Creating Worlds Together

NOV 10, 2012

Director Diane Paulus and Scenic Designer Scott Pask talk about Pippin

What was your first experience with Pippin?

Diane Paulus: I saw Pippin in the 1970s, when it was on Broadway. I saw it three times. I remember loving it as a twelve-year-old. It had this allure, this power as a show. I got the soundtrack and then proceeded to grow up on the music. Like HAIR, it’s one of the shows that I know backwards and forwards from listening to the soundtrack.

For me (and I’m sure many others), it was high-school drama camp. Do you think Pippin has a reputation as a “lighter” musical nowadays?

Scott Pask: The show is so widely produced in schools and theaters across the country, and I think they often use a more family-friendly version. The original production of Pippin had quite a bit of darkness in the staging. I find that exciting. I know many numbers from the show and some of the iconic staging, but I have never seen a performance of it.

Diane: If we do our job well, I’m hoping people will say: “Oh my god, I love that music, but I had no idea this show had such a deep, powerful story.”

Scott Pask confers with Diane Paulus in rehearsal

I hesitate to define this Pippin as strictly circus; I am also thinking of historical environments related to traveling troubadours, old medicine shows, and medieval morality plays.

What about Pippin inspires you as an artist?

Diane: I believe there’s a whole generation of people who grew up on that album. That interests me. Now that I’ve been working on the show for the last two years, looking closely at the story and the book, I have come to understand what a powerful piece of theater it is. Pippin deals with an incredibly serious subject: how far would you go to be extraordinary? Will you burn yourself alive to be extraordinary, as Pippin is asked to do by the Leading Player? How far will you go for the ultimate moment of glory? This question is deeply relevant to our lives today. It can be relevant to anyone, from an eighteen-year old trying to figure out the meaning of their life, to a middle-aged person trying to assess what they’ve achieved in their life. What are the choices we make to pursue a life that is “extraordinary”?

Scott: I think that the story of Pippin—his journey through adolescence and his wanting to be special, to be spectacular, in a different way than just by inheriting his royal legacy—is an important story of the path towards adulthood. It’s also a path towards understanding responsibility. This is a challenge that each person has to endeavor, whatever the scale. Some travel this path under more watchful eyes than others; in Pippin’s case, it’s an entire kingdom.

Diane: What I love about Pippin is that all of this is expressed through a theatrical metaphor. The show is a play within a play. It’s about a troupe of players who are enacting this ritualized performance. In the world of the play, to be extraordinary is to perform “the Grand Finale.” It uses theateras a metaphor for examining one’s own life.

This idea of the primal, dark, intense nature of Pippin’s journey, when coupled with the persistent metaphor of theater in the show, really highlights the risk and the danger involved in live performance.

Diane: And our interest in taking Pippin into the world of Les 7 Doigts de la Main, with their incredible acrobatic feats, takes danger to an even more palpable place. Will you literally jump through a hoop of fire? Will you walk a high wire? Circus artists are, by nature, defying their bodies. They challenge themselves to be truly extraordinary. What I love about 7 Doigts is that they approach acrobatics in a way that’s virtuosic, but also emotional. Their work is human and gritty.

You and Scott also worked with world-class acrobats on Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna, recently. Are there any lessons from that experience that you’ll be carrying to Pippin?

Diane: Working on Amaluna was just such an amazing opportunity for Scott and me to increase our experience of what is possible in the theater. It certainly enriched my perspective on the traditional form of circus.

Scott: With Amaluna, we strove to reach as far into the audience as possible, with acrobatic performance, with scenic elements, with characters, all towards reaching our goal of creating a deeply encompassing theatrical experience. That’s something that I have enjoyed in numerous projects with Diane; she holds that as a specific goal for her work and her theater’s mission.

Diane: At the A.R.T., we stress to our audiences that theater is not just a play on the stage– you have to expand your definition of theater further and further. With Pippin, the idea of circus enters the equation.

The Donkey Show

Butterflies fall over the crowd at The Donkey Show.

Amaluna, Cirque du Soleil


Scott: I hesitate to define this Pippin as strictly circus; I am also thinking of historical environments related to traveling troubadours, old medicine shows, and medieval morality plays.

Diane: Pippin has the structure of a morality play, where a central figure progresses through a series of trials on a journey of self-knowledge.

Scott: In working on this musical, I’ve been inspired by the liturgically based pageant plays that I went to (and was in!) during my church youth days, which also helped to inform some aspects of the work I did on The Book of Mormon. I’m interested in many traditions in the history of theater and visual storytelling. For me, Pippin exemplifies a form of theater that’s in motion, it isn’t rooted; in a way, it’s like a tumbleweed of a production. It rolls through a town and then continues to keep on rolling.

Diane: It’s written into the script that the Players come and perform the show, The Life and Times of Pippin. It’s set up in the show that this troupe travels and does this ritual act with different Pippins. When “the circus comes to town,” you don’t know where they’re from and you don’t know who they are; they might seem kind of dangerous, kind of freaky, perhaps from another world. You never see the circus artists in the supermarket–they’re in that tent over there, removed from our world and our time. We’re interested in drawing on some of that imagery and those feelings associated with the circus in giving an identity to the players in Pippin. The idea with this project is to take what we all know and love about Pippin—which includes the inspiration of Bob Fosse’s choreography—and tell the story as powerfully as we can. We’re adding a new ingredient that, thematically, supports the extraordinary theatrical life that the Players are inviting Pippin to have. Chet Walker, our Fosse specialist working on the show, said to me in a meeting that Bob Fosse was inspired by the circus, as well as the films of Federico Fellini; that was a world he was interested in, though he never truly went there because he made his work with dancers, not circus artists. But there is an impulse built into what he created that points toward the circus aesthetic. So, I would hope that this new ingredient feels very organic to Pippin.

How long have you been collaborating?

Scott: Diane and I have been working together for, I think, fifteen years.

Diane: We started as assistants together, when we were both in grad school.

Scott: We worked on the original Donkey Show, the Lower East Side Projects with her Project 400 group, some opera, HAIR in Central Park, Broadway and London, then Cirque du Soleil. We’ve had a long and really great collaboration.

What makes it great?

Scott: I think Diane’s got a spectacular creative vision. She’s an incredibly articulate artist, and has an insight into the work she tackles that’s inspiring to be around and to be a part of. It’s an incisive, almost surgical look at what she wants to achieve with a piece of work and what her goals for it are. There is an inspiring amount of tenacity to her vision as well. It’s fantastic to see how she can liberate a show, like HAIR, from so many preconceived ideas… people are shocked to see it laid bare, pried open and reinvented. I’m looking forward to joining her on that process with Pippin, to taking this incredibly informed and researched but also passionate approach to re-examining a musical for our time.

Diane: What I adore about working with Scott is that he’s a thinker—a theater thinker. Of course, his job is to translate ideas into a physical space, but he is a partner in conceptualizing the show. In all the shows that we’ve done together, Scott and I always talked about creating the world of the production. More often than not, the world hasn’t just been the space on the stage. In The Donkey Show, it was an immersive nightclub environment. In HAIR, we started with Central Park as the backdrop to our world. When we moved indoors, The Hirschfeld Theater was the site of the “bein.” In Amaluna, it was about the immersive environment of a community of women celebrating a ritual, to which the audience is invited. Everything Scott and I work on together is about worlds, environments, and architectural thinking; we don’t create design that feels separate from you, as an audience member. We have a shared interest in the physical, spatial and theatrical possibilities that an immersive experience can offer.

Brendan Shea is the Education and Community Programs Associate at the A.R.T.

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