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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Paulus attended Harvard, graduating in 1988, and enrolled in the New Actors Workshop in New York to study with director Mike Nichols and Paul Sills, a cofounder of Chicago’s improvisational comedy troupe Second City. But the life of a novice actor, with its uncertainty and constant waiting, quickly lost its appeal: “I had this entrepreneurial spirit. I was always interested in organizing people.” Plus, Paulus says, “I could fuel more of myself as a director.”

Paulus called some friends and started producing her own shows. For one production, she wangled permission to stage Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in an Upper West Side community garden — on the condition that she could not stop anyone from gardening. No problem, Paulus figured: “If I could get someone to put the shovel down and listen to the play, we’d be doing something right.”

But it was hard to keep a fledgling company together in New York. With Sills’s help, Paulus, Weiner, and some colleagues relocated to Door County, Wisconsin. The shows made by their Blue Circle Theatre (later Project 400) were avant-garde and site-specific c. The company’s version of The Tempest featured a local bar band. Weiner puts it this way: “One of Diane’s strengths is her complete commitment to theater. One of my strengths is a questioning of theater.”

Roll dem bones: David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess / Photograph by Michael J. Lutch

For Paulus, it was a superb apprenticeship: “It gave me an opportunity to experiment. I did everything. I was fundraising; I was acting in shows. I started with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and ended with Ode to Joy,” a play about Beethoven that featured twenty-five child actors. “We staged it in Lake Michigan — literally, in the water.”

But after five years, Paulus began to yearn for more training as a director. “I thought, ‘I need more tools; I need more stimulus. I want to go back to school.’”

At Columbia’s School of the Arts, Paulus studied under Andrei Serban, the director of the University’s Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theatre Studies, and Anne Bogart, a professor of directing and artistic director of the SITI ensemble theater company.

“I carry Anne and Andrei with me every day,” Paulus says. “Anne is one of the most generous, open-hearted artists on the planet, and as a teacher, she was like an earth mother, nurturing each of us to pursue our interests. On the other side, you had Andrei Serban, a Romanian director who comes from that tradition of ‘You’re never good enough. You’re banal. Everything you do is not good.’

“Certain students collapse under that,” Paulus says. But having been a child ballerina trained by demanding Russian teachers, “I kind of thrived on it. To be told you’re not good enough is amazing training.”

Serban says that, as a graduate student, Paulus was “impeccable . . . well-behaved, disciplined but also inspired.” Citing her thesis production of King Lear, he notes: “Her best work then was as it is now: a unique marriage between traditional material and the avant-garde.”

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