Theaters today seem like hallowed ground, says Harvard's Diane Paulus, but that's not their natural state. Once, they had the same atmosphere as sport: visceral, alive, and indebted to its audience. How can we get back there?
Diane Paulus does for theatre what Susan Orlean did for orchids; she takes a subject that many think of as niche, uninteresting or eccentric and performs CPR on it through sheer passion and description.
Paulus is the Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater (ART) at Harvard University, and is the art form's greatest ambassador, but she isn’t so embedded in the world of theatre that she’s blind to its public perception. She can understand the knee-jerk allergy some people have to it – a hushed room with the house lights down, an invisible audience, and at times a stiff atmosphere. She knows what it’s like to fall asleep in a production better than anyone.
The fact is that theaters aren’t meant to be hallowed ground, and Paulus puts that standard down to the shift towards naturalism that occurred in the early 20th century. The old vaudeville houses were interactive; in gilded opera theatres, the lights used to stay up, the crowd as much of a spectacle and dramatic social circus as the one that was happening on stage.
Paulus likens it to sport; not all games or matches share one quiet, obedient audience. In golf, silence is customary, but in basketball, the crowd brings the energy and participates actively, even swaying the results of the game through their encouragement or distractions. Theater used to be that way too, with a spectrum of audience behaviors to match the tone of each production. The theater experience can rise out of its stagnant reputation, and for Paulus that means focusing on a theater director’s greatest collaborator: the audience.Find more about Diane Paulus at www.dianepaulus.net