Wall Street Journal - Arts & Entertainment Feature: Diane Paulus on How Theaters Should Engage Audiences

Publication date: 
June 6, 2012
Barbara Chai

Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the A.R.T. at Harvard University and the director of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” says for theater to thrive, a company has to work to engage the audience.

“I want an audience that will come sitting forward in their seats,” she said during a recent interview. To Paulus, theater’s true function as a vital art form is to be ritual and spectacle. Theater may be one of the last bastions where a live event allows one to come, watch, and literally feel alive.

“For me, the reason why people go to a mountaintop or go to the edge of the ocean is to look at something larger than themselves,” she said. “That feeling of awe, of going to a cathedral, it’s all about feeling lost in something bigger than oneself. To me, that’s the definition of spectacle.”

She adds that theater should also let audiences feel delighted, and diverted. It’s meant to be entertainment, and “that’s an underrated value.” But they also want to be challenged, she says, and so theater should also invigorate its audience. She relays the example of people leaving the office after a hard day of work. “What do most people do? They go to the gym for a workout. People actually need a release. They need stimulation.”

As A.R.T.’s director, Paulus has also tried to incorporate the value of reflecting the world as it is. “That means our stage needs to look like the world, and the world is a multicultural world,” she said. “Every theater is making choices about what you program, what artists you bring. You make choices about the community you’re defining, and that community starts with your staff, the artists, your audience. If a multicultural sensibility is part of your definition of the world you live in, that will be reflected in your body of work.”

She says this multicultural reflection of the world hasn’t always been a value of the theater. In many circles, theater is seen as a fine art and a sacred form, and is considered elite. But Paulus says that in the history of New York theater, it started out as a popular pastime in vaudeville houses, which were the home turf of Irish and Italian immigrants.

“It was very vocal and expressive and very working-class,” she said. Then theater moved more into fine art and became considered a sophisticated etiquette, she says. “We went through this thing which I’m obsessed with which is, popular theater went this way, and serious theater went that way.”

Paulus says ultimately it’s a question of one’s point of view, of how one thinks about the work, the community, and the breadth of experience and access. “I don’t want to be in an art bubble,” she said. “In Elizabethan England or classical Athens … theater was at the center of not culture but society and politics and religion and civic engagement. Those things have a different audience.”

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