Thursday, February 11, 2010



Directed by Diane Paulus
At the American Museum of Natural History
Hayden Planetarium
(l to r): Matthew Tuell (back), Albina Shagimuratova, Marco Nisticò, Hanan Alattar
Photo by Richard Termine

Diane Paulus has become one the most important and creative theatrical directors. Some of her methods and aesthetic are evident in her recent work.

Il Mondo Della Luna at the Hayden Planetarium of The American Museum of Natural History (ANMH) was an amazing show. The music was delightful, the staging by Diane Paulus was inspired, and the idea for using the planetarium was brilliant. Both the project creators (the Gotham Chamber Opera), and the planetarium managers need to be applauded for putting this together.

The story, in the libretto behind Il Mondo Della Luna -- a recently rediscovered, and quite charming comic opera by Haydn (no relation to the nicely coincidental "Hayden" of the planetarium) -- is, of course, silly: a young man -- an unacceptable suitor -- persuades the father of the girl he wants to marry that they have all been transported to the moon, where the "emperor" of the "moon" marries him to the girl he loves (and her sister and her maid to other suitors who had also been unacceptable to the father before).

The brilliance of the directing -- by Diane Paulus -- is that she creates a silly dramatic show in which actors, singers, and dancers play their silly parts dressed in their brilliantly silly 1930's art-deco moon space-suits with such tremendous energy, committment, detail, fun and style, that she makes the "silly"compelling, even convincing!

What can be more natural than having an opera about pretending to go to the moon staged in a space designed to provide an audience the experience of the night sky?

Recent 3-D IMAX productions like Avatar have show the emotional power of a big viewing experience. The planetarium screen is a hemisphere with perhaps 5 times the viewing area of IMAX!

Images are projected on the entire hemisphere, and with the spectacular Zeiss planetarium projector, the whole sky is recreated. Moreover, Il Mondo Della Luna goes beyond film with live actors, singers, dancers and a small, fine orchestra, all in the intimate space of the planetarium seating area, under the seemingly infinite space of the dome.

(This production uses the planetarium well, and it suggests how wonderful the planetarium could be as a site for other dramatic productions -- going beyond the already extraordinary scientific planetarium shows -- specifically written and created for the planetarium space, expanding on the resources used by Il Mondo Della Luna: Imagine fully utilizing the sky, the stars (from any perspective, any period of time), the aura of the site, the huge space over the audience, the special acoustics, together with the utmost in high quality 3-D high resolution projection over the huge dome; perhaps even using other resources of the planetarium's amazing parent museum: AMNH.)

Here, from YouTube, is a brief sample of the show:

Diane Paulus is also the director of the current revival of Hair, mounted first at The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park, and then transferred to Broadway. It is a great production.

To get a sense of this production -- and I strongly recommend visiting the show on Broadway: it is powerful and profoundly entertaining -- here is a preview from a promotional cast appearance on the Letterman show.

In this appearance of the cast of Hair on the Letterman show, three of the factors that make Diane Paulus' work so riveting (and which also contributed to the success of Il Mondo Della Luna) are very clear: 1- the exuberance, the energy, and the emotion in the singing; 2 - the detail, consistency, and committment to every moment in the behavior -- the vivid life -- of each character; and 3 - the use of the physical space and the involvement of the audience in the space becoming a part of the experience.

Diane Paulus has been given the artistic leadership of the American Repertory Theater (A. R. T) -- a theater program affiliated with Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Here's Diane Paulus -- in a video from last year -- on the plans for the "next" (
now, this) season of A.R.T. The website she's referring to is the A. R. T. website:

In the last week, there have been two articles in the New York Times on her work at A. R. T.

There was a rave review, by Ben Brantley, of three projects she has brought to A. R. T.:

The first project is "Gatz" a "reading" -- every word! -- of The Great Gatsby (a novel written as a first-person narration by Nick Carraway). "One morning in the low-rent office of a mysterious small business, one employee finds a ragged old copy of The Great Gatsby in the clutter of his desk and starts to read it out loud. And doesn't stop." (This production, by The Elevator Repair Company, may - or may not - be coming to New York in the fall; it is scheduled for Singapore in May, however, if you happen to be there.)

The second project is a disco version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, called "The Donkey Show," directed by Diane Paulus and her husband, Randy Weiner, which ran for years in New York.

The third project, "Sleep No More," from the British troupe, Punchdrunk, is a dance and movement piece based on Macbeth, in which the audience follows the characters as they move throughout a space (in this case set in an old school in Brookline, Mass).

The second story in the NYT described some resistance to Diane Paulus' tenure at A. R. T.:

The focus of the criticism seemed to be: Is it valuable or not to have productions that attract an audience? Oddly, there was no discussion in the article about whether or not her productions were important theater. For example. there is this quote:

'“Higher education has a significant role to play in moving a culture forward, and that role shouldn’t involve taking cues from box office sales,” said Jedediah Wheeler, the executive director for arts and cultural programming at Montclair State University in New Jersey and a respected voice in the nonprofit theater world.'

In context, this seems to have been intended as (indirect) criticism of the popularity of her shows. However, it should be noted that the same quote works in exactly the other direction: Critics seem to be taking cues about the cultural significance of theater precisely from the box office: popularity is "bad;" driving audiences away must be "good" "culture-forward" theater.

It seems to me -- actually agreeing with the quote (though not the implication of its author) -- the popularity or non-popularity of a show has nothing to do with its value. The value and quality of the show should be judged on its own merits.

I think that -- in addition to the skill of her work as a producer and director -- the aesthetic of Diane Paulus is very important and very much in the spirit of the needs of theater at this time.

In a panel discussion about Hair, several years ago, she expressed the thought that the structure of the musical "Hair" is more in tune with the spirit of the times -- interactivity, multitasking, and fragmentary story elements -- than the more traditional structure of most Broadway musicals.

Using interaction with the audience, and making use of a show's specific location, marks a revival of avant-garde theater traditions current in the 60's (eg. Dionysus in 69), and again in the 80's (Tamara and Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding).

Excellence and attention to detail are also traditions that need to be constantly renewed.

She is quoted as saying, that high art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive, and "At the core of what I’m doing is a belief in the audience, a belief that populism doesn’t mean dumbing down theater but rather giving the audience a voice and a role in experiencing theater.

That quote, and Diane Paulus' work generally, is of particular interest to me, personally, as I've been developing a show called "How To Predict The Future -- an evening of science theater," (a project that is actually the parent of QPORIT, this blog of "previews") the whole premise of which is "smart" theater: that (with help from detail, exuberance and interaction) entertainment and high quality content are mutually reinforcing. I believe that interesting factual content, presented with an original slant, in something like the style of a new-product-line keynote, elevated with joy, attention to detail, exuberance, connection with the space in which it's presented, and interaction with the audience becomes a sublimely entertaining theatrical event.

Directed by Diane Paulus
At the American Museum of Natural History
Hayden Planetarium
(l to r): Nicholas Coppolo, Hanan Alattar
Photo by Richard Termine

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