Written by Diane Paulus, Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University.
I was in grad school assisting Andrei Serban in France and we were doing Massenet’s opera Thaïs
. It was the premiere and at the end of the first act there was this pause. Someone from the top ring stood up and screamed down to the stage "Mettre en scène au toilette" which [roughly] means "The direction is in the toilet!" When it was over I went backstage and the French stage manager said, "I'm so sorry. That was so embarrassing." And I said "It’s great! I wish we could be like this in America."
It’s a terrifying thing to really take audience participation that far, but it's something that excites me. If they want to quietly watch, that's fine. However, if they want to stand up, cheer, boo or talk, they should be able to. An audience should be free to have any organic response. I often think of my experience with kids as an example.
Once, I had a small company out of grad school and we were performing a melodramatic version of Frankenstein
. One of the collaborators, Alfred Preisser, used to run The Classical Theater of Harlem and was a teacher at The Harlem School for the Arts. So, on Halloween, we were invited to do the show in the lobby of the school.
There were about 500 kids in this atrium—it wasn't even a theater. The kids went wild. My collaborator Randy and I were there and we were just amazed that the kids were screaming at the monster, "Don't do it! Run! Run!" When the villagers in the play tried to burn the monster and all the kids were screaming, I was amazed as an impressionable young director. It was so alive. The kids were so unedited; they were just talking to actors from the get-go. To me it was the most incredible, pure theatrical interaction.
Then, the next day, Alfred came down to the theater. "Boy did I get my hand slapped for that experience," he said. "We were trying to teach the kids in the school to be well behaved in the theater. You are quiet, you pay attention, you do not talk to the performers."
I often think about this because I want audiences 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, "The referee is wrong! Play better!" The kind of passion for a team that comes from those fans is invigorating. They care about it, they know it, they're in on it. What is the etiquette we're teaching kids about the theater?
Of course I get it—it's not always appropriate to go to the theater and scream and hoot and holler. However, 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, noisy, interactive or 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.
Editor's Note: This post first appeared as two separate posts on our blog during our 2011-12 Season. It has been edited for clarity.
Diane Paulus is the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University, and was selected for the 2014 TIME 100, TIME Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Paulus is the 2013 recipient of the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical (
Waitress (currently on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater),
Crossing (a new American opera with music and libretto by Matt Aucoin),
Finding Neverland (currently on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre),
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,
Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera,
Best of Both Worlds,
The Donkey Show. Her other recent work includes Cirque du Soleil’s
Amaluna, currently on tour in Europe,
Invisible Thread at Second Stage, The Public Theater’s Tony Award-winning revival of
HAIR on Broadway and London’s West End. As an opera director, her credits include
The Magic Flute, the complete Monteverdi cycle, and the trio of Mozart-Da Ponte operas, among others. Diane is Professor of the Practice of Theater in Harvard University’s English Department. She was selected as one of
Variety’s “Trailblazing Women in Entertainment for 2014” and
Boston Magazine’s "50 Thought Leaders of 2014."