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Diane Quinn: People have made space because they have felt the need to make theater and the ART is no exception to that so if it makes sense to use the Oberon space and turn it into a nightclub doing “The Donkey Show” it’s whatever serves the work, that the art leads the audience.
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Diane Quinn, the new executive director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, and welcome to the program.
Diane Quinn: Thank you so much for having me, Anita.
Anita Walker: And welcome to our cultural community.
Diane Quinn: Thank you.
Anita Walker: We’re so excited to have you here in Massachusetts. What made you decide to make a move here?
Diane Quinn: That’s a very good question. I was at a very great organization, I worked for Cirque du Soleil for 11 years, and it wasn’t so much leaving Cirque but it was actually going to an organization that was doing amazing work. And so the first conversation with ART was very exciting and when I was looking at the work that they had been producing for the last few years it was about going to an organization that I was going to be really, really proud to represent and to push forward further, work closely with the two Dianes as I’ve come to know them. And it’s just been a really great– a great opportunity but it was a bit scary leaving a big organization after 11 years. I have to say that now it’s been a couple of months since I’ve been here and the community has been very, very welcoming and very warm so I’m very appreciative of that.
Anita Walker: And I’m interested in what you see in the work of the ART and how it stands out from other theater organizations around the country and just to lead you in the direction that I’m interested in. One of the things that I think Diane has brought to the– Diane Paulus, the other Diane– to the theater is sort of a breaking down of the proscenium between the play and the audience.
Diane Quinn: I think she’s done that extremely successfully for the entire organization with the directors and the productions that are brought in with the work that we’re creating on the stage, and I think the most– one of the most important things for Diane is to include the audience as part of the craft and I’ve always appreciated that in the work that she’s done. The mandate or the mission of the organization is to really expand the boundaries of theater and she has done that extremely successfully, and part of that is a physical breaking down of the physical space and then the other part is just in terms of the content itself. If I was to give an example from something from the season, when we did “The Great Comet” we certainly did– literally we broke down the proscenium arch; we didn’t break it but we removed that and you couldn’t tell if you were in the audience or on the stage and that was an extremely successful production for us and something we’re very, very proud of.
Anita Walker: And to describe it for people who weren’t as lucky as I was in order to go and see it, if you have ever walked in to the Loeb Theater before it looks like a theater, there are seats and there’s a stage and you watch people on the stage, but you walked in and suddenly you were in like this huge club with little tables and lamps and I couldn’t even figure out where the stage was. I felt the whole audience was on stage.
Diane Quinn: It’s on– it’s a tribute first to Mimi who was the set designer, to Rachel who had the vision as the director, but I have to also do a big shout out to our technical and production staff who did an amazing job putting that all together. And I’m so pleased by your reaction because when people came into the space they had a visceral reaction and it was– I watched it sort of when I was there on various evenings, and they smiled and it was– they automatically got into this kind of party, cabaret, nightclub spirit and when they saw that they were seated on what is traditionally our stage they were thrilled. I mean some people who were a little more shy I think were wondering oh, my goodness, what have I gotten myself into, and then the audience maybe who was sitting in our traditional seats thought oh, drat, I’m not on the stage. Then when the actors came into the audience they too were on the stage so everybody got to participate in a very successful way.
Anita Walker: All right. So now I’m going to ask kind of a blunt question. Some of our organizations might be asking themselves right now, “Oh, come on. This is a theater at Harvard.” When somebody said, “We’re going to turn this theater into a cabaret and the audience is going to be on stage” there had to be somebody who said, “Oh, you can’t do that.”
Diane Quinn: No actually. No. I’m very glad that you asked the question. Within the walls of the space and within the ART, we’re certainly our own organization. I’m thrilled to be in the company of Harvard– Harvard and certainly our building is on the Harvard campus and owned by the faculty of arts and science, but when the ART does its work the ART does its work and because of Diane Paulus’s vision and we have a very active board we get to dream big and we get to execute those big ideas. And I would say pretty much without hesitation there hasn’t been even any negativity at all surrounding the audience that we get from Harvard, but I think it’s really important to say the ART is doing work for our Cambridge audience and the greater Boston area and that is first and foremost who we are kind of listening to and responding to in terms of the feedback that we get. And I’m just pleased to say that we’re part of the Harvard family but our mission and our mandate is certainly to serve our audiences in the work that we feel is important to do.
Anita Walker: One of the things that’s exciting to see about the ART is that it really does step outside our traditional notion of what a theater looks like. It goes to the Oberon; it goes to a school for “Sleep No More.” Is this an example of sort of new trends in theater that we should be thinking about and should be expecting from theaters?
