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Diane Paulus ’88: Being extraordinary with “Pippin”

The "Pippin" Company of Players. PHOTO: Michael J. Lutch

EDITOR’S UPDATE: On June 9, Diane Paulus ’88 won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical Revival for Pippin, which also won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival.

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Earlier this week, the American Theatre Wing announced the 2013 Tony Award nominations. American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus ’88 was among the nominees — as Best Director of a Musical. But that wasn’t her only accolade. Her production of Pippin, which originated at Harvard’s A.R.T. and is now on Broadway,  received 10 Tony Award Nominations, 6 Drama Desk Awards nominations, 11 Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, 3 Drama League Award nominations and 2 Elliot Norton Award nominations. In an interview on May 1, I asked Paulus to talk about her years at Harvard, the new production of Pippin and her life as a trail-blazing theater artist.

What happened when you were at Harvard to secure  the path to where you are today?

Being a student and going to see professional shows at the A.R.T. – Robert Wilson’s Civil Wars, Julie Taymor’s work in King Stag directed by Andrei Serban, Philip Glass and The Juniper Tree. To see those extraordinary productions as an undergraduate – that marked me. I really feel it put a wedge in my brain about the possibility of theater, and I credit seeing those mind-expanding productions as a catalyst for me and my imagination in the theater today.

What did you see in Pippin that made you want to turn your eye to it?

I have loved this musical score my whole life. I’ve grown up with it. It’s the soundtrack to my life. I played Corner of the Sky on the piano. I danced to Manson Trio with my 7th grade ballet show. I sang With You at my brother’s wedding. The score has been woven into my life journey without having anything to do with the theater. I remember seeing the show as a kid growing up in New York in the ‘70s and seeing Ben Vereen and the Bob Fosse choreography and being touched by this theatrical, dangerous, seductive world onstage. It also marked me. I remember thinking: That’s the world I want to be part of. The revival took me to the book and to the script and to knowing the show on a whole other level. I understood in a much clearer way how far you push yourself to the extraordinary, how we make choices, what our trials by fire are – literally – what we have to go through to have a sense of meaning and purpose. That really resonated for me. I really wanted audiences to feel it

Diane Paulus '88

in all its depth.

I saw the same show in the ‘70s, and I remember it as a man’s journey with a male narrator. You’ve turned this show over to women. And not just any women – but women who are not young ingenues.

There’s nothing in the script that tells you who or what the Leading Player should be. I went to [composer and lyricist] Stephen Schwartz and asked: Do these two words come with anything attached to them? He said: No, the Leading Player can be anybody, any shape, size, color, ethnicity, sex. The only thing, he said, is the Leading Player needs to be utterly different from who your Pippin is because the Leading Player represents the world that Pippin has not experienced yet in life. I gravitated to Patina Miller because of her power, her force, her unbelievable skill as a singer and actor, and her mastery of her body. It was not an agenda to cast a woman in that role, but it liberated the role and gave options with Patina that do take us into the 21st century. And then there are the women who round out our cast: Andrea Martin, Charlotte D’Amboise and Rachel Bay Jones. All these ladies come with history, with intelligence, with real humor – and I think collectively they make an impression. Many people have asked me about the “women in Pippin” – which I love. Again, it’s not born of an agenda, but these female performers had so much to bring to the table, how could you not cast them?

What do you do to step away from this work? Where do you go to refresh?

This is going to sound so corny – but when I cuddle with my two girls. They’re 6 and 8. They’re a battery recharger – so full of energy and life. They’re so invested in the theater and the actors and Pippin. They know the whole show by heart. I also have been running and swimming. It’s a cliché but whenever you start moving, the ideas unlock. Whenever I get stuck creatively, I go outside and run maybe two miles and get the blood flowing and that helps.

This is not your first or second trip to an awards party. What do the nominations represent for you beyond encouraging your career and ticket sales?

When you’re making your work, it can never be about that kind of result. It’s so much about putting your head down and staying on track and keeping your eye on the ball and doing your work and doing it from a place of purity and integrity and work ethic. When you get a chance to come up for air and you receive this kind of recognition, it’s just a great moment to enjoy the work. I work pretty tirelessly because I’m so passionate, and this kind of recognition gives you the chance to stop and say: Maybe we did OK.

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