PITTSFIELD — Barrington Stage Company’s new artistic director Alan Paul clearly remembers the most meaningful advice he’s received about theater leadership.
Sink or swim.
It came from his then boss, Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Tony Award-winning Washington, D.C.-based Shakespeare Theatre Company.
“He said to me ‘You’re going to make mistakes. I’m going to throw you in the deep end of the pool and you’re going to have to clean it up. If you don’t …,’” Paul recalled during a recent interview in his office at BSC’s Wolfson Center on North Street.
Sink or swim time is here for the 38-year-old Paul, who has succeeded Julianne Boyd as artistic director of the theater company she co-founded in 1995 and has led in the years since.
Paul joined Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2007 — one year after graduating Northwestern University — through a fellowship as a directing intern. He rose quickly through the ranks as resident assistant director, assistant associate artistic director, then, finally, in 2010, associate artistic director.
By the age of 25, Paul had the kind of big-time responsibilities it often takes years to gain.
“It’s really a classic theater story. On paper, I wasn’t ready,” Paul said as he settled into a chair at a round table in his essentially barren office at BSC’s Wolfson Center — the company’s three-story office and rehearsal building on North Street.
While he was attending to business at Shakespeare Theatre Company, his directing career mushroomed. He introduced musicals to Shakespeare Theatre Company. When he wasn’t directing at his home base, he was directing at major professional theaters in and around the Washington, D.C. metro area as well as theaters in Chicago and Seattle.
His theater work has earned him five Helen Hayes Awards nominations — which honor the work of professional theaters and theater artists across the Washington, D.C. region. He won in 2014 for his production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
In addition to musicals, Paul has a deep love of opera and has directed opera at the Kennedy Center and also at Palm Beach Opera, Portland Opera, Urban Arias, and Strathmore Concert Hall. In 2013, he was the only American finalist for the European Opera Directing Prize in Vienna, Austria.
His passion for music is fierce. He is