Diane Quinn: That’s interesting. I think since the beginning of theatrical time people have made space because they have felt the need to make theater and the ART is no exception to that. We don’t want the physical boundaries of a space to allow us not to be creative so if it makes sense to do “Sleep No More” in a school or to use the Oberon space and turn it into a nightclub doing “The Donkey Show” it’s whatever serves the work because the work needs to be central at every possible moment. We’ve thought about doing space– doing work in other spaces and that certainly is not going to be a limitation for us.
Anita Walker: I’m not sure that everybody is also aware of the extent to which the ART is thinking about cultivating emerging theater companies in the way that you allow them to use space that you have.
Diane Quinn: Absolutely. I think the Oberon is a great example for that. It’s really our incubation system for artists locally and even a little bit beyond locally to make sure that they have a space that they can try out their new work. I was at a little workshop that we had a couple of weeks ago where a theater company had come to us and they wanted our feedback, they wanted to really use us as a sounding board, and then they’re going to go back in a couple of months and actually do the work in the space. So they were utilizing the space for about a week, going away, letting that all bubble up, letting that ferment a little bit, and then coming back in a few months where the piece would be a little more mature. And that’s a great opportunity for us to get to know new artists, to get to know the kind of work that they’re interested in doing and maybe they’ll be working with us again on the main stage and also for them to get our feedback, to work within our professional environment and give them an opportunity to try out their work perhaps in a space they couldn’t ordinarily afford, and that’s a great symbiotic relationship between us and our artists.
Anita Walker: Is that a real need that you see in the field, opportunity to workshop and try out and practice?
Diane Quinn: I think if you went to every theater company big and small they would probably come and give you the same response, which is “Absolutely yes.” We’ve been challenged I think as other companies had both for rehearsal space, we’ve been challenged as young artists when we were breaking into the field to see if there would be a big company that would be willing to mentor us, and now we feel as a larger company in the greater Boston area that we have a responsibility to those artists and I would imagine all of the other companies would feel exactly the same way.
Anita Walker: As you step into the ART in partnership with Diane Paulus, give us a sense of you at your job interview and the board members were saying, “Where do you want to see the ART going? What are you going to bring and how are you going to take us there?”
Diane Quinn: That’s a very easy question to answer and I- I’m smiling as I’m saying it because it’s going to sound a bit boastful, but in fact when I was there during one visit I was sitting in the theater– in the dark theater actually with Diane Borger who’s the third ‘D’ in the three Dianes, and I turned to her and I said, “I’m interested in global domination” and Diane Borger laughed out loud and she said, “Well, that makes three of us” and I think really that– there’s no boundaries. I’m blessed already to come in to an organization whose work is already being seen around the world. “Pippin” is on a major tour, “Finding Neverland” will also be finding its way into other theaters, and so we- we’re starting that. Now I think the next stage is to make sure that we continue to work with artists locally and beyond to be the ambassador for arts wherever the arts may take us and that’s everywhere.
Anita Walker: I want to talk a little bit more about your relationship with audiences. This is an issue obviously for all of our theater companies everywhere but I do think there is something very intentional about the way the ART works with always the audience in mind. Can you decode that a little bit? That’s an observation of mine.
Diane Quinn: Well, I think the observation’s dead on. We try very, very hard to do that from the first moment that we engage with them to any kind of blogging or digital-enhancement kind of conversations that we have with them to the moment they purchase their ticket, and then as you would have seen coming in to the Loeb Theater we try to create a very immersive environment from the moment they walk in. Each of the productions has a lobby component and the lobby component is not to stand back and look; it’s actually a lobby component where we want you to participate. So whether it’s a production of “1984” where they are self-censoring documentation that’s in the lobby or whether they are listening to various music and actively engaging in a club environment for “The Great Comet” or the fact that we’re showing them a kind of a theater in construction versus when they get into the theater and it’s very, very polished everything is done with an eye to what they’re going to be seeing once they pass those theater doors. Then they watch the show and hopefully they’re incredibly engaged. We have a lot of talk-back sessions. We have something called Act Two and Act Three where sometimes audiences don’t want to stay for a talk-back but if you call it Act Two or Act Three they think you really, truly thought about it as part of the performance, which is what we do try to do. And we have 50 percent audience who will stay for an Act Two or an Act Three discussion, which is fantastic and sometimes unheard of for some of the theater talk-backs that I’ve been over the years, and then of course on the way out we actually ask for people’s feedback; we send out surveys. So I think we’re actively engaging with them through the entire process and hopefully if they become season subscribers throughout the entire year.
