Diane Paulus Talks The Gershwins’ PORGY AND BESS, from Dream to Fruition

Diane Paulus (Director) Artistic Director of the A.R.T., where her directing credits include: Prometheus Bound, Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera (premiered in Monaco in September 2010), Johnny Baseball, Best of Both Worlds and The Donkey Show, a disco adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which ran for six years Off-Broadway. Her recent theater credits include The Public Theater’s revival of Hair on Broadway (2009 Tony Award winner for Best Revival of a Musical, nominated for eight Tony Awards including Best Director, as well as winner of a Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award and Drama League Award for Best Revival of a Musical). Other recent work includes Kiss Me, Kate (Glimmerglass Opera) and Lost Highway (ENO co-production with the Young Vic). Opera credits include Il Mondo Della Luna (Gotham Chamber Opera at the Hayden Planetarium), Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro, Turn Of The Screw, Cosi fan tutte; and Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, L’incoronazione di Poppea and Orfeo at the Chicago Opera Theater. Diane is a Professor of the Practice of Theater at Harvard University. This year Paulus was named one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Boston” by Boston Magazine and received the 2011 Elliot Norton Award for Best Director for her work on Prometheus Bound, Johnny Baseball and Hair. She is a recent recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from Boston Conservatory.

What about The Gershwins’ PORGY AND BESS captivated you as something you wanted to work on?

I remember seeing Porgy and Bess at the New York City Opera and I had two memories from that experience: one was being overwhelmed by the number of hit songs in this opera – it was like hit after hit after hit; the other memory is tears streaming down my face in scene two, with ‘My Man’s Gone.’ I was seeing it in an opera house, but I was thinking about this story and the characters and the emotion, hoping maybe I would get to direct this opera. Simultaneously, I was thinking this is an incredible piece of theatre. We all can identify with the different characters in the show and their will to survive and, ultimately, the power of love.

Your previous work includes a number of classic theatre and opera productions. Is there something in the musical form that has been catching your attention and interest?

I think we know The Gershwins’ PORGY AND BESS today mostly as an opera, because that’s where most audiences have seen it — certainly in the last forty years. The more I’ve learned about the show and understanding the roots of it premiering in Boston and then on Broadway, Gershwin’s impulse to write a uniquely American opera that mashes up jazz with his incredible classical landscape of the musical world — but doing it in a way that is story driven and about characters and people in this community — all of that makes this great theatre, which is great theatre with music, which is a musical.

What have been some of the challenges you’ve had to face during this process?

There’s nothing like working on a great masterwork. It’s like working on Shakespeare. It just makes you better as an artist because you’re in the presence of such a work of genius. What’s been challenging and at the same time thrilling has been this process over the last year and a half of looking at the original, and working side by side with Suzan-Lori Parks, who is adapting the book and alongside Diedre Murray, our musical adapter maintaining the integrity of the score, while trying to get to the essence of the piece and heighten what works so beautifully in the piece. The challenge has been how to get inside the original and make choices we think strengthen the piece without disturbing the original. That has been a joy.

We have rigorously gotten into a process of determining when we need to sing and when we need to speak. In opera there is recitative and you sing all the dialogue. In this version we’re finding places where maybe we speak the lines, but we’re not making decisions where all the songs are songs and all the recites are dialogue. We’re trying to maintain the flow of music, and some of the most gorgeous music is in these recites, these little flowers of musical moments. Finding the style for the piece that feels heightened and earned by the drama and not just virtuosic singing. Again, it’s been like Shakespeare – when are we in prose and when are we in verse? It’s its own world that once you are inside that overture.

There is an incredible team of artists behind this revival. Tell me about working with the Suzan-Lori Parks, Diedre Murray, the designers, and the cast.

I have always wanted to work with Suzan-Lori Parks. I’ve been a huge fan of hers over the years, and now, to have spent the last year and a half with her inside this classic work excavating it, talking about it, and watching her get inside every character… it has been amazing and totally inspiring. Diedre Murray is a long-time collaborator of mine, so to bring her and Suzan-Lori Parks to a new project working on Gershwin, was a perfect opportunity.  Diedre is a hybrid artist herself, so I think she really gets what’s special about this score. And Ron Brown is a revelation to me – I’ve admired his work for years and he’s such a deep soul, connected almost ancestrally to his way of movement and his style of working. I always felt a director throws out an idea and the cast gives another and together, we make a third thing that is better than either of our ideas. I’m always looking for a cast that will be creative partners in this process, and this is an extraordinary cast. Their interest in the history of the show is incredible. I think everybody involved feels like we are part of the next chapter of the history of this piece. That’s daunting but it’s also inspiring, and it makes us all apply ourselves in a way that looks backwards and deals reverentially with the past as well as thinking about who are these people today and what is the meaning of the story for a modern audience today.

What are you hoping audiences will experience when they come to the show?

My biggest dream is that people say ‘Oh my god! That music is incredible! The story is so beautiful and emotional in meaning… And those characters!’ I think that’s the power of musical theatre. It’s not just the great music. It’s the great book, the great characters. It’s who you’re rooting for. It’s the love stories. It’s that dimension of the experience of Porgy and Bess that I’m hoping audiences will come and walk away with. I’m also hoping that the next generation of audience arrives at the theatre and they can feel like this show was written yesterday… a visceral, powerful, immediate, moving story about this couple and this love story, this community and how they all struggled to survive.

Tell us about starting the show at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.).

Porgy and Bess originally began in Boston. You read these anecdotes of Gershwin walking the Boston Common after the first performance on September 30, 1935, and pulling his hair out making 45 minutes of cuts. This very special moment in the history of Porgy and Bess – this cultural moment for Boston where this show was born – it’s an amazing circle to come back and be working on it here again. At the American Repertory Theater I feel we’re dedicated to the American canon, and there is no greater work of the classical American cannon than Porgy and Bess. No question, it is one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century, and distinctly American. It doesn’t get any better than this!

Your last show on Broadway was HAIR. Tell me about returning with The Gershwins’ PORGY AND BESS.

It’s funny to me, HAIR couldn’t be more different than Porgy and Bess in some ways. But in other ways, HAIR is obviously about a tribe, and ensemble, and so is Porgy and Bess. You have these title characters, this love story, but Porgy and Bess is about Catfish Row, about this community. I’ve been thinking about Porgy and Bess in a way like a Greek tragedy: there’s a chorus, it’s about a community, big emotions, high stakes. The process has been very much working as a company – every person on stage understanding every detail of who they represent on Catfish Row and the power of the community. So, it’s different and it’s the same. It’s a glorious ensemble piece, and it’s also the thrill of living inside great, great music. For me, working on this opera as a musical theatre piece is putting together everything I love about working in theater – incredible scores, incredible music, a collaborative team of writers and choreographers and a cast, creating.

Another similarity with HAIR – we’re working very simply. That’s my interest, is bodies and actors, and how we can create drama in space without a lot of realistic scenery, and that was the way I worked on HAIR. It’s so much about the actors and how they transform space and tell story through their bodies in space. That process is central to what this has become.

THE GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS

Winner of the Tony for Best Musical Revival, Porgy and Bess features such classic songs from the Gershwins' legendary score as “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” plus a cast led by five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald.

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