“I just happened to be there, down near the wharf and I saw the tent,” says Paulus. “I was with my now-husband, and we went in, got a ticket and said, ‘Wow, what a show!’ It was an introduction to a world I’d never known before.”
It was a new kind of circus. Cofounded by Guy Laliberté in 1984, and based in Montreal, it was called Cirque du Soleil – circus of the sun. There was this choreographed explosion of acrobats, aerialists and jugglers and pulsing live music with an underlying theme – the celebration of life.
That show was “Saltimbanco,” and for Diane Paulus, theater fan, it was a dazzling entry into the multi-layered world of Cirque du Soleil. Eighteen years later, Paulus brought her multiple talents to the Cirque’s “Amaluna.” Paulus is the artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre, a 2013 Tony winner for directing “Pippin.” She was nominated for a directing Tony in 2009 for “Hair” and in 2012 “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” (Both won Best Revival of a Musical.)
For “Amaluna,” Paulus, who is 47, injected her ideas about how music, theater, dance and acrobatics coalesce. The show settles in for a month-plus at Boston’s Marine Industrial Park May 29-July 6. And for yet another notch on her CV, Paulus, who spoke to us from New York, was just named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
JSInk: You’ve had a lot of success with productions at the A.R.T. and recognition on Broadway with Tony nominations and awards. You’re a busy, in-demand woman. So, what made you want to take on this collaboration?
I got a call from Cirque asking if I was interested in directing for them and I immediately said yes, as I’m a huge fan of their work. And then I found out they wanted a show in their Big Top, one that was homage to women, so that really piqued my interest .That began the journey in 2010. We opened in Montreal, April 2012.
As a director, is your work done now?
The director’s work is done in terms of the creation, but I get show reports after every single performance. I’m reading what happens at every show every day every place “Amaluna” has been across the country. If we need to make changes, if there are cast changes, I’m consulted and involved.
Has there been much tweaking? (Not to be confused with twerking.
Yes, more than a Broadway show, frankly. Because artists change, specialties change because every acrobatic artist is different. Different artists bring different skills. This show has really evolved and settled over the two years in really beautiful ways. We made changes today that I’ll see for the first time tonight [in New York, late April.
Give me an example of a change.
Today, for Prospero, the lead character, we added her into the acrobatic act as a singer. I’d always wanted to do that, to have her integrated into the staging more holistically and we finally implemented that. And then there are little acting moments, I’ll change to make clearer or more defined.
You’re directing acrobats and aerialists, not actors. What’s the difference and what’s the challenge?
It’s very different because acrobats are athletes and they can’t repeat things too many times. With an actor you can say, “Try it this way! Try it that way! Try it on your head! Try it ten times!” and that’s your rehearsal. But acrobats, they’ve got maybe two or three in them at a rehearsal, if even. It’s really athletic, but look, the athletes that are here at Cirque are here as artists. They have made a decision to be in a theatrical space and they understand this is not just about getting a 10 from the judges. This is about moving an audience and communicating.
You are bringing your considerable reputation with you and they’re bringing this incredible athleticism, balance and precision with them. I’m not suggesting either side would be intimidated but …
It’s all about respect. Respect for what the artists are bringing, so they understand that I understand their concept and their craft. Most of the people that come to Cirque have perfected their act on their own. That’s the old circus model. They’ve sewn their costumes, they’ve done their own lighting, they’ve toured their act around the world, so to be part of a larger process and a larger show is an act of trust. And you really do have to build that trust.
So, surrounded by this athletic skill, were you tempted to do anything that they do?
No. My whole identity as a director is I live vicariously through other people. I look and I feel it, but I let them do it. I think my daughters wanted to go high in the air, but not me.
I’ve seen many Cirque du Soleil shows. One thing I’ve found is that the first few times you see the Cirque it’s an incredible rush, so fresh and daring, so colorful and magical. But some of that wears off the more shows you see. You begin to expect certain bits, and the pleasure can ratchet down a bit as familiarity sets in. Did you ever feel that or feel you had to get this show past that?
I really wanted to bring something new to Cirque, bringing some theater elements to a stronger place in the show. To have an audience care about the action in a way that you would care about characters in a narrative. The emotional journey, for me as a director is really what I’m interested in and you can just go so far with thrills and chills.
There’s a feminist theme, perhaps, and certainly a female thrust to the show. Were you part of writing this?
