Ryan McKittrick: How would you describe the work the two of you have created together over the last fifteen years?
Randy Weiner: I’m interested in shows that are a little bit strange – shows that take the audience to a place that’s unfamiliar. In our work together, we’ve achieved that by combining sources people don’t normally associate with each other. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and disco music for The Donkey Show. Or The Winter’s Tale and gospel music for Best of Both Worlds. In both cases, the two sources we were working with ended up illuminating each other.
Diane Paulus: Our work together has also always been about tapping into people’s experience of pop culture – tapping into things that people know and love, like music and nightlife environment, and creating an unfamiliar theater experience out of those sources. We’re always interested in looking around us to see what’s happening in our culture, what people are listening to on the radio, and where people are going.
RM: How did you come up with the idea of marrying Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to disco culture?
RW: I always thought that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the most perfectly structured play. I love the way that the characters chase each other around – how this character is chasing that character who’s chasing that character. The relationships in the play are constantly shifting, like a kaleidoscope. I always wanted to stage the play in a way that would really make the audience appreciate the structure. Then I began thinking about the similarities between the play and 1970s disco culture. The drugs. The falling in and out of love. And the more I listened to disco songs, the more I realized that they encapsulate so much of what A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about – “I love you, you love me, we love each other, I want you, you don’t want me, I don’t want you.” Then I began imagining Studio 54 – the Pantheon of disco clubs – as a setting for the play.
DP: Randy and I actually went to Studio 54 together back in the early 80s. We always talked about it as the modern-day version of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater with the balcony for high society and the mosh pit down below where the groundlings could mingle and dance. In some ways, Studio 54 is more like the Elizabethan playhouses than many of the spaces where we see Shakespeare’s plays performed today. The royalty of New York society was rubbing elbows with working class kids who got in because they could dance. The thing that was so amazing about the club was that it was the place where you could go to escape. No matter who you were you could be fabulous and have an identity that had nothing to do with your ordinary daytime life.
RM: What else appealed to you about staging an event in this nightclub environment?
DP: The first thing we thought was that if we were going to stage it in a club, most of the audience wouldn’t be sitting in chairs. People would be free. Free to move. Free to dance. I kept thinking about my fantasy of creating a pageant wagon theater event, with performers moving all around you and above you. And I got excited about giving the audience this very theatrical Studio 54 environment as a playground. I always feel that as a director I am making a gift for the audience, and I wanted to give them this unique club experience as a gift. In its heyday between 1977 and 1979, Studio 54 was impossible to get into. You had to know someone. What The Donkey Show does is give everyone the opportunity to have a night out when they are guaranteed to get into the club.
RM: How do audiences react to The Donkey Show?
RW: People always say, “I want to come back and bring my friends.” By the third week of our first run women were coming up to me saying, “I want to have my birthday party here. I want to buy out the club for a night.”
DP: I think part of the thrill of The Donkey Show for theater people is that they’ve never seen anything like this in a traditional theater. And for the nightclub crowd this is much more dynamic and theatrical than anything they’ve experienced at a bar that just plays loud music. People also experience the show on many different levels. If you’re a Shakespeare scholar, you can track the adaptation scene by scene. But even if you’ve never read A Midsummer Night’s Dream you go on a journey. You experience a movement from chaos to order, from disorder to harmony – which is the structure of Shakespeare’s comedies. And many people experience a kind of catharsis by the end of the show. We hear a lot of people say, “By the end of the show I was dancing on the boxes!” There’s also an edgy quality to the show that people respond to. The movie Saturday Night Fever, which captured some of the grittier undercurrents of 1970s New York culture, is as much a source for the production as Studio 54 is.
RW: We were able to bring out that darker side of the 70s that people sometimes forget about. It was a crazy period, full of all kinds of madness, which you see in Saturday Night Fever. And even though it’s one of Shakespeare’s funniest plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also full of darkness and madness.
RM: Best of Both Worlds combines gospel and R&B with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. What inspired this pairing?
RW: The Winter’s Tale is my favorite play by Shakespeare. I’ve always been drawn to the intense rage and healing in the play. I also love gospel music. Even though I’m not part of a gospel church, I love any opportunity to sit in a room and have gospel music flood over me and fill my heart. The scope of the miracle at the end of The Winter’s Tale, when the Queen is transformed from a statue into a living person right in front of her repentant King, seems so tied into the world of gospel to me. So does the play’s emphasis on redemption and forgiveness – the idea that we can all pull ourselves up when we fall down. I thought gospel music was a good fit with the story of The Winter’s Tale for all of these reasons.
RM: How did you end up incorporating R&B?
RW: When I started working on the concept for this show, I discovered something that many people who love R&B and gospel often say, which is that these two forms of music are actually very similar. But in R&B, instead of singing “I love you Jesus,” you sing “I love you baby.” So I began to imagine the two kings of Shakespeare’s play as these very powerful R&B stars whom everyone bows down to. One of the kings loses his way but eventually finds it again and I imagined that gospel music could be part of that process of healing.
RM: What kind of research did you do when you were creating the show?
DP: Part of what was so inspiring as we were creating Best of Both Worlds was watching gospel singers perform. They say the same words again and again, but they never really repeat themselves. By the fifth time they’re singing “I love you Jesus,” they’re falling down on the floor and their voices are breaking. There’s a very powerful transformation that takes place in the performance of gospel music. The individual singers are testifying in the presence of a larger community which is calling out and singing along with them. It’s incredible to listen to and to watch and as a director I was very interested in creating that environment in the theater.
RM: Diane, since you became the A.R.T.’s Artistic Director, you’ve spoken a lot about engaging with the local community. How have Best of Both Worlds and The Donkey Show allowed you to do that?
DP: We always dreamed of staging the end of Best of Both Worlds as a huge gospel miracle, so for this production we’re reaching out to a wide range of local gospel choirs. What we’re saying to the local community is not just, “Come to our theater to see our productions,” but, “Come to our theater and be in our shows.” And then invite your family and friends to see you in this production. For Best of Both Worlds we’ll be rotating different choirs in each week so audiences could come back again and again and never see the exact same production. The Donkey Show is cast completely with local talent ranging from roller skaters to deejays to gymnasts to personal trainers to graduate students to dancers. So we’re not only expanding our definition of what theater is with The Donkey Show, we’re also expanding our definition of who or what an actor is.
Ryan McKittrick is the A.R.T.'s Dramaturg