How Harvard Square Inspires the American Repertory Theater
as told to lisa pierpont| April 25, 2014 |
American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus considers Harvard Square her muse.
Diane Paulus was studying government and law at Harvard when she fell in love with theater.
Diane Paulus may have roots in Manhattan, but her soul lives in Harvard Square—and her heart beats in the halls of the American Repertory Theater, where she is the Tony Award–winning artistic director. This is where she discovered her love of theater as a college sophomore at Harvard College. Since then, Paulus has devoted her career to updating the definition of theater, mostly through highly interactive performances (audiences find themselves doing the hustle along with the actors in The Donkey Show) and modernized adaptations of the classics (cross-dressing Marie Antoinette bodyguards, anyone?). From May 11 to June 15, Shakespeare’s The Tempest will be presented in true Diane Paulus form—a mash-up featuring magic created by Teller (of the legendary duo Penn & Teller), balladry by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, and a set design inspired by the Dust Bowl. Paulus has been rewarded generously for her unconventional productions, nabbing the most prestigious awards in her industry. She credits Harvard Square for offering sustenance and inspiration for her work.
“I first came to Harvard Square back in 1984, when I was a freshman living in Harvard Yard. You could literally tumble out of bed into the Square. I remember walking the streets as an 18-year-old—feeling adult for the first time, breathing in the intellectual electricity that was in the air. To this day, you can still feel the energy of great minds of the past and of the future, all intersecting in this bustling town square.
Diane Paulus’s old dorm, Cabot House.
The most important place for me, of course, is the halls of the American Repertory Theater. I had been pursuing government and law at Harvard, but then I discovered the A.R.T. It completely changed my life. I would walk up and down the halls. I even took a poster of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame off the wall and hung it in my dorm at Cabot House. Now that very same poster is in my office. I would drag my Harvard roommates to all the shows. I once ran into [actress] Cherry Jones in the bathroom, and I told her I wanted to be an actor. I couldn’t believe how special the theater was—everything I saw was world-class. I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I completely changed my direction because of the A.R.T.
When Diane needs inspiration, she often heads to the Charles River.
I also am madly in love with the Charles River. When I first came to Harvard, I used to sit by the river and just think. My boyfriend—now my husband—and I would spread a blanket with our books and study. My spot was just at the bottom of the JFK bridge because his dorm was Winthrop House, right across the street. I still go there when I’m having a mental block. I tell myself, “Stop this and get out!” and I take a run along the Charles. That’s always how I get a breakthrough.
On a much less profound level, my favorite cup of coffee is at Darwin’s on Mount Auburn Street. It is completely under the radar, and they make the best lattes. Anyone who works in theater knows you live on lattes. Whenever I meet Bob Brustein [the founding A.R.T. artistic director], who is my mentor, we meet here. This is very dorky, but I adore the Border Café. It’s been there forever. When it first opened, it was the hippest place to go on a date. I would stand in line—the lines were enormous!—with my now-husband, but it was worth the wait. We still go there today, with our kids, and it is still my husband’s favorite place.
The Diane Paulus burger—with a fried egg, bacon, cheese, and maple syrup—at Mr. Bartley’s.
This is random, but one day, my actors from Witness Uganda ran into my office and told me that a hamburger had been named after me at Mr. Bartley’s. They had actually taken a photograph of it—the Diane Paulus hamburger is right below the Beyoncé burger. It comes with a fried egg, bacon, cheese, and maple syrup. It is the best burger I have ever had in my life—and quite a claim to fame. I carry a picture of it on my iPhone.”