politics or finance or journalism—but you know what they’re going to do? In the four years they’re in college, they’re going to go to A.R.T. and they’re going to be like, “Wow, I felt alive. That made me think. That was fun.” Fun gets a bad word in theatre. This was a problem in the twentieth century. Theatre was looked at as good for you. It was the vitamin that you should take. It was the thing your parents did that you should do. How do we return it to the thing we want to do that young people feel is cool, is fun, is thoughtful, is stimulating? Every season the way I tend to program as an artistic director is less about the stable of artists I’m interested in, but I’m really looking at who are the artists or projects or subject matters that I think are going to catalyze something? I’m very interested in what a show catalyzes beyond the art on the stage. And I don’t say that cavalierly, because it’s very hard to make good art. You can spend years and years just focusing on what happens on stage, but as an artistic director and producer, what I’m really interested in is what happens around it. I’m interested in why are you making theatre, why are you coming to the theatre, when the show is over how are you different, how are you engaging with life in a different way, how are you turning to the person next to you and saying hello in a different way? What we’ve done now at A.R.T. is we have [a program called] Act Two, because I hate post-performance discussions. I feel like that’s part of the problem with twentieth century performance: you go to a show, you don’t even understand it, and then the expert comes and tells you what the show meant. To me, that’s the death of the theatre. I’d rather have the sports analogy of going to the theatre and the next day at the water cooler arguing about what the team should have done; getting the audience to be the expert of what happens on stage. So we’ve created something that we call Act Two, which is the show ends, and we have these town halls where we have these discussions and forums. With Eve [Ensler’s] show, In the Body of the World, we’re doing an Act Two, which is going to be an open forum. This is all about violence against women and the medical profession and healthcare, so we have events planned with Harvard Medical School, with nurses and doctors, with women who are doing work in Africa to help women who are being systematically abused. But we call it Act Two because it’s as important as the show itself, so we try to get the semantics changed and say, it’s not that this is the play and now I’m going to get the analysis, it’s that it’s your play and your analysis, and what do you want to learn more about? Do it at the theatre. I feel like so often we go to the theatre and what do we do? We go Google things when we’re alone. Why can’t we have that forum there when we’re there?
Right. At least for the people who want it.
Exactly. Ever since my days of The Donkey Show, I’m all about freedom. It’s a very immersive show, but my feeling was if you want to be in the mosh pit, you can do that. If you want to stand back and watch, you can do that too. But to allow the option of those choices is really important.
It can feel like there can be a real groupthink mentality in the theatre.
I feel sometimes that theatre can be so fascistic. This is why most people don’t go to the theatre. When you think about going to the theatre, what do you think of? You go to a space that most of the time isn’t that pretty—how many times do you go into a theatre and marvel at the interior? You arrive, you’re handed a program, and you sit in a chair that’s bolted to the floor, you’re facing forward, the lights go down, you either fall asleep in the show because it’s boring or you’re moved (you can have a range of experiences), and at the end the usher comes and shouts at you to leave. That, in a weird nutshell, is what a lot of theatre has been truncated to, and historically theatre wasn’t like that. It was celebration, it was ritual, it was party, it was Bacchus, it was transgression. I think the more we can focus on theatre as experience, the more we’re going to get back that audience.
What’s something you think can be done to improve gender equality in theatre?
You can take on a young woman mentee. You can take women under your wing and mentor them. I really believe in that. I know some women don’t believe in mentorship, but I think getting them in the room with you is important. I have done that for every project I’ve ever done. Bring women into the fray of how challenging it is, and showing them how rough the road can be and how you have to learn and navigate the challenges, and how to get knocked down and pick yourself back up. Those are things you can’t learn in school. You have to sort of see them. Whether you’re a man or woman it’s an endurance test. It’s really hard. And you have to be willing to endure that, and you will be able to endure that if you’re doing it for a reason you believe in.