The American Repertory Theater under Diane Paulus has become known primarily for two things: its emphasis on theater shot through with music and its determination to tear down the boundaries between performer and audience.
But the ART's 2011-12 season, Paulus's third as artistic director, shows another way in which she's setting the company apart: The lineup features a bounty of female playwrights and directors.
"Thank you for noticing," Paulus said this morning by phone, waiting at the airport for the shuttle that would bring her back to Boston from New York. "I think we have some shockingly not-so-good statistics as an industry about women in director roles and women as writers."
The season will kick off Aug. 17-Oct. 2 at the Loeb Drama Center with a project spearheaded by women. "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and Obie Award-winning composer Diedre Murray, is directed by Paulus.
Four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald will play Bess, joined by Norm Lewis as Porgy and David Alan Grier as Sporting Life. With 22 performers onstage and 18 musicians in the orchestra, the musical-theater "reimagining" of George and Ira Gershwin's classic opera will be the largest show the ART has ever staged, Paulus said.
Currently in the midst of workshopping the piece in New York, she said the goal is to edit the nearly four-hour opera to under three hours while leaving intact its heart, famous songs included. At the same time, Parks has been adding to the libretto in order to clarify the story and "make it a more viable piece dramatically," Paulus said.
George Gershwin, she said, "was a mash-up artist way out of his time," hanging out with jazz pianist Fats Waller even as he idolized Austrian composer Alban Berg. "He really wrote a piece for the people, for a popular audience, and I think it doesn't really reach that audience." With Broadway talent onstage and Broadway producers behind it, the adaptation is intended to do that.
Rachel Chavkin's production of "Three Pianos," an off-Broadway hit that won a 2010 Obie Award, is next in the season, running at the Loeb Dec. 7, 2011-Jan 8, 2012. Written, arranged, and performed by Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy, it's a tour through Franz Schubert's "Winterreise" with audience interaction.
"There is literally wine that is being poured for the audience, and you are toasting as if you are part of the Schubert salon," Paulus said.
Members of the ART/MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training's graduating class will star in Shakespeare's "As You Like It," running Jan. 13-28, 2012, at the Loeb. Featuring the students on the main stage is an initiative Paulus started at the ART, which drew full houses to the institute's "Alice vs. Wonderland" last fall.
"Wild Swans," a co-production with London's Young Vic, will make its world premiere Feb. 11-March 11, 2012, at the Loeb. Adapted by British playwright Alexandra Wood, it's based on Jung Chang's 1991 memoir about three generations of women in her family -- Chang, her mother, and her grandmother -- living through the political turmoil of 20th-century China.
Paulus was directing an opera at the Young Vic in 2008 when the ART was looking for a new artistic director and she got the call asking if she was interested in throwing her hat into the ring. The "Wild Swans" collaboration came about when Young Vic artistic director David Lan, a mentor to Paulus, wanted to team with an American theater for the project, partly because the United States has a deeper pool of Asian actors than Britain does.
"Futurity," a world-premiere musical by New York indie rockers The Lisps, will run March 16-April 15, 2012, at Oberon. Sarah Benson, who helmed "Ajax" at the ART this season, will direct the show, which has music and lyrics by CÚsar Alvarez with The Lisps and a book by Molly Rice and CÚsar Alvarez.
The band, which is slated to play Oberon May 15 at the closing party for this year's Emerging America festival, describes the show on its website as a "Civil War sci-fi musical" and "theatrically staged song cycle" about a Union soldier and aspiring inventor who imagines a high-tech future.
"It's kind of steampunk," Paulus said.
A sixth subscription-series production, which she said will run in May 2012, is to be announced.