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To change, or not to change?

Attendance is way up, but some say ART’s artistic director has gone too commercial

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / August 22, 2010
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The mounted photographs, proudly displaying three decades of American Repertory Theater productions, have been taken down. Instead, visitors to Cambridge’s Loeb Drama Center are greeted by posters of a nearly topless Amanda Palmer, star of an upcoming production, and blown-up newspaper articles praising ART artistic director Diane Paulus.

That’s not all that has changed. As Paulus heads into her second season at ART, she has largely replaced the company’s steady diet of serious avant-garde productions with audience-pleasing musicals and adventurous interactive experiences. She has been a commercial smash, while shedding actors — and longtime staffers — who defined the company for decades.

Now, she’s facing the ultimate byproduct of success, a backlash. To her supporters, Paulus is a crowd-inspiring theater revolutionary. To her detractors, she is the Broadway-obsessed, box-office-driven director who has dismantled a prized institution.

The changes have prompted three high- profile board resignations, including that of founding director Robert Brustein, and a scathing open letter from former ART actor Will LeBow. In his letter, circulated to members of the arts community and to administrators at Harvard, which oversees the ART, LeBow compares Paulus’s initial season to “a drug like cocaine’’ and her Shakespeare-lite, musical-heavy programming as a “con job.’’ (Read the full text of the letter at www.lebowtheatreessay.blogspot.com.)

“I wrote it first and foremost for my mental health,’’ said LeBow, who had acted in more than 50 ART productions since 1993 before being passed over in Paulus’s first season. “Just sitting and watching something I thought was truly a great company dissolve into commercial theater, it’s a heartbreak to me.’’

Change is natural when a new leader takes over an organization. But even Paulus’s boosters say they have been amazed by the transformation at ART. More than a dozen staffers are gone, including three top officials who arrived at Harvard with Brustein in 1980.

Nancy Simons, the ART’s comptroller for 29 years until this summer, describes the atmosphere inside the company as “poisonous’’ and says Paulus has isolated and devalued veteran staff. In July, Brustein quietly resigned from the company’s advisory board. This month, longtime ART supporters Eileen McDonagh and Bob Davoli resigned from ART’s advisory board and board of trustees, respectively.

“The problem as we see it,’’ Davoli and McDonagh wrote to Paulus, “is that you are destroying the heritage of the ART by making it into something completely different — a place to preview musicals heading for Broadway, musicals in general, and sensory-saturated productions generating visceral experiences that often include pandering to sexual appetites.’’

That, of course, is one side. On the other, Paulus supporters praise her for reviving what they say had become a moribund institution, attracting new audiences with lively, boundary-breaking productions.

Paulus, whose 2009 Tony Award-winning Broadway production of “Hair’’ earned rave reviews and big crowds, said she arrived at the ART to find theatergoers and board members telling her they had been driven away by the ART’s seeming indifference toward its audience.

“All I can tell you is that for a year, I had to go out on the campaign trail and shake people’s hands and say, ‘Please come back to the ART, please give us a second chance,’ ’’ Paulus said recently by phone from New York, where she was rehearsing a concert production of “The Capeman’’ at the Public Theater.

Chris De Camillis, ART’s artistic coordinator since 1998, says Paulus faced considerable internal resistance. Longtime staffers questioned her plan to turn the company’s second stage, Zero Arrow Theatre, into Oberon, a theatrical nightclub. They whispered in the hallway about their distaste for her programming. Any “poisonous’’ atmosphere came from them, says De Camillis.

And supporters point to a boom at the box office. In Paulus’s first season, 143,933 people attended shows at the Loeb, Oberon, and old Lincoln School in Brookline, where the British company Punchdrunk staged the interactive “Macbeth’’ adaptation “Sleep No More’’ as part of Paulus’s “Shakespeare Exploded!’’ festival. That total — which includes 10,643 for non-ART shows at Oberon — was nearly twice the previous year’s 74,623.

Nothing exemplified the change in tone more than Paulus’s smash revival of “The Donkey Show,’’ an interactive, Studio 54-inspired disco adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’’ conceived by Paulus’s husband, playwright and nightclub impresario Randy Weiner. It sold more than 40,000 tickets, and audiences could boogie along with male go-go dancers under the show’s glittering mirror ball. Compare that with such heady fare in recent seasons as Sartre’s “No Exit,’’ Racine’s “Britannicus,’’ Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen,’’ and Beckett’s “Endgame.’’

“I have watched audiences in this building for 12 years,’’ said De Camillis. “I watched them disappear and I watched them reappear. This year, I watched people jump with joy at the end of shows.’’

ART could not provide detailed budget figures for Paulus’s first year, but Donald Ware, chairman of the board of trustees, said he expected the theater, which has a $10.9 million operating budget, to break even this year. In the previous four years, deficits ranged from $1.9 million to $665,000, according to ART producer Diane Borger.

Along with increases at the box office, ART received a $1 million grant for artistic initiatives last year from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Harvard doubled its annual financial support for the organization to $2 million. Paulus received a new title, chief executive, with more authority than her predecessors. And Harvard hired Weiner as producer for Oberon. The university will not disclose Weiner’s financial arrangement.

Critics say that Paulus, who continues to work as a freelance director and whose family remains in New York, has been less present than Brustein and his successor, Robert Woodruff, who didn’t take outside jobs during his tenure from 2002 to 2007.