Yes. An homage to women was the only thing I was told. Then we started a two years developmental process in their Montreal headquarters. There’s myself and Randy Weiner, who’s my husband – he came on board as dramaturg. We had designers and creative directors from the Cirque. There are pictures on the walls, storyboards, ideas tossed in the air – an acrobatic metaphor! – things thrown on their head and tried and changed and revised to come to what we have as “Amaluna.” I brought a lot of theatrical ideas to the table, using aspects of “The Tempest,” aspects of Greek mythology, Persephone, mother-daughter imagery, a little “Magic Flute” in terms of young love being tested and put through different trials. And then sewing that all together in a show that has no words. We built a narrative, but this is not a Broadway show with book, scenes and lyrics. It’s a very specific challenge of how you get character, a through-line and an arc in a show.
All your musicians are female and I’m told the percentage of women in the production is 70 percent. Do you feel you’re correcting an inherent imbalance?
Well, the typical ratio is the exact opposite, 30 percent women. Often women tend to be the icing on the cake and the idea here was to put the female virtuosity that exists in the world on display. So there was a real commitment on the part of the Cirque du Soleil casting department to scout, recruit and bring women together for the show. That alone was a thrilling process. And there are acts that have been built for this show – like we have an uneven bar act which is called the Amazon Act. We got top uneven bar athletes from Australia and America and all over the place. They came to Montreal nine months in advance of the first day of rehearsal and started training as a team because there was no such thing as an uneven bar team act. To have an all-female uneven bar act, that’s new. That’s really exciting to see that onstage and feel that power. We also have some incredible male acrobats in the show as well. There’s the yin to the yang, as well.
I’m thinking of the vibe from that 1985 Eurythmics’ song “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.”
Yeah. But you know I was less interested in creating a show that had a woman’s agenda than in creating a good piece of theater. At the center of it we have characters that are women: a mother, a daughter, a community of women at the initiation of a young girl/woman. It was those ideas that interested me, but I also wanted a love story, and to see, like in Shakespeare, clown acts that reflect the main narrative line. Clowns fall in love just like the young girl and the young boy, so I was playing with all different elements of theater that give women a chance to do their thing.
So, there are clowns involved?
There are clowns. And they’re women – two female clowns.
Are they good? Sorry, I’m not a clown person.
I know! It’s hard! But it’s a part of the circus.
I admit with Cirque I often lose track of the storyline and just get lost in the kinetic flow and mesh of the acrobatics, dance and music. I’ll read the program notes later for the “story,” but I’m not even sure it matters Do you think it matters?
I think the intention of the artists is really specific: to have a through-line, to play characters, so it really matters in terms of their performance and I think the effect it has on the audience is your attention is carried from one event to the next. That has a cumulative impact of not just being a variety show of incredible things.
Maybe the interpretation of what’s happening is very much up to the person in the seats. Their perception may be something entirely different than from what you envisioned.
Yeah, I’m a great believer of freedom in the theater. As a creator, you have to be utterly specific and rigorous and personal – and then the beauty of the theater is that space where the audience completes the equation through their eyes. In that sense, it is very individual and collective because you’re there in a room together.
In the way your career has moved – bringing more music and dance to theater – this seems in some ways a culmination of what you’ve been working toward.
I felt as a director I’d always been interested in directing a circus-in-a- theater, always that breaking-the-fourth-wall and making an environment that acknowledged that an audience is present. Here at Cirque du Soleil, I had that opportunity to really direct a circus, with a Big Top and a tent and the incredible resources and talent a Cirque show brings to the process. It is kind of like a dream to do this show.
Would you do another one?
Sure. There’s a lot on my plate right now but …
The door would be open.
Note: We spoke with Paulus before the Time 100 accolade. In a statement, she said: “I am deeply honored by this recognition, which for me, is a tribute to the incredible collaboration I have enjoyed over the last several years with the many artists, audiences, producers, and advocates of the arts that I have been lucky enough to work with, including the extraordinary team at the American Repertory Theater and Harvard University. It has always been my goal for theater to have an impact on the world we live in, as I know it can and should, and to be represented on this list is a thrilling sign that we are on our way.”
Cirque du Soleil’s “Amaluna” at the Boston Industrial Marine Park May 29-July 6 (may be extended). Tickets: $35-$150. (Group packages available.) www.cirquedusoleil.com/amaluna 866-624-7783