I’m paraphrasing Diane Paulus, artistic director of the ART, in her opening plenary address to the annual Americans for the Arts Conference, today in Boston. Art is antidote to information overwhelm. It causes us to pause, and in the best of circumstances to be present—and to go deeper than the surface of an idea, a feeling, or an event. If the theme of this OHA season has to do with how we deal with a world spinning too quickly, Paulus has one answer.
Echoing in many ways Orlando director Natalya Baldyga’s beautiful and passionate post three days ago, Paulus begins by telling us that the speech she had been planning radically changed last Sunday in the wake of the shootings in Orlando. “I make theater,” she says, “because it is a forum to ask questions. To live inside questions. To push boundaries with questions. To provoke with questions. “ She tells young directors, “If the theater you create is banal, it is most likely because you have not asked a big enough question.”
Paulus’ tenure at the ART, like Rob Orchard, Polly Carl, and David Dower’s at ArtsEmerson, like Melanie Joseph’s at Foundry Theater, and on and on, has been signally engaged with how to get the big questions in the water, to get them to live in the staff and artistic teams, in the audiences, and those who don’t usually come to theater, those who we in theater are often talking about. Those of you who know the Opera House know that that was the OHA founders’ goal as well, in the post-show conversations, invited rehearsals, and Shakespeare-in-Stonington reads, and in general the commitment to listening to our community, making work that responds to this community. I am moved and heartened by the new additions and directions in which Meg Taintor, the new Producing Artistic Director at the Opera House, is taking these efforts.
Here are a few of them: Preparation for the summer season begins with sit-down read-throughs of the season’s plays. You are invited. Next, Page One conversations are held with each director, to apprehend their vision, their big questions, to—get everybody on staff on the same page before the rehearsal process begins, to understand how to market the shows, to understand to whom to reach out, to whom to ask questions. The whole staff attends, and community is invited. YOU are invited. To read, to listen, to ask your big questions.
This week there was a sneak-peek at an Orlando rehearsal. YOU were invited, and will be again. Come! And if there is any question about how theater slows time down, observing just this one thing: how in rehearsal a gesture is taken apart, again and again and again, to make it visible in terms of sight lines—can everybody see this!?—and visible in terms of what it communicates, to the other actors, to the audience, about the character—will answer that question. Liz Rimar is sublime in giving us a turn of the wrist that is at one moment male and in the next female, whatever that means. Feel how that sets loose something in your gut.
Paulus, in her also Harvard role these days, actually begins the remark about time slowing down by talking about how college offers this to young people. Scholarship, at many levels, offers it to us all. Pausing . . . to think things through, to find out what we mean.
Shout out to Linda Nelson who at this very moment is at the Americans for the Arts conference and texted me to say: Watch this now! You can watch Paulus’ speech on Youtube (Diane Paulus, Opening Plenary: Arts and Engaged Citizenship—but you’ll need to skip to hour two, precisely, past the welcomes and awards), and I cannot recommend it enough.