Out of the Woods

With her radical interpretations of familiar works, theater director Diane Paulus has often led audiences down surprising paths. Then she wandered into Porgy and Bess.

by Julia M. Klein Published Spring 2012
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“It was a pitch meeting,” Paulus says. “Suzan-Lori and I both talked about how much we loved the piece, and how evocative and stirring it is, not only as great music but great theater.” Their aim, they said, “would be to look at the arc of all the characters in the show and really strengthen that ... so that the audience feels engaged and involved with both Porgy and Bess from the moment they step on stage till the minute they leave.”

Paulus’s Porgy and Bess, scheduled to open in Cambridge in just days, was spectacularly savaged, its Broadway future thrown into doubt — all before the curtain had risen on a single performance.

They discussed turning some of the recitatives into dialogue and modifying the show’s dialect: “It’s written in a form of Gullah that Suzan-Lori felt very strongly is not necessarily authentic because it’s DuBose Heyward’s impression of Gullah,” she says, referring to the Creole spoken by some groups of blacks in South Carolina and Georgia. Instead, she and Parks wanted the dialect to emerge from working with actors.

“One of the things that was very clear was that we wanted to keep the show, with intermission, somewhere between 2:30 and 2:35. That was necessary for Broadway audiences,” Strunsky says. The changes eventually encompassed the libretto, the staging, the voicing, and the orchestration, revamped for the much smaller show orchestra. Whole numbers were dropped; some solos turned into duets and quartets. The crippled Porgy, instead of being confined to a goat cart, would have a brace and cane. A scene in which a shady white lawyer sells Bess a fake divorce from her husband, Crown, would be given to Mariah, the matriarch of Catfish Row.

Overall, Parks says, Catfish Row characters were endowed with more agency. With a few introductory words of dialogue, Porgy’s “I Got Plenty of Nothing” was transformed, she says, from an offensive “happy-darky song” to a love song, with “nothing” now referring to “sexual relations and love.” When Bess follows the drug dealer Sportin’ Life to New York, she now does so for more complex reasons than mere addiction and weakness, including her own complicity in Crown’s murder. And the ending — though not as radically reimagined as Paulus and Parks first envisioned — features a more dignified Porgy setting off to find his Bess.

 “I always had an instinct for making shows,” says Paulus.

The daughter of an actor–turned–television producer and an interior decorator, Paulus was raised four blocks from Lincoln Center. As a child, she studied dance with Mikhail Baryshnikov and was a serious pianist, but the loneliness of long practice sessions deterred her from a concert career. Meanwhile, she directed plays in her family’s living room, which led to a high-school production of Wonderful Town, where she met her future husband and collaborator Randy Weiner. (They now have two daughters, and commute between homes in Manhattan and Cambridge. Weiner runs both a Lower East Side nightclub called the Box and the ART’s second stage.)

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