A Day With Tony Award Winner Diane Paulus

Directing Hannah Berkowitz ’17 through her monologue in the “Heidi Chronicles,” an upcoming play from the Theatre Department, Diane Paulus, an acclaimed director and producer, advised students in a directing workshop she hosted this Wednesday. The other 24 participants of the workshop improvised around Berkowitz, challenging her to interact with all others in character.

“She was trying to show me how to become my character, authentically, rather than just performing words, and it really worked.  It was quasi-spiritual. Her style was very direct and encouraging, and she was able to get me even more excited about the show, my character, and the art of theater in general,” said Berkowitz.

Paulus, who was brought to campus by the Bernard and Mildred Kayden Fund, hosted a directing workshop, ate dinner with students at the Brace Center, and participated in an Q&A session called “A Conversation with Diane Paulus,” provided by the Theater and Dance Department.

According to Diane Paulus, inklings of her career in the theater industry began when she danced with the New York City ballet as a young girl.

“All day I had to keep pinching myself to remember that I’m not at college. I’ve never been to Andover before, but it was really impressive to meet everyone here and feel an environment of maturity. There was a level of engagement and seriousness. I went into the workshop feeling like I was gonna work with the students like I would a professional actor on Broadway. We’re gonna have a session, and we did it, and the work was exciting, but it was just a taste. It was very inspiring to me,” said Paulus in an interview with The Phillipian.

Paulus was named the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University in 2009. In addition to numerous theatrical accolades, including a Best Director Tony award, Paulus was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2014. According to Paulus, this accomplished career in theater began when she danced with the New York City Ballet as a young girl.

“I loved to dance as a kid, and when I was little, I had the great good fortune of dancing as a child in the New York City Ballet productions under George Balanchine when he was still alive, so I saw him work with great ballet stars like Suzanne Farrell and Patricia McBride. Being inside those story ballet production ­— I’m talking about the Nutcracker, Coppélia, Midsummer Night’s Dream — they affected me in terms of physical storytelling, what can be told without words,” said Paulus in the interview.

In her Q&A session, led by La-Shawn Springer, director of the Community and Multicultural Development Office and associate director of College Counseling, Paulus addressed feminism and sexism’s roles in her career. She described how she never felt hindered by discrimination when she was younger because of the previous generation’s efforts, but it has become more prominent in recent years.

“My experience is I’ve had more encounters with bias and sexism in the last five years than I did up until now, and I think it has to do with once you achieve a certain level. On the rise, you’re just on the rise, and you’re labeled ‘a rising star’, but then when you get there, it’s like, ‘Am I going to be allowed to stay in this position?’ There’s a different thing that happens, so I think that’s why it has turned for me, thinking about a different phase in my life as a woman,” Paulus said in the Q&A session.

Paulus also discussed intersectionality in the theater and the ways theater can be made more accessible. Responding to a question from Emma Chatson ’18 on how to improve representation on Broadway, Paulus described how she had to fight to cast actresses who don’t fit stereotypes but were the best fit for the role for her numerous productions.

“I felt really empowered because she talked about how we, as the new generation, have to break down the barriers in theatre and have to break the mold, and make sure that people’s stories are being told, and that it’s not going to be an easy fight, but that if we are strong, we can do it, and I felt really empowered by that,” said Chatson.

Based on her own experiences, Paulus encouraged Andover students to focus on developing their original pure theatrical and artistic passion before moving to the technicalities of a professional career.

“My advice would be to develop your interest, your personal pilot light interest that can never go out, not what you think you should do, not what your parents want to see, not doing the play because all your friends are going to come to it, but really what is your deep, deep interest in theater, and you have to nurture that and develop that and increase it and stretch it and really grow that interest. The more you grow that interest, the more you’ll understand where you’re gonna pursue, how you’re gonna pursue it and what road you’re going to take,” said Paulus in the interview.

Through Paulus’s visit, students who are interested in theater and drama were able to gain more insight into the theatre industry and the art of acting, according to Junah Jang ’20.

“I think it’s really incredible that we were able to host such an experienced person in the theater industry. She shared a lot of knowledge and one particular line that stuck with me. It was something about the great contradiction that performers practice their plays/scenes for weeks on end, yet have to deliver as if they’re living in the present. That’s really the beauty of theater right there and it was really great to hear her express it so eloquently,” said Jang.

Lauren Lee contributed reporting.