Interview with Diane Paulus

This interview is adapted from the version that appears in Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art. This book includes the final report from research firm WolfBrown on their two-year study "Measuring the Intrinsic Impact of Live Theatre," as well as twenty-four interviews with artistic leaders and patrons, and essays by Diane Ragsdale, Arlene Goldbard, Clayton Lord and Rebecca Novickplus a foreword by Ben Cameron of the Doris Duke Foundation.

Diane Paulus
Diane Paulus. Photo by Susan Lapides

Rebecca: As you're selecting a season or initiating a relationship with a play or a playwright, what kinds of ways do you think about impact on an audience?

Diane: I think I'm always looking at, “What is the reason for the theatrical event?” And usually for me, “What is the necessity for this show to happen?” Then by necessity, it very quickly relates to, “What is the issue, what is the secret cause, what is the rallying cry that is going to get audiences out of their very busy lives to the theatre?”

In my opinion, it's not good enough that it's good art. That's just not enough anymore. It has to be, what are the reasons why an audience is going to make time in their lives to come and engage? It's not about being passive. It's not about seeing a good piece of theatre that I take like it’s my vitamin. No. Why do I have to go? What is the issue? What is the engagement? What is going to make me feel like I can't miss this?

 

In my opinion, it's not good enough that it's good art. That's just not enough anymore. It has to be, what are the reasons why an audience is going to make time in their lives to come and engage?

 

Rebecca: How do you balance between your own response to a play or artist and your sense of what the audience response might be? 

Diane: Again, I very rarely think about, as an artistic director, "I like this artist. We must do this artist." I'm looking at what kind of noise this artist, their issues, and their energy are going to make at my theatre.

"What is the potential for engagement?" And by “engagement” I mean engagement with the work, engagement with the issues, engagement with the dialog the show will create, engagement with our community, engagement with the thought leaders in our community who will then participate in the production and get excited about it.

So all of that, that's the core level at which I'm thinking about programming.

Rebecca: How does that play out over a multi-show season? 

Diane: I think about the quality and the level of engagement. There are different kinds of engagement. So we have a Porgy and Bess, which is all about the history of this work and the meaning of Porgy and Bess in the twentieth century: how it's changed, where it's going, how is this production the next chapter in the history of this work. How do we inform people about what was radical in 1935 theatrically, what has changed over time? That's the priority. There is a lot of engagement to be done. How can we share this with the most diverse and broad audience in Boston?

The next show we have coming, which is Three Pianos, that's a different kind of engagement. I'm interested in that because of the show’s form itself. I don't know if you know that show, but it recreates a Schubertiadea salon that Schubert held with his friends in which he played his music for them. Built into the conception of the show is a total embracing of the audience's presence. Wine is served and poured multiple times throughout the evening.

The audience becomes a participant in this salon. The evening transforms from just these three guys playing piano as themselves to a journey through Schubert’s life and inspirations.

I'm looking at the show as, "OK, it's Schubert. It's learning about his music and his life history, but you're also talking about a social engagement in the very form of the show.” And, sure, does that kind of fit with maybe a holiday slot? Great! And it's kind of fun to come out of the cold when it's wintertime in Boston, and everybody wants to come inside and feel like you're in a community and near each other and drinking wine with each other. Sure.

And then Wild Swans, which is the premiere of Jung Chang’s best-selling memoir about twentieth-century China and the Cultural Revolution; that's a different kind of engagement. That's engaging with the largest international student body at Harvard, which is Chinese. Then you do a match, because you're not going to do that one in the summer when none of the students are here. You're going to do it at a time when the students can take advantage of it.

So you're always looking at what's the quality and strength of the engagement and how do you program it at the right time of the year that will maximize our ability to make the engagement happen.

Rebecca: So engagement is sort of a constellation of things in your mind, and you're looking at different aspects of it.

Diane: Yes, absolutely. It's intellectual. It's visceral. It's entertainment. It's social. Those all are valid forms of engagement for me.

Rebecca: Can you think of a time when feedback from the audience caused you to change a programming decision?

Diane: What I've learned from audience feedback is not as definitive as, “Oh, let's not program that, because of x.” What I've learned from the audience feedback is the necessity and the importance of how you speak with your audience and how you dialogue with your audience.

My interest as an artistic director has been to try to make the audience care enough that they're engaged, and they're able and feel entitled to express opinion. It's never about, “I have to like everything.” But if I can care enough that I can express my opinions and ideas and responses—it’s like when you have a sports team that people are passionate about. They'll criticize the referees, they'll criticize the coaches, they'll criticize the players.

We can’t be afraid of that. We can’t think, “Oh God, we're going to change the game here.” No. It's rather, “How can we be in a dialogue with our audience, and talk to our audience?”

To me, you learn so much more if you're committed to talking to your audience and being in a relationship with them. It's like a pedagogical relationship. You do that with your cast. You do that with your staff. You do that with your board. But what about your audience?

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