Anita Walker: It sounds like it’s all integrated, that it’s not the marketing department is e-mailing back and forth over here and then the people who sell the refreshments– the concept is from start to finish integrated.
Diane Quinn: Yeah. I would call it a real ecosystem where everyone realizes that they have an important role to play in the experience of the audience member going to see a show, and one of the things that I find very interesting is if you ask someone who works in the performing arts what their first theatrical experience was it’s always very, very clear to them. Rarely do you get “Oh, I don’t exactly remember.” Nine times out of ten they’re– it’s with pinpoint accuracy what they remember and I want new audiences to think about the ART being that first poignant opportunity for them so that they end up being one of the future theater makers or potentially a board of trustee member or someone who’s donating and actively participating in the live theater or the performing arts environment as an adult.
Anita Walker: One of the things that we talk a lot about now speaking of audiences is the interest in diversifying our audience– there’s sort of a usual cohort of people who tend to come time and time again– the cost of attracting a new audience member and the difficulty in retaining a new audience member. How do you think about that issue at the ART?
Diane Quinn: Well, we talked a little bit earlier about utilizing the Oberon and it’s interesting when I go to the Oberon and it’s great. It’s on the way home, I can go and see a show after I’ve already seen a show at the Loeb, so typically what we’re finding is we are attracting a younger audience to go with that emerging artistic vision that we have for the stage at the Oberon so we really see those individuals feeding into our audience going forward. It’s interesting because they say that there’s a period of time once someone gets to a certain age and maybe they decide to have kids you lose them for a few years, but we are quite confident that if we can get someone at a young age coming to the Loeb or coming to the Oberon then we can communicate with them well enough that we’re going to continue to have them as an audience member going forward. So I think between having the Oberon and having the Loeb we’ve been quite successful in making sure that our audience isn’t just one demographic.
Anita Walker: When we talk about young audiences in your experience with the Oberon is it the content that’s drawing the young audience or is it the environment where I don’t have to sit still in a dark room or I can have a drink. So many of our organizations think how do I get that young audience and usually a solution has cocktails involved. Isn’t that interesting?
Diane Quinn: Interesting. I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it in that particular way; does one lead the other? I guess I’ve always been such a big proponent that the art leads the audience. Now is it a little easier if it’s not so formalized? Yeah, probably. You can get up in the middle of a performance and go to the washroom and not feel that you’ve had to go across an entire row of people or you can get up and have a beverage, cocktail or otherwise, so I do think that that makes it more comfortable and perhaps what it does is it makes it a less threatening first opportunity to come to the theater; then once they see the work and have a good time in the environment we are seeing a lot of repeat business there. And the other interesting thing that I see at the Oberon: Although we have a large cohort of a very young demographic, the kind of 21- to 29-year-old, then we also are keeping those other older audiences because they’re having fun. And as we age, and I look to myself for that, I want to also experience and have fun and it’s great to sit in a formalized theater setting but also who doesn’t want to just kind of relax and be a little informal and go out with a few friends and watch a great performance?
Anita Walker: So it’s really for all. It’s a for-all-access issue.
Diane Quinn: It is, it really is, and I think that if you take your audience seriously and as we have as part of the entire mandate and mission of the organization I believe they feel that kind of respect and they want to come back because they do feel that they’re part of it.
Anita Walker: Now I want to talk a little bit about leadership of the organization, three Dianes conquering the world. In all nonprofits, when you have a multi-headed leadership team it can be sensational or it can be a disaster. How do you guys make it work?
Diane Quinn: Well, so far it’s been sensational. I don’t know. I always think it’s the same in every situation leadership or non leadership, it’s about communication, and if you are willing to communicate at all times good and bad then you’re going to be able to work it out, and I think the three of us are good communicators. We speak or we text or we e-mail often.
Anita Walker: You all respond when someone says “Diane.”
Diane Quinn: And somebody always responds when they ask for a Diane in the room, which is quite hysterical. I do; I think it’s really about– it’s a combination of things but it– definitely it’s about communication, it’s definitely about respect, and we all believe in the art form. So we already know what the road is, we’re on the road, and we’re on it together and that’s made for a great working environment.
Anita Walker: So far it has been an amazing collaboration. Diane Quinn, welcome to Massachusetts and to the ART. Diane Quinn, another Creative Mind Out Loud.
Diane Quinn: It’s been a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.
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