American Repertory Theater leader nurtures a string of hits

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NEW YORK -- It drives Diane Paulus nuts, seeing people asleep in their theater seats. Not because she considers it a breach of playgoing etiquette. No, the torture for this Tony-winning director is the possibility that what's happening onstage is of such marginal interest that it works on some portion of the audience as a sedative.

"You never see a person sleeping at a sporting event!" she said the other day, as she munched on a cheeseburger in a Times Square restaurant. "I mean, what are we doing wrong if people feel more engaged at home with their laptops?"

It's worries of this nature that Ms. Paulus bundled up five years ago and carried with her to Cambridge, Mass., to take leadership of the American Repertory Theater, a respected if not inordinately high-profile company affiliated with Harvard University and founded by critic and director Robert Brustein.

And wouldn't you know, wake up the organization she did, initiating and importing a slew of projects that have propelled ART into the ranks of the most exciting outlets in the nation for musicals and plays both new and reconsidered.

One of ART's reinterpreted classics, a revival titled "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," makes its way to Washington's National Theatre this week on a national tour spawned by the production's Tony-winning, 293-performance run on Broadway. The touring show will be presented by PNC Broadway Across America -- Feb. 25 to March 2 at the Benedum Center.

The New York production that starred Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis and David Alan Grier won the best musical revival Tony in 2012 over, among others, the Kennedy Center's "Follies"; the cast of the road company is headed by Alicia Hall Moran as Bess, Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy and Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life.

"Porgy and Bess" has historic ties to Washington. In 1936, the cast of a touring production, led by Todd Duncan as Porgy, forced the National to allow the opera to be seen by an integrated audience.

The current production leapt onto Broadway from ART's 540-seat Loeb Drama Center as one of an astonishing string of hits that the 47-year-old Paulus has sent into the world. The revival of "Pippin" that won the Tony for best musical revival in June (Ms. Paulus won as best director) is doing boffo box office in New York, as is the revival of "The Glass Menagerie" that debuted at the Loeb.

"Once," which won the 2012 Tony for best original musical, had its premiere a year earlier in Ms. Paulus's theater, and "Sleep No More," the wildly successful interactive mystery, had its first American toehold courtesy of a run at ART. This is not to mention "All the Way," a new drama by Robert Schenkkan about President Lyndon Johnson and his drive to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed. It comes to Broadway in the spring after a sold-out engagement in Cambridge, with "Breaking Bad's" Bryan Cranston as LBJ.

It is hard to come up with another American company whose creative footprint at the moment is making such a deep impression on the country's theater. Ms. Paulus, who has her undergraduate degree from Harvard and later took acting classes from director Mike Nichols, emerged as an off-Broadway director in the 1990s, with offbeat ventures such as "Running Man," a jazz-inflected chamber musical that in 1999 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Her ascendancy really began, though, with another off-Broadway production that same year: "The Donkey Show," a version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" set in a disco. "The Donkey Show" stamped Ms. Paulus as a director who could meet audiences at the seductive juncture of highbrow and low. All these years later, the piece is a fixture at ART, where it's performed on Saturdays in the group's second stage.

Over time, you can see how the idea of giving audiences opportunities for intimate encounters with the work has been a Paulus hallmark. In her Tony-winning revival of "Hair," for example, she invited the audience onto the stage at evening's end, for a nightly dancing be-in.

"The world changed, but I don't think the art was reflecting the world we live in," Ms. Paulus said.


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