Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities and sciences, to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Diane Paulus: Thinking about the audience as a partner, you know, not a passive recipient, but really the audience connects to the work and actually makes the work happen in real time.
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. We have two guests in the pod pod today. We have Diane Paulus, who is the Terry and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director at the ART and Diane Borger, Executive Producer of the American Repertory Theater. And thank you both very much for joining us. And I will be calling you both Diane, so we’ll have to sort that out as we work through our conversation today.
Diane Borger: It happens a lot, yeah.
Anita Walker: <laughs> So first, Diane Paulus. You’ve been in Boston I know more than a decade because you and I got here at about the same time, and you brought a new kind of excitement, accessibility approach to what you’re going for with presenting theater. Talk a little bit about that.
Diane Paulus: I think my interest in the theater is in the event, the event of a live convening of human beings in the same space breathing the same air, connecting viscerally with sound, vibrations bouncing back and forth. I mean, I, because I do the theater, I have had to over my career really underline what is unique about the theater, how is this medium different from film or a novel or a piece of artwork on a wall? You know, what is unique about our form? So that event cannot happen without an audience. So as a young director, that always inspired me. It never felt like thinking about the audience was pulling me down or making me feel like I had to second guess myself or dumb down what I was doing. It was actually, no, who’s– who am I making this meal for? What do I want– What do I want the gift to be? And what is going to bring an audience out of their very busy life to be in the room with whatever I’m making? So I think when you mentioned the word “accessibility,” for me it’s about thinking about the audience as a partner, you know, not a passive recipient but really the audience connects to the work and actually makes the work happen in real time.
Anita Walker: They’re part of it.
Diane Paulus: They are part of it.
Anita Walker: They’re almost–
Diane Paulus: Exactly.
Anita Walker: Actors in the event–
Diane Paulus: Exactly.
Anita Walker: Just as the actors on the stage.
Diane Paulus: Exactly. We often say when we’re working on shows at ART or when I’m directing a show, who is the audience in this production? And you actually think about how you’re casting them. You know, are they detectives? Are they co-conspirators? Are they students in this moment or in this aspect of the show? Are they revolutionaries? You know, are they asleep and need to be woken up? You know, you are thinking about how you’re casting the audience and what you want to have happen, what is the transformative experience not for the art on the stage, but for the audience.
Anita Walker: So Diane Borger, what do you see in the audience then that’s new and different from the more traditional approach to the presentation of theater?
Diane Borger: Oh, interesting. I was thinking when Diane, other Diane was talking, that I would say that our audiences, maybe the hallmark of them is the curiosity. And I think this leaning in quality that Diane referred to, I think they know how much we’re interested in them being there and I think that they want to see what’s up, what’s next. And I always find that that the other thing I think that we’ve encouraged too is that audiences know we really want to start a conversation, so whatever the play is, whether it’s even for the children’s play or something, we want a conversation to come out of it and then to leave the theater having enjoyed what Diane always calls the two hours traffic upon the stage, but also start to talk to each other or hang around in our lobby or join us in an Act II conversation, so that’s part of it for us.
Anita Walker: So you’re asking something of the audience rather than to just have a seat, sit back and enjoy.
Diane Paulus: We are. And you know, I believe that audiences want this. I mean, often you can think more traditionally, oh, people worked all day and they’re exhausted and, you know, they just want to go be a couch potato. Like, they just want to– Or they just want to receive something. Robert Lepage, who is a wonderful director that I admire, once said that you think about a busy person, often what do they like to do at the end of the day? They like to go to the gym. They like to get on a bicycle and work out. And so he used to talk about the theatrical experience being like a workout. Like you want to go somewhere where actually you feel your blood pumping in your body. You want to feel your heart alive. You want to feel your mind. You want to feel your emotions moving. Because maybe during the day you haven’t had space for that or you haven’t had room or permission to be your full, human self, which actually you can do in the theater. You can say, “Ah, I recognize that. I recognize that weakness. I recognize that temptation. I recognize that conflict that that character’s going through that I can feel,” and you work it out. You literally work it out. That was the definition, like, back to Aristotle of, like, you know, the exercise of exercising pity and fear in theater, the cathartic experience. Right, we talk about catharsis in the theater. It’s actually because something has to happen to the audience in the course of the show that is a purging.
Anita Walker: You know, you put your audiences in a traditional theater where they are in seats. You actually transform the theater into cafes and other types of environments and in the Oberon, of course, you really ask the audience to get up and even move around–
Diane Paulus: Sure.
