Theater: Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner shaking things up from without and within
NEW YORK -- She’s the darling of Broadway. He’s the champion of cutting-edge theater in New York.
Her Tony Award-winning musicals -- like the revivals of "Pippin" and "Porgy and Bess" -- soar with emotion and splendor. His are likely to involve a cocktail, a mask or a half-dressed dwarf.
Talk about drama in a relationship: Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner are celebrating their 19-year marriage this year, he a producer and writer winking on the outside of the conventional theater world, and she a director fighting for change from within.
"We’re always looking for ways out of what people think is traditional theater," says Weiner during a joint interview with his wife. "Audiences want to go along. They really want to try something different."
Paulus and Weiner were high-school sweethearts, both graduates of Harvard University who return to teach. They’re also parents of two girls, ages 9 and 7. Most couples finish each other’s sentences. In this marriage, they retell each other’s stories.
"Was that yours?" she asks him after comparing theater to the world of sports. "Yes," he laughs. "That’s something I said to you. I have proof -- I love sports."
They are also a couple with a full plate: Paulus on this day is working on "Finding Neverland," a Peter Pan musical she will take back to Harvard. Weiner is about to visit his "Queen of the Night," a new immersive nightclub-opera-circus in the basement of the Paramount Hotel in Times Square.
They have also teamed up to help open their female-centric Cirque du Soleil show "Amaluna" in New York, a show that perfectly captures their twin loves -- Shakespeare’s "The Tempest" melded with jaw-dropping circus tricks.
Paulus and Weiner have simply become the ones to watch to see how spectacle, commercial and cool come together, but they are also deeply invested in trying to save the theater experience, one in danger of withering.
This is what they despise: a passive audience comes in and sits in a theater. The houselights go down and go up on the stage. Over the course of two hours, the audience cries or laughs or spaces out. Then they clap at the end and sleepily file out.
"We’re in a profession where a patient can be dying on the operating table and everybody just lets it happen," Paulus says. "If you’re in an operation and it’s not going well, you bring out the electric paddles. You don’t fall asleep and let it happen."
Few fall asleep at their shows. In fact, one of Weiner’s biggest hits is "Sleep No More," an immersive, mask-filled, genre-bending show he helps produce that mixes film noir and "Macbeth." He’s also behind "Beacher’s Madhouse," shows in Las Vegas and Los Angeles that are populated by burlesque dancers and midget impersonators, and The Box, a club in New York and London that features nude transvestites.
As naughty as his shows are, Weiner is not. He doesn’t smoke or drink and says he likes to explore dark places but not stay there. "He’s the straightest guy," says Paulus, laughing. "Our daughters are like, ‘What does daddy do?’ We’re like, ‘He runs the circus.’ "
For her part, Paulus has quickened pulses on Broadway with a revival of "Pippin" that includes fire jugglers, knife throwing and contortionists. Her "Hair" had actors running around the theater and ended with a dance party onstage with the audience. She recently directed the musical "Witness Uganda" at Harvard that hosted a discussion session after every show.
For them, a theatrical experience shouldn’t be limited to the staid Broadway venues and their aging, mostly white audiences. Vibrant theater can be found in nightclubs, rock concerts, street fairs, even their daughter’s fourth-grade musical. That doesn’t mean their twists work everywhere.
"You can’t force it. I think we’re always very sensitive to that. Far be it from us to dictate," says Paulus. "Yeah, do your Chekhov play and don’t have cellphones on and don’t let anyone eat popcorn. That’s right for that. But theater can be all these other things. Why not open up the form?"
The show that put them on the map was "The Donkey Show," a 1999 reimagining of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" as a disco-era karaoke. It ran for years downtown and has traveled across the globe. But it came after years of toiling on the Lower East Side with no money.
They tried all kinds of tricks to get attention for their quirky shows, including hosting ladies’ nights, offering money-back guarantees and even borrowing red velvet ropes from restaurants to make everything seem exclusive.
"We’d get a little review in the Village Voice and we’d be like, ‘Wow. We made it!’ And then six people would show up," Paulus recalls. Those were years that taught them about how marketing meets art.
"This idea that popular equals commercial, which equals pandering, is something I think we just both rejected because of our deep respect for the highest forms of pop culture."
These days, the couple is in high demand. Paulus is the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard and will direct two shows next season, and Weiner has become the go-to man for immersive theater. He’s had a hand in the David Byrne musical "Here Lies Love" and the electro-pop opera "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812."
"Every day I have some new cool project that comes my way," he says. "It’s kind of an enviable position. But I have to admit, there’s a side of me that says, ‘So immersive’s so hot, maybe I should get back into proscenium.’ It’s the contrarian in me."