Paulus Attempts to Get In Students' Hair

Beads, flowers, freedom, and happiness abound in New York City these days. Well, not really but the “Age of Aquarius” has come back to Broadway with the new revival of “Hair,” and 50 Harvard College students got a sneak peek at its final dress rehearsal a day before previews began on March 6. Sponsored by the Office for the Arts at Harvard (OFA), the event gave the attendees an insider’s view of the making of a Broadway musical. It is emblematic of the new direction the College has taken in an attempt to provide off-campus artistic experiences for students.

“Hair” is directed by Diane M. Paulus ’87, artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre. Generally considered the definitive rock musical, “Hair” debuted at The Public Theatre in 1967, where it returned this past summer for a successful run—also directed by Paulus—before it moved to its current home on Broadway.

In an attempt to forge a connection with students involved in theater, Paulus provided the tickets. “Diane Paulus is really passionate about wanting to strengthen ties with students and the OFA,” says Eric C. Engel, director of the Memorial Hall/Lowell Hall Complex and one of the chaperones of the trip. “It’s a big deal to open a show like this, so it’s a great opportunity to celebrate her work and support her and learn from her. Offering tickets to the rehearsal was a wonderful gesture.”

Students were equally excited to take part in the unique experience. Paulus’ invitation to undergraduates is representative of the emphasis she places on inclusiveness. “Paulus is currently planning her first season at the A.R.T., and I was really hoping to get a preview of the kind of theater we can expect from them now that she’s in charge,” Matthew C. Stone ’11 says. “It’s great to have someone at the head of the A.R.T. who clearly cares so much about the undergraduate theater community and is willing to work with the OFA and student groups to bring us these opportunities.”

Inclusiveness was a feature that was also incorporated into the show itself. Audience involvement has been one of the many aspects that have made the revival so successful, even in its early stages. “Paulus seeks to break down the idea that the audience is a passive entity in theater, which doesn’t necessarily work for every production, but it was certainly the right way to go with ‘Hair,’” Elizabeth J. Krane ’11 says.

The entire production of “Hair”—a show that chronicles the stories of a group of hippies, led by idealistic Claude (Gavin Creel) and rebellious Berger (Will Swenson), as they deal with sex, love, politics, and the counterculture of the sixties—has an organic feel. Oriental rugs cover the stage and spill out into the orchestra seating. Cast members freely interact with the audience, even wandering onstage to perform yoga before the show begins. “Hair”—part rock concert and part Broadway spectacle—is also part Human Be-In. Like the sentiments created by “be-ins,” a phenomenon of the 1960s that revolved around protesting authority, “Hair” manifests the concept of audience interactivity by making the show not just a show, but rather, a group experience.

All of these elements come together after the curtain call as the audience joins the cast onstage in an exuberant dance to “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In),” the closing number of the show.

Although “Hair” does not officially open on Broadway until March 31, there were few technical or creative missteps to be found. The ensemble, also known as the Tribe, works as one joyous, lively unit. Creel’s beautiful, smooth voice and compelling acting sustain his character, Claude, as the emotional core of the show, while Swenson’s Berger provides a perfect counterbalance of raw power and sexuality. Big numbers such as “Aquarius,” “I Got Life,” and the corresponding “Black Boys” and “White Boys,” crackle with energy and electricity. Claude’s joy could easily be stemming from the success of the production as he sings, “I got life, mother. I got laughs, sister. I got freedom, brother. I got good times, man.”

Good times and building bridges were the themes of the day, a success for the OFA’s attempt to encourage communication with undergraduates involved with or interested in professional theater. “It’s great to see new faces that we don’t work with a lot. The trip has bridged a lot of gaps between people active in theater here and people who are just interested in theater,” says Dana Knox, production coordinator of the New College Theatre.

Yet the extent to which connections have been forged between these two groups remains uncertain. The trip was advertised mostly through Harvard arts forums, such as the OFA newsletter “The Beat,” the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s newsletter, and the OFA’s Facebook group, so it comes as no surprise that many of the attendees are already heavily involved in theater.

“The OFA’s ‘Hair’ trip had good intentions in attempting to bring together diverse groups of people, but I don’t think its goals were met,” says an active member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club who requested not to be identified. “The students who are already involved in theater and who know Diane Paulus, even if only on a name-recognition basis, went not only to see the dress rehearsal of ‘Hair’ but also to support her work. I’m not sure the students who did not know of Diane beforehand actually appreciate any more the fact that Diane Paulus is the director at the A.R.T. or will come see more theater and get more involved because of it.”

Still, the trip to “Hair” is a hopeful sign that collaborations between the OFA, the A.R.T., and students will continue far into the future. This event has laid the first brick towards building increased and rare opportunities for undergraduates to encounter art outside of the College. “If the OFA and A.R.T. continue working together, the theater scene at Harvard will become more cohesive,” Stone says, “and there will be more occasions for students to have experiences in the professional theater like this.”

In other words, let the sun shine in.

—Staff writer Ali R. Leskowitz can be reached at aleskow@fas.harvard.edu.