Anita Walker: And doing different things. This is new. What you do is new. I think one of the things audiences look forward to is what am I going to be surprised and delighted by this time.
Diane Paulus: What’s this theater going to look like this time?
Anita Walker: I know.
Anita Walker: It’s going to be all exciting and new. So but that’s kind of risk taking, isn’t it? How do you think about risk? Risk means, obviously, benefit in terms of the delight and joy, but risk also means perhaps that it’s expensive or perhaps it flops. H ow do you think about risk when you’re doing this?
Diane Borger: It’s always a tricky question for us because we have decided maybe that risk is in our DNA, luckily together. Because we do the stories that we think are the most important to tell at any given time and it’s our– my job in particular to figure out who would want to see this story. Her job is to make sure they’re really good. And I think that, I look back sometimes on things that people told us were risky and were very successful at the box office or won awards or things like that. So I think that it’s I think you can’t edit yourself, you can’t self-censor and this is too risky for our audiences. I think that they’ll come with you. It goes back to trusting the people you’re making the work for, so.
Anita Walker: Some of this risk is doing things that really haven’t ever been done before. How do you approach that? You know, it’s one thing if you’re doing another rendition of a familiar classic and maybe staging it a little different or casting it a little different.
Diane Paulus: Sure.
Anita Walker: But you do things that are really different. <laughs>
Diane Paulus: You know, it’s funny, I’m thinking about the work, risk, and in light of what you’ve just said, I think we don’t ever evaluate– I mean, I’m really thinking. We don’t sit in a room in our meetings whether they’re artistic planning or budget meetings and talk about the risk. We’re really talking about what is the necessity of doing the work we’re doing and usually that has to– that comes from the need to tell a certain story, put a certain topic into the universe which is necessary because we know that people will want to gravitate towards it because it’s something pressing in our life. So in a way, without discussing it as what’s going to get audience in the seats and sell tickets, we’re doing that because we’re saying why bother. We have to do things that people feel like they must attend because it’s stuff that’s going on in our lives that has to be worked out. I think, you know, we’ve done it enough now that you build on experiences, so there is maybe a different experiment happening. But you also through the course of all these experiments of doing things differently, okay, we don’t need seats. People can stand. Okay, let’s get a composer that’s never worked in the theater before. All right. Let’s use music in a whole different way. Let’s have the experience extend into a conversation with the audience at the end and let’s call that Act II, not the post-performance. You know, whatever the experiment is, we’ve done enough of them to the point that I think they are in our DNA so you actually develop muscle and an ability to actually learn how to live in that risky water, you know. And sometimes we talk about it as a high tolerance for disequilibrium, which, you know, is often looked at as how do you stay flexible is another way to think about doing things differently, that you’re not looking at your best practice, you’re looking at your next practice. So it’s actually, again, I think a muscle that you’re flexing and I think, you know, in conversation having both of us here, Diane representing sort of the organizational producing part and my side the artistic side is it goes back and forth. It can’t just be the artists who are saying, “Oh, we’re comfortable making this experiment.” It’s got to go through everyone. It goes– It has to go down to the person in your box office who has to explain to the person calling in to buy tickets why there are no seats and how do they explain that to the patron, to the marketing staff who have to explain, what does this mean that I’m going to be asked to participate in an Act II conversation and how do I market that and how do we get the whole organization wanting to tick and live in a space of the unknown?
Anita Walker: So we probably have some audience members who are in theater or running theaters or are artistic directors who are saying, “Oh, if only I had that freedom. My board would never let me do that. My community would never let me do that.” You talked about sort of permeating the entire culture of the organization. How do you start to move in that direction from a more traditional theater organization? How do you bring everybody along?”
Diane Borger: First of all, our board is fantastically supportive of it. I think maybe they’ve got used to it and they’re in the front row saying, “What’s next.” I joke sometimes that even though I never– even though I’m American, I’d never worked in the United States and Diane had never worked in an institution except as a freelance director. So I think that maybe we were blessed a bit with our ignorance at the beginning and we didn’t know that these weren’t <laughs> what you were supposed to do.
Anita Walker: You couldn’t do that.
Diane Borger: I always think, like, we were, you know, that weird way and, like, the people would say, “Oh, you– That’s not how you do it.” And we’re like, “Well, why not?” Where, and I do think that really, I do joke about it but I think that was a benefit to us is that we didn’t come up through systems that made us feel that way and I think that has been a huge part of it and they all seemed logical to us so we would just do them and, you know, the board went along with it and so did audiences, which is the really important part.