“She wasn’t around,’’ said Kelley Green, one of several students at ART’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training to complain about lack of attention. “We got shafted.’’

When Brustein founded ART in 1980, he made the resident acting company a staple. Under Woodruff, a company that had included as many as a dozen regulars dwindled to four. But upon Paulus’s arrival, actors LeBow, Tommy Derrah, Remo Airaldi, and Karen MacDonald could still count on performing in three to five shows per season. They weren’t salaried staffers, but got enough regular work to be paid as much as 10 months a year.

That soon changed. In Paulus’s first season, MacDonald was offered just one role and turned it down. Derrah and Airaldi got two roles each, LeBow none. This season, LeBow and MacDonald have no roles. Derrah and Airaldi will be in “Cabaret,’’ starring Palmer.

LeBow, an acclaimed actor who costars with MacDonald in the Huntington Theatre Company’s season-opening production of “Bus Stop’’ next month, realized his regular ART gig, which earned him health insurance and around $50,000 through acting and teaching, was over. He was also disturbed that Paulus’s “Shakespeare Exploded!’’ festival featured little of the Bard’s text.

Among those sent LeBow’s letter were Harvard president Drew Faust and provost Steven Hyman, whose office oversees ART. Neither responded, though last week, after Hyman’s office was contacted by the Globe, the provost’s assistant invited LeBow to visit him in September.

LeBow found a more receptive audience in the theater community. MacDonald, whose work at ART dates to 1980, said she was disappointed to lose her regular roles and has been frustrated by how hard it is to reach Paulus.

“You could always talk to Robert [Woodruff],’’ she said. “You could e-mail Robert, you could call him in the middle of the night. He was very accessible. It seemed to me that because Diane was not around, you had to go through assistants or other people.’’

Kate Snodgrass, artistic director of Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, found LeBow’s letter eloquent and depressing. “One of the great theater institutions in America and certainly one of the last repertory companies might be succumbing to commercialism,’’ she said. “It’s a sad loss.’’

Brustein said he has stayed out of ART business because Paulus deserves space to work. But he said he is disturbed by the elimination of the repertory-company model he established.

“This theater was based on the idea of a collective company, and it’s no longer the theater it was without that company,’’ he said. “While Diane has every right to choose her own staff, I have been very upset by the abrupt way in which so many loyal and dedicated people have departed.’’

Several ex-ART administrators, including former executive director Robert Orchard, general manager Jonathan Miller, marketing director Ruth Davidson, and development associate Julia Propp, declined to comment. Simons, the former comptroller, said she could not discuss the circumstances of her departure because of a nondisclosure agreement.

Paulus said the staff members left on their own. And she took exception to her critics.

“It really saddens me that Bob would not approve of what we’ve accomplished here at the ART,’’ said Paulus. “I’m unbelievably proud of my staff and their tireless dedication and hard work, and I would only hope that Bob would be, too.’’

In response to LeBow’s letter, she invoked one of her longtime supporters. “Ask Oskar Eustis if I’m a con artist,’’ she said, referring to the artistic director of New York’s Public Theater, which produced “Hair’’ and “The Capeman.’’

In an interview, Eustis said he appreciated LeBow’s passion for Shakespeare. “But the thing that makes me angry about this is any implication that Diane is not a serious artist dedicated to achieving artistic results,’’ Eustis said. “What she’s trying to do is break boundaries. She is instituting some radical changes, and of course that’s going to provoke people.’’

Harvard administrators say they are thrilled with Paulus. Hyman, who declined an interview request, issued a statement that read, in part: “Diane has brought students back to the theater in impressive numbers. Her creative vision is also playing an important role in successful new efforts to make the arts a more integral part of the life of the Harvard campus.’’

Associate provost Lori Gross, director of Harvard’s arts initiatives, said critics are in the minority. “I could quote you hundreds and hundreds of people who are talking in a positive way about the theater,’’ she said. “My husband goes to the dog wash, and people are talking in a positive way.’’

But ART’s supporters no longer include Davoli, a venture capitalist and partner in Sigma Partners, and McDonagh, a political science professor at Northeastern University. The couple, whose contributions helped fund the Institute of Contemporary Art’s new building, had been ART advisory board members for more than a decade and, as recently as 2007, gave the theater $100,000 through their charitable foundation.

The split started when they read Punchdrunk’s program criticizing conventional theater as “passive obedience.’’ The phrase struck them as insulting. “We would like to see lots of variation and diversity,’’ said McDonagh. “But you do not have to destroy something to create something else.’’

McDonagh complained about the phrase in an e-mail exchange with Paulus. Then about a month ago, Paulus visited the couple at their Lincoln home, along with new director of development Erica DeRosa and finance director Tiffani Gavin.

“Within the first three minutes, [Paulus] parroted these words,’’ McDonagh said. “The first thing out of her mouth is what bothers me? The second thing is that Erica is absolutely jumping out of her seat with excitement because, she says, ‘You can’t imagine how many Twitter followers Amanda [expletive] Palmer has.’ To me, the number of Twitter followers is not a start to the conversation about the direction of the theater.’’

Paulus says that the “passive obedience’’ language was Punchdrunk’s and that she did not utter that phrase.

Speaking recently about her frustrations with Paulus, McDonagh conceded that the director was a known entity when she arrived. Her approach should have come as no surprise.

“She’s doing what she does best,’’ said McDonagh. “So we’re leaving.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

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