As “Amaluna” brings a woman-centric Cirque show to a tent at the Mall of America, Tony-winning director Diane Paulus talks about what drew her to the wordless work.
What is Diane Paulus, the celebrated opera and theater director, doing staging a Cirque du Soleil show? ¶ “My whole life has always been about directing a show in a circus tent,” she said recently as she continued to bask in the glow of this year’s Tony win for “Pippin.” “I’ve wanted to break the fourth wall. I’ve wanted to use my skills in one dynamic work.” ¶ That work is “Amaluna,” Cirque’s first female-focused production. The show, which opens Thursday in a giant tent outside the Mall of America, follows an unspoken narrative that draws on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” ¶ “Amaluna” is set on an Eden-like island of women deities presided over by the queen, Prospera. ¶ “I come from a background of theater and opera, so I bring a sense of theater and narrative,” Paulus said. “I was clear that this is a Cirque show. There’s no script or language, but I aimed to create a sense of arc and character.”
Paulus, who heads the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, has become known for fetchingly contemporary productions of everything from Shakespearean romances to grand operas. Her imaginative work has drawn praise and consternation. Composer Stephen Sondheim took her to task for the changes she and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks made to the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.”
But the show was loved by Tony voters, who gave it the trophy for best musical revival in 2012. (“Porgy and Bess” comes to St. Paul’s Ordway Center in March 2014.)
In 2009, Paulus’ revival of “Hair” also won the Tony before launching a North American tour. In June, she won best director for her revival of “Pippin,” which made a star of Tony-winner Patina Miller and remains one of Broadway’s hottest tickets. “Pippin” bested heavy favorite “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” and a well-regarded production of “Annie.”
Before she became a Broadway darling, Paulus broke into the mainstream with “The Donkey Show,” her disco adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that ran off-Broadway for six years. In 2007, she directed “Fashion 47” at the Children’s Theatre.
Almost pursued politics
Like her idol, Julie Taymor, Paulus has become a major-domo in American theater. Yet she almost ran away from what seems today like her obvious destiny.
Paulus grew up in Manhattan immersed in the arts. Her father was a CBS executive. Her mother was a Japanese émigré. Her parents met during the American occupation of postwar Japan.
“He was in his 50s when I was born,” she said of her father. “There’s that nature-nurture argument. He would make me read the New York Times out loud and would correct me. He dragged me to the theater starting at [age] 3.”
She danced in New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” at 8 and George Balanchine’s famous suite, “The Firebird,” at 9.
Despite such early excitement, she thought her dream job lay not in the arts but in law and politics.
“I wanted to be mayor of New York,” she said.
She rethought that goal after her freshman year at Harvard, when she interned with Manhattan political leader Ruth Messinger.
“I was at this meeting with the Coalition for the Homeless and I started making diagrams of how they’re going to get the food out in the vans,” she said, adding that it dawned on her that she did not want to be a politician.
“I wanted to be in that van, delivering food,” she said. “I wanted to be in the trenches.”
Theater provided that sense of rush, of doing things.
“If you ask me to stay up all night rehearsing a play, I would do it willingly and wouldn’t even be aware of the time passing,” she said. “I was lucky enough to have such a moment in college. I got to do ‘Hair.’ I just had this deep realization that I loved the theater. Why not do what you love, because if you do, you can pour everything into it, all physical and mental and psychic energies.”