In her first production as ART artistic director, Diane Paulus puts Shakespeare on the dance floor in ‘The Donkey Show’
It is official. The American Repertory Theater’s second stage, Zero Arrow Theater, is no longer.
The space has been transformed into club OBERON, a funky lounge featuring a dance floor, a full liquor license and two bars, cocktail tables, and the freedom to text, chat, drink, and dance - all while watching a show.
In Diane Paulus’s first production as ART’s artistic director, her desire to push the boundaries of the theater experience is being put to the test. “The Donkey Show,’’ a disco adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ opens the ART season at OBERON.
After the acclaim that came with directing the current Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of “Hair,’’ Paulus is ready for her next challenge. In fact, she’s hoping “The Donkey Show’’ - which she created with her husband, writer and producer Randy Weiner, more than 10 years ago in New York - will be so popular here it will be extended beyond its Oct. 31 end date.
“If it hits, it hits,’’ she says moments before jumping into the middle of rehearsals, pushing her actors to reach and stretch during a dance routine. Donna Summer’s “Last Dance’’ blares in the background as performers in Afro wigs and roller skates gyrate on the makeshift dance floor.
Will buttoned-down Bostonians and Cantabrigians show up? Paulus nods her head. “Our normal current audience - some of them will come and some of them won’t,’’ she predicts. “And that’s OK.’’
In fact, Paulus expects a new crowd, if past experience is any guide: young women looking for a groovy girl’s night out, “hustle couples’’ in their 60s who are taking dance lessons and want a spin around the dance floor.
A loosened-up audience is key to making “The Donkey Show’’ a success, Paulus says. The action, after all, starts outside of the building, where audience members wait in line for a doorman to let them in. Like at any trendy club worth its salt, the line should be long and buzzing with anticipation.
Characters from the show will come outside, im provise, and maybe even cause a scene. Once inside, the audience is welcome to belly up to the bars while a DJ spins funky ’70s dance hits like “We Are Family,’’ “I Love the Nightlife,’’ and “Ring My Bell.’’ There are cocktail tables for seating, but Paulus hopes that some audience members will be on the dance floor, mingling and waiting and, hopefully, dancing with actors who will be interspersed throughout.
“No one will be forced to participate,’’ she emphasizes. “If you want to stand shoulder to shoulder and watch and be left alone you will be. This is not interactive theater. I hate that word. No one is asked to do anything.’’
The show fits into Paulus’s vision for this ART season, which is divided into thematic festivals, including a cluster of shows called “Shakespeare Exploded!,’’ which “The Donkey Show’’ kicks off. (Later comes a spin on “Macbeth’’ in an abandoned building, and a gospel rendition of “The Winter’s Tale.’’)
Putting on shows in a club-like setting is not brand new for the ART; Zero Arrow served drinks during the run of “The Onion Cellar,’’ which featured local rock heroes the Dresden Dolls. But Paulus wants the line between performers and audience to melt away during the “Donkey Show.’’
One key detail: no Shakespeare is ever spoken during the hourlong production, which will erupt under spotlights trained on various parts of the club.
In creating the show, Paulus was inspired by the most famous - perhaps infamous - of all 1970s clubs, New York’s Studio 54.
“When I was like 16, I would go with my friends and pretend to be French and we’d try to play it off that we were these exotic French girls so we could get in,’’ Paulus tells her cast in a group meeting.
Despite all the glamour, “People associated Studio 54 with democracy on the dance floor,’’ she goes on to say. “You had Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Jones, Baryshnikov. They were all there side by side with the kids from Queens.’’
“I thought, I want to live in this world,’’ Paulus says. “I want to create this kind of fantasy world for an audience, with music, and dance, and style.’’
Paulus and Weiner decided Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’’ a romance filled with fantasy, could be adapted to ’70s music. Paulus insists one doesn’t have to know the Shakespeare story to enjoy “The Donkey Show,’’ but Shakespeare scholars will appreciate the subtle parallels.
In the ART version, the club stands in for the enchanted forest and the magic elixir that wreaks havoc looks suspiciously like cocaine.
The show was launched in a small room behind a downtown Manhattan club, where lava lamps and glitter brought the cramped space a little closer to Studio 54. Actors would put on their costumes in a nearby restaurant and head out into the street at 11 p.m. to attract attention.
Intrigued, people lined up for the show. After six months it moved to the Pyramid Club, a bigger space in the East Village. Soon, producer Jordan Roth helped make it an off-Broadway mainstay.
From 1999 to 2005, “The Donkey Show’’ ran at El Flamingo, a club on 21st Street. From there it toured London and Spain, with an all-Spanish cast. It’s played in Seoul for the past two years.
It helped make Paulus’s reputation. And now she’s brought it with her to Cambridge.
Not only has she brought the show, she’s also brought in three original cast members from New York. Besides performing the show for the first three weeks, they also trained the Cambridge cast, who take over fully after the show’s official opening on Sept. 12.
“We can’t re-create the New York show because we’re not in New York,’’ says actress Lucille Duncan, who played four different leads during the New York run. “But we will do a Cambridge show and we can do it just as well, if not better.’’
Cheryl Turski, who graduated from the ART/MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training in 2007, appreciates the guidance.
“I feel like I have this huge advantage because I get to understand all of the minutiae,’’ she says. “I get to watch [Duncan] and learn from her. Many actors don’t get that privilege.’’
Duncan says she has three pieces of advice for the Cambridge cast: Always stay in character, and be confident in your character. Take care of each other as performers - it’s different every night because the audience is different. And lastly, take care of the audience. If they don’t want to be brought along, leave them alone. Always be respectful, listen, and understand their body language.
“This show was one of the great loves of my life,’’ she says. “We were really able to connect to people in a powerful way that’s unique to the theater experience.’’
Who tends to like “The Donkey Show’’? “It’s the people you least expect,’’ Duncan answers without hesitation.’’ They come in standing to the side, and by the show’s end they are the ones who are up on the dance floor. We’ve seen it happen time and time again.’’