Monday, February 7, 2011

Diane Paulus: On Invested Audiences

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 Armitage. Members 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 always say to my theater students, “A surgeon can’t let the patient die on the table.” In the theater sometimes we just let the patient die, and at the end of the show we wake up and we all applaud and go home. To me that is the thing we have to fight, to really own the theater and make it vital and necessary in the 21st century. There are too many other forms that we can’t compete with. I also tell my students and colleagues about working in opera because now I do as much opera as [I do] theater. What I love about the opera is the way the audience is so passionate about what they see on the stage, almost like sports fans. They will not accept what they don’t like and they will be vocal about it.

Thaïs, 2008. Photo: Met Archives
I was in grad school assisting Andrei Serban in France and we were doing Massenet’s opera Thaïs. It was the premiere and the end of the first act there was this pause. In this beautiful French Opera House in Nice someone from the top ring stood up and screamed down to the stage “Mettre en scene a toilette!” which means “Director of the sh*thouse!” and then someone in the orchestra stood and screamed up and said, “Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about yet.”

When it was over I went backstage and the French stage manager was mortified. She said, “I’m so sorry. That was so embarrassing.” And I said “It’s great! I wish we could be like this in America.” Do you really wanna be boo’ed? I know it’s a terrifying thing to really put on the table, but part of me almost wants to take it that far. If they want to quietly watch, that’s fine. If they want to stand up, or cheer, or boo, or talk, they can. Freedom, that’s my interest. How an audience can be free to have whatever response.

(Edited with permission).

What do you think - is that a terrifying idea? Can you imagine that happening in New York City?


  1. I saw Macbeth in Battery Park a couple of summers ago, and the audience, especially kids who were watching, were very vocal - swordfights got cheers and gasps, the murder of King Duncan, etc. It was exciting, because you could actually SEE the effect it was having on young audience members who were new to theater.
    But I think for it to happen in a Broadway theater or at the Met would mean a cultural shift. It's like what Diane Paulus said in her last post - there are too many rules right now.

  2. Please learn the basic principles of website legibility. Gray letters on black isn't it.