Paulus’s melding of improvisatory spirit and pop culture has resulted in fresh music-theater works — many created with Weiner and their collaborators in Project 400 — such as The Karaoke Show, which removes The Comedy of Errors to a karaoke bar; Turandot: The Rumble for the Ring, in which rock, opera, and wrestling collide; and Swimming with Watermelons, built on the courtship of the director’s GI dad and Japanese mother in occupied Japan.
In recent years, Paulus has also been praised as a director of opera, from Mozart and Monteverdi to Lost Highway, based on the 1997 film by David Lynch, which she helmed this past spring for London’s Young Vic and English National Opera. Weiner, for his part, remains a partner in the Manhattan nightclub and performance venue The Box. “His niche, ever since we did The Donkey Show,” says Paulus of her partner, “has been sort of breaking ground into theater that can exist in a different kind of environment. He’s kind of the go-to guy for club theater.”
There was a fair amount of dismay in the theater community a year and a half ago when the ART/Harvard board declined to renew the contract of visionary director Robert Woodruff, who had been the chosen successor of founding artistic director Robert Brustein. The ensuing search was protracted, and one candidate turned down the job before Paulus’s name made its way into the hat. In the end, however, the company has landed a hotshot. Says Eustis, who headed Providence’s Trinity Rep for a decade before taking over the Public: “Diane is one of the brightest people working in the American theater. The quality of her intelligence may not be obvious from her résumé. But she is iconoclastic about trying to rethink the parameters of the theatrical event. She’s smart enough to hang at Harvard, but populist enough to bring an entirely new audience and to create an energy between ART and Cambridge that has never existed before.”
But why does a director with a globetrotting career and no administrative experience want to hole up in the corner office of the Loeb Drama Center? For one thing, Paulus has two young daughters who don’t fit easily into a suitcase. For another, “I always thought of myself growing into this kind of leadership role in a theater,” she says. “I started training as an actor, then I went into directing, and when you’re a young director you’re very involved in your craft and developing your skills. But especially in the last five years, I’ve been thinking about wanting to contribute more in terms of steering a vision for the theater that is not just about one show but actually about the way we think about how the arts function in our country, how we’re reaching audiences, how we produce theater, and how we market it. Because for me, truly, the audience is what I think about all the time.”