The first role Diane M. Paulus ’87 ever landed at Harvard was Portia in a Cabot House production of “The Merchant of Venice.” Shortly before the play began its run, however, Paulus was injured in a car accident and a cast was placed on her arm. “It became attributed to the director’s vision—Portia’s broken arm,” she said recently.
Now Paulus has a new role in Harvard drama. On May 16, she was named the new Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.), filling a role that had been occupied by interim director Gideon Lester. Her predecessor, Robert Woodruff, left the A.R.T. after his contract expired in December 2006. Woodruff’s exit sparked a 16-month search, during which one top candidate—Steppenwolf Theatre Company member Anna D. Shapiro, according to A.R.T. founding director and creative consultant Robert S. Brustein—turned down the job. But like Paulus’ broken arm, the search’s long duration is being viewed by A.R.T. observers not as a hindrance but as a possible windfall.
“This is the longest the A.R.T. has been without a leader,” Brustein said. According to Brustein, this hiring was conducted at a much slower pace than the appointment of Woodruff in 2002. “When I left the job, my successor was chosen in conference with [University] President [Neil L.] Rudenstine, [A.R.T. executive director] Rob Orchard, and myself. It was a different process, much speedier.”
But he’s at least happy with results of the hiring process. “I was hoping for a visionary, which I believe she is,” Brustein said. “She is an artist first, then an administrator.”
Nonetheless, administrative skills were a priority for the search committee, which was assembled by Provost Steven E. Hyman and consisted of Harvard faculty, members of the A.R.T.’s advisory and fiduciary boards, and local drama experts. According to the Boston Globe, Woodruff’s exit was prompted by disappointing ticket sales and rising budgets.
“The A.R.T. must expand its audience,” Orchard said in an e-mail. “As the number of patrons rises so will the income from ticket sales. Moreover, with an increased audience the A.R.T. will enjoy a larger base of patrons from whom to raise funds. Diane is keenly aware of this need.”
Paulus’ appointment also reflects another need. Despite the theatre’s association with Harvard, some have faulted the A.R.T. for not paying enough attention to the undergraduate population it was originally created to support.
In an interview last week, Hyman described this as a major concern of the search group. “We’re also looking for someone who wants to be at a university and who will have new and compelling ideas about how to engage our greatest resource, which is our students, and a finite number of people want to do that,” he said.
According to Brustein, the fact that Paulus is “Harvard-bred” was another selling point. “She’s familiar with us, and we’re familiar with her,” he said.
Laurence P. Senelick is also familiar with Harvard. The Tufts University drama professor earned two graduate degrees from Harvard, and he agreed that the focus of the A.R.T. needs to be returned to the students. But in his view, the blame lies partially with Brustein.
“Brustein never really connected with Harvard, or the curriculum at Harvard,” Senelick said. “He took over a theater that had been built for students and pushed them to the margin.”
Senelick also leveled criticism at the artistic output of the A.R.T. According to Senelick, the theater’s recent productions were considered “outdated or offputting” by members of the Cambridge drama community. Senelick said the A.R.T. requires greater changes to earn back its relevance.
“Let’s face it: the last regime was Brustein-lite,” he said. “It was the same producer, it was the same actors.”
Despite not being the University’s first choice, Paulus seems suited to provide the A.R.T. with a new vision.
“I’m looking forward to taking the A.R.T. into the future,” Paulus said. “I’m looking forward to reaching new audiences, in particular a younger generation of audiences and artists. And to me, the undergraduate student body is central to that.”
Paulus will be faced with the monumental task of not only restoring the theatre’s aesthetic, but also improving its financial viability and its status a haven for the study of drama.
“I think it’ll be a breath of fresh air,” Senelick said. “If she’s allowed to have her way.”
—Clifford M. Marks contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Jake G. Cohen can be reached at email@example.com.
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