Diane Paulus: And you do lead with the work. Because early on, we were describing new visions for theater, you know. Could our second stage be a nightclub? Why does it have to look like a black box, which was experimental in the 1970s. What’s that new form of experimental setting that will get a younger demographic of audience? And I think our board was very game. They understood that the mission of the ART, in particular, is to expand the boundaries of theater, so part of what you need to do in your institution if you’re a not-for-profit is go back to your mission. And I inherited, as did Diane, a very strong mission so we could always point back to the mission as this is why– We’re not making these experiments just kind of because we want to, we are really applying ourselves to the mission of the institution. But it is about the work and I would be lying if I didn’t say that in the early days people would nod their head and then they’d say, “Yeah, but we still don’t get it. We still don’t get it. Maybe when I see it I’ll get it,” you know.
Diane Borger: Yeah, that’s true.
Diane Paulus: And even a year or two in, it took, you know. Now, ten-plus years in, the audience I think and the board and the staff, they all know what it means. So you really do, you can talk and plan and conceive, but you have to have a shared experience that you’ve been through as a staff, as a team, with your audience, with your board so everybody can point to it and say, “I get it. That’s what we want to do. Now how do we create conditions to continue to do that?”
Anita Walker: Is there a different kind of pressure now? When you started the pressure was we’re thinking differently, we’re doing new things, we’re going to bring everybody along. Well, now everyone has very high expectations on what the next new surprising thing will be.
Diane Paulus: <laughs>
Diane Borger: I don’t know what to say to that. Yeah, that’s, I always think that the day before we release our next year’s season is always the most nerve wracking day in our lives. Like, “Ooh.” But I think that that’s the healthy pressure. It keeps us, you know, striving to figure out how to do it. I don’t think it’s– it’s a not a bad pressure.
Diane Paulus: But you know, the other thing is, we do say every year, like, “Oh, my God, how are we going to top this?”
Diane Borger: Yeah. “How are we going to do this again,” yeah.
Diane Paulus: But honestly, I think it goes really hand-in-hand with the reason why we’re here and we’re still going at it, because if we’re not engaged– You know, once you start repeating yourself, you know, the sign is there right in front of you in your own heart that you’re not quite as engaged.
Diane Borger: Yeah.
Diane Paulus: So I think we are back and forth constantly saying, “What about this? Okay. How about this next big idea? Okay. Oh, my God, and we never thought we’d start that. Oh, my, you know, what about this artist? What about thinking this way out of the box?” So all of that inspiration then will push the envelope and continue to push the envelope.
Diane Borger: Yeah. We have big charts on the walls of my office. Anyone can write on them if they want, but it’s what have we never talked about? What have we never done a play about? What’s society facing that we should be talking about? What stories are we looking for? And remember, four or five years ago we wrote down a transgender play because we thought this isn’t a story we’re telling. And then we actively looked for it as– And I think it’s just one of those things that you sometimes find things when you’re actually looking for them that you might not have been thinking about. And there’s also then another chart that’s just artists that wouldn’t it be amazing if they worked in the theater. And sometimes they happen and sometimes they don’t. And then it’s like what– what are we missing that theater should be giving to people? So, anyway, they’re all over the place just to keep us on our toes.
Anita Walker: You seem to have a very strong partnership between the two of you.
Diane Paulus: Yes.
Diane Borger: Yeah.
Anita Walker: How did you–
Diane Borger: I was going to say–
Anita Walker: Or you could say you misinterpret.
Diane Paulus: Yes. No, no.
Diane Borger: But that’s– that’s an important thing, I–
Anita Walker: Did you work at that? Do you always work at that?
Diane Paulus: You know, I know it’s– it’s been seminal and at the heart of everything that I have been able to do because not only do I run the theater, but I’m a working artist. And that’s often a model where you have someone in a leadership role and in theater who is also in the rehearsal room a lot. But the problem with that is, you know, there’s a lot that I can’t do at a desk all day long because I’m not in a desk, not at a desk. And so, you know, the ability to have not only a partnership but an understanding, a history, shared values, shared vision. And I think, you know, the thing that’s, you know, you look for this in any aspect of your life, someone who understands what makes you do your best work. And Diane Borger is really a genius as a producer, not just for me as an artist and a leader in the theater, but I think for shepherding all our projects. What do the artists need? What are the conditions? And they’re different. It goes back to your question about the formula. It’s there are formulas you learn from but you really have to stay awake to how to change what you’re doing to best serve, you know, the surprising result that we’re all looking for.
