[Diane granted us two interviews -- one before the Broadway opening of Porgy and Bess, one after. We had a LOT of material from those interviews, more than we could trim to fit in this print version of the article. To read everything Diane had to say, including her take on unconventional spaces and advice for an young director, check out the companion piece here. -ed.]
As artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Boston and through her freelance directing, Diane Paulus seeks to reshape our notions of what the theatrical experience is all about. For her, theatre is not simply an event to sit down and enjoy. She wants you to bask in the performance and even become a part of it, as she has done with her rousing rendition of Hair, her standing room nightclub shows like The Donkey Show and Prometheus Bound, and the unorthodox Sleep No More, the installation piece chronicling Macbeth’s mental breakdown.
After a run at the ART, Paulus has brought the classic Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess to Broadway in a new musical format and new title: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. During the preparations for its run at American Rep, Stephen Sondheim objected to Paulus and company reimagining the show in a very public way—writing an angry letter to the New York Times that was quoted around the world.
We spoke with Diane twice—once while the show was in previews, then again after it opened—to get her perspective on the power of this classic and the goals of her forward-thinking career.
Stage Directions: What can we expect from the new Porgy and Bess on Broadway?
What has been so illuminating about working on this show is how profoundly moving a story it is and how powerful the music is. It’s just such an incredible cast that we have, working with Audra McDonald, David Alan Grier, Norm Lewis and the entire ensemble. They are so committed to it, so it is a dream project to be inside such great work with such great performers.
What lured you to the material?
The Gershwin estate believes that the opera exists and will forever exist in opera houses all over the world. Porgy and Bess is undeniably a great American opera. They were interested in another version of the show that was more in the mold of a Broadway musical that could be performed on Broadway eight times a week in a model where it could reach a different audience. I really took that charge to heart in terms of knowing that we’re not trying to replace the opera, we’re just trying to create another version of the show. That basically give us the focus of finding the essence of the story, highlighting the story, zeroing in on a theatrical, intimate version versus the more epic operatic versions you find in an opera house. They were also very eager that I bring on a writer and that was an amazing thing to hear from an estate, that they were really interested in a writer who could work on the book. That led to my asking Suzan-Lori Parks to join the team and she’s been amazing partner on the project.
What did she bring to the material?
Her focus was on looking at the arcs of the characters and strengthening in various ways how those characters are fully taking their journey over the course of the piece. That had to do with additional lines of dialogue because of course we’re not in an operatic form anymore, we’re in a musical theatre form, so we are following different rules of spoken dialogue as well as songs and also recitative. She was able to just give us more information where it might help the audience connect more to the characters. For instance, in the opera libretto there is no specification of why Porgy is a cripple. He says, “God made me to be lonely.” But when you go back to the original novel by DuBose Heyward, you learn in the first few pages that he is crippled from birth and it’s not an accident or a disease that he developed. Who knows why God made him to be this way, but you learn that it is a defect from birth. So she wrote, “I’m crippled from birth. God made me to be lonely.” She added those four words into the libretto. Some changes are as little as that.
What’s a bigger change?
Another example is in the original structure of the opera libretto when Bess goes to Kittiwah Island for the picnic and falls back into the arms of Crown, her lover. In the opera structure when we go back to Catfish Row she’s already come back from the island and is feverish inside. We decided it would be interesting to see her return to Catfish Row, to activate Bess and see her return so that we could really feel her experience of what she did on Kittiwah and why she’s coming back to Catfish Row and the kind of energy that she brought herself back to Catfish Row to come back to the community. There are lots of little changes all over the show like that which we worked on really carefully over the course of the two years that we’ve been working on this.
So it’s not like creating new scenes but enhancing what’s already there?
It was enhancing, adding additional dialogue—
Yet cutting the show in half.
When it was first performed in 1935 it was uncut at almost 4 hours and Gershwin himself took 40 minutes off the show the very night it premiered. People don’t know this, but it went from four hours to three hours and 20 minutes by Gershwin. And Cheryl Crawford in 1942 also edited it and made it more of a Broadway musical with dialogue and songs as opposed to an operatic form. There have been many different versions, but I just think that the audience today is mostly familiar with the uncut opera because that’s what has mostly been done in the last 40 years. It’s not really cutting it in half because we started with the Gershwin cuts. We started the show with where he cut the show himself.
How was opening night?
The opening was spectacular. It was just such a moving evening for the cast. We had been on a long journey together. They are dedicated to show and the history of being part of this amazing American masterpiece and to bring it back to Broadway. The response from the audience on opening night was overwhelming. Everyone was crying. It was an unbelievable night.
Now that the show has premiered and been well received, do you feel vindicated after the Sondheim controversy that was aroused last year?
What the controversy showed me is the power of Porgy and Bess and how passionate people are about this piece. It’s a great tribute to how much of an American masterpiece this work is. As a director, I love that people are passionate about art. That’s really how I feel about it and I think through it all, all we’ve ever wanted is for the work to speak for itself. I think it’s been so exciting to have audiences come to the show and open themselves to it and not come with baggage associated. I hope people will be able to come and see this work and these artists on stage and the degree to which they’re opening their hearts and souls to these characters and this journey. I think what we’ve seen is that the piece is deeply moving and deeply emotional and we hope that that’s the experience that we’re transmitting with this version.
What would you say is your ultimate goal as a theatre director and as the artistic director of the ART? Do you find a common theme in your work?
As a theatre director, I’m trying to build community. I’m trying to make an event where people feel alive and engaged and present. Along the lines of what we’re talking about, in an honest relationship with what’s happening on stage that’s visceral, powerful and alive and my presence as an audience member is treasured in that way. At the ART, those are my goals, to provoke engagement. It’s not whether I like it, it’s have I been provoked, do I think and do I want to talk about it when it’s over? Do I want to turn to my friend to have an argument? Am I made more alive? That’s why we go to the theatre, to feel more alive, present, breathing, in the moment, more engaged. I think for ART there are other goals. We are an innovator. Our mission is to expand the boundaries of theatre. I want us to be an innovator in this field. I want us to be a leader. My goal is no short of us being a leading theatre in America and our mission is to take the form to the next step of theatre, which is not just artistically but how we produce theatre, how we think about theatre and building community. Community as an audience, community of artists, community with every show we do, community across the shows. That’s the essence of theatre, bringing people together. You can’t do it without people in a room together. In our day and age, that will be treasured and will never go away, that kind of human need for a ritual.
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