Monday, January 31, 2011

Diane Paulus: On Children in the Theater

Diane Paulus is currently the artistic director of A.R.T in Cambridge, MA. She is a director of opera and theater; most recently she directed The Public Theater's revival of Hair, collaborating with fellow New Vic Council guest Karole ArmitageMembers of the New Vic Council are ambassadors for The New Victory Theater, working to broaden the public’s awareness of the importance of arts education and championing the New Victory Theater Education Program and the New Vic/New 42 Youth Corps.

I had a small company out of grad school [and] we were doing a melodramatic version of Frankenstein. We took all the great classical piano hits that are in public domain, like Für Elise and Chopin’s Preludes, and my collaborator Randy Weiner wrote lyrics to them. It was like a Victorian melodrama. One of the collaborators, Alfred Preisser who used to run The Classical Theater of Harlem, was a teacher at one of the schools, The Harlem School for the Arts. So on Halloween, we were invited to do the show in the lobby of the school and it was melodrama, so the whole thing was meant to provoke “Boo” and “Hiss” and “Aww.” There were like 500 children in this atrium, it wasn’t even a theater, and the kids went wild. Randy and I were there and we were just amazed the kids were screaming at the monster, ”Don’t do it! Run! Run!” and when they were trying to burn the monster and all the kids were running, and of course at the time I was an impressionable director. It was so alive. The kids were so unedited; they were just talking to actors from the get-go. The monster was played by a woman and they were saying, “You’re ugly! You’re ugly!” To me at that time it was the most incredible, pure theatrical interaction.

Then the next day Alfred came down to the theater and he said, “Boy did I get my hand slapped for that experience.” He said, “Everything we were trying to teach the kids in the school was like you do NOT behave like that in the theater. You are quiet, you pay attention, you do not talk to the performers.” So I often thought about that because I want audience to have passion. I want them to care about their theater as much as they care about their sports - like when you go to a sporting event and the people scream at the coach, “You’re not playing them right!” and “The referee is wrong! Play better!” You know that kind of passion for the team which comes from that audience. They care about it, they know it, they’re in on it.
What is the etiquette we’re teaching children about the theater? Of course I get it, it’s not always appropriate to go to the theater and scream and hoot and holler. It is a real issue for me.

I think sometimes we say, “I do theater and here are the rules.” I think there is room for all different kinds of theater. I’m not saying all theater should be loud, and noisy, or interactive, and on your feet. But I’m always trying to say don’t assume theater is just ‘this,’ that these are the rules. Keep looking at theater as a broader definition or how can you expand that definition of theater.

It’s such an important thing to turn kids on to theater in the right way.

(Edited with permission).

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