Diane Borger: Diane and I didn’t really know each other before we worked together but by coincidence, when she applied for her job at ART, she was in London and someone told her to look me up and we had a conversation about what makes a good artistic director. And I know that I said to her, “Someone with a vision,” and she never disappoints. So that’s why I think we’re good partners. <laughs> But I remember that. I said, “It is the most important thing.” I’d run another theater with a person with a great vision as well. But I know that that’s what’s key to keeping everyone on board, to use one of your metaphors, to keep everyone going up the mountain in the same direction, yeah.
Diane Borger: Right. We don’t know how to get there but we know there, the top of the mountain’s there and we’re pointing to it.
Anita Walker: I’m going to change the topic a little bit because I think this is something that really fascinates people, whether they’re inside the theater world or audience members or just lovers of theater. But one of the things you have been very successful at is taking a show to Broadway, which sounds like something out of a move, which seems like a terrible analogy. But can you just kind of walk through the nerdy steps of something like that?
Diane Borger: Yes. What I always say to people is every single show has its own journey. And what our motivation always starts with is how can we make the best work in Cambridge for our audiences. That is 100 percent where we think about it, because if you end game those sorts of things you get failure, or maybe less successful. The other thing that happens then is we think how can this work reach a wider audience, not just a Broadway audience. So sometimes our shows have gone to London and sometimes they’ve gone to not-for-profits throughout the country. Sometimes they’ve gone to New York theaters that weren’t Broadway theaters. Sometimes they’ve toured. And this is really important to me, because the impulse is how, if you’ve hopefully made good work, how can more people see it? So that’s the starting point. And then some shows that we’ve made have been commercial, <laughs> whatever that means, and have ended up on Broadway. And I think that there’s mechanics of that. You know, you get a commercial producer, might give you some funding maybe to create a bigger physical production. They become your partner when it moves to New York. I don’t live in New York. I’m no longer the lead producer because you have to live somewhere and you have to be in that community. And so it’s pretty straightforward in that sense, but what makes something work there or how it happens, you know, is idiosyncratic in every instance. And then some things, I always use “Glass Menagerie” as an example, because when we decided that we would agree <laughs> to John Tiffany doing “Glass Menagerie,” a show I never thought I would produce, and it ended up having this journey where it went to Broadway, it went to the West End, it went to festivals. And that was totally unexpected for both me and Diane and John or for all of us, because he just had this vision of how he wanted to do “Glass Menagerie.” And so, then there’s some things, bigger musicals are the ones probably people think about, where you sometimes are approached by a commercial producer, especially when they want Diane to direct. But others like “The Great Comet,” that show had had a, say a commercial life that didn’t pay back because it was always critically acclaimed. And we rang up all the creators and said, “We love your show and we really think that it deserves, you know, more life.” So we remounted it and then again, there was interest in it. So as I say, it twists and turns every single time in how it happens.
Anita Walker: Final question. Do you have a definition of success for any given enterprise you enter into?
Diane Paulus: I think about audience testimony, really. I mean, I’m evaluating success in terms of process and actor growth and, you know, the work of my team. But I usually don’t think about, you know, was that successful. I’m just looking at was it a good process. Did people do their best work? Where could we do better? You know, especially if we’re given another shot to continue the work. But success, I usually use these questions, okay, now I can, you know, hang my coat on the hook and, you know, whatever. <laughs> Or whatever that phrase is. And go to bed or– <laughs> Usually when I get a testimony from an audience, you know, like when we opened on Broadway on “Waitress” and we had guest checks written in the lobby, audience old-fashioned social media testimony and my producer there in New York brought me a guest check and it said,
“You know, I got out of an abusive relationship thanks to this production. You know, it saved my life.” You know, you get something like that and you’re like, “Okay, whatever happens or happens or happened, I’m happy.”
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Diane Paulus: Like, this, if this could have had that kind of impact on one person’s life, it was worth it, you know. So often the success meter really clicks when I get a testimony from an audience of that kind of, you know, depth.
Anita Walker: Diane Paulus, Diane Borger, American Repertory Theater. Two of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Narrator: To learn more about this episode and to subscribe, visit creativemindsoutloud.org.