ROLL OVER, SHAKESPEARE: Diane Paulus turned the Bard on his ear in The Karaoke Show (top, based on The Comedy of Errors) and The Donkey Show (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
The famously adventurous American Repertory Theatre is soon to be taken over by a woman who spent her summer directing . . . the vintage Broadway hits Kiss Me, Kate and Hair? Meanwhile, across the river, the reins of the relatively staid Huntington Theatre Company are in the hands of a guy whose first directing job was with a guerrilla troupe occupying a squat in Prague — an abandoned Salvation Army Center that he and a band of burglarizing thespians broke into and turned into a theater? In light of these facts, the change in artistic directorship at the area’s largest regional theaters sounds less like a changing of the guard than an episode of Trading Spaces.
But there is more to Hair helmer Diane Paulus and lock-picker Peter DuBois than the biographical data above. The 42-year-old Paulus, who begins her tenure at ART in October, is a Harvard grad with directing credits as diverse as opera and The Donkey Show, the latter a ’70s-disco riff on A Midsummer Night’s Dream that ran for six years off-Broadway. DuBois, 38, comes to the Huntington from New York’s Public Theater, where he was first an associate producer and then a resident director. Before that, he was for five years artistic director of Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre, a midsize regional company that during his tenure grew to be the state’s largest-arts-producing organization. Both of these hires represent an infusion not just of new blood but of still-pulsing hormones: Paulus replaces a 60 year old who five years earlier supplanted a 75 year old. DuBois takes over from a 70 year old. In an age of graying theater audiences, this is a good thing.
DuBois joined the Huntington this past December as artistic director elect and replaced outgoing honcho Nicholas Martin full-time in July. His stint as AD-in-waiting was, as he characterizes it, “fast and furious,” with the planning of his first season interspersed with freelance directing gigs that included Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw for Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays and a restructured version of Sam Shepard’s The Curse of the Starving Class for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre. Paulus, who succeeds the abruptly departed Robert Woodruff, will not put her imprimatur on a season until 2009–’10. As she sets about hatching it, she fulfills commitments to direct Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito for Chicago Opera Theater and Death and the Powers — with music by MIT’s Tod Machover, libretto by BU’s Robert Pinsky, and story by her writer-husband, Randy Weiner — at the Grimaldi Forum in Monte Carlo. Now both Paulus and DuBois will be turning in their passports to put down roots in Boston.
Though they’ll soon be dueling for Boston’s greasepaint dollars, DuBois and Paulus were colleagues in New York: among his duties at the Public was to sign her for the 2007 concert staging of Hair that this summer morphed into an acclaimed and wildly popular production of “America’s Tribal Love-Rock Musical” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. And Hair, says the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, “is kind of a model of what’s special about Diane. She is something rare: a genuine experimentalist, a real downtown girl, who is also a populist.”
Paulus’s melding of improvisatory spirit and pop culture has resulted in fresh music-theater works — many created with Weiner and their collaborators in Project 400 — such as The Karaoke Show, which removes The Comedy of Errors to a karaoke bar; Turandot: The Rumble for the Ring, in which rock, opera, and wrestling collide; and Swimming with Watermelons, built on the courtship of the director’s GI dad and Japanese mother in occupied Japan.
In recent years, Paulus has also been praised as a director of opera, from Mozart and Monteverdi to Lost Highway, based on the 1997 film by David Lynch, which she helmed this past spring for London’s Young Vic and English National Opera. Weiner, for his part, remains a partner in the Manhattan nightclub and performance venue The Box. “His niche, ever since we did The Donkey Show,” says Paulus of her partner, “has been sort of breaking ground into theater that can exist in a different kind of environment. He’s kind of the go-to guy for club theater.”
There was a fair amount of dismay in the theater community a year and a half ago when the ART/Harvard board declined to renew the contract of visionary director Robert Woodruff, who had been the chosen successor of founding artistic director Robert Brustein. The ensuing search was protracted, and one candidate turned down the job before Paulus’s name made its way into the hat. In the end, however, the company has landed a hotshot. Says Eustis, who headed Providence’s Trinity Rep for a decade before taking over the Public: “Diane is one of the brightest people working in the American theater. The quality of her intelligence may not be obvious from her résumé. But she is iconoclastic about trying to rethink the parameters of the theatrical event. She’s smart enough to hang at Harvard, but populist enough to bring an entirely new audience and to create an energy between ART and Cambridge that has never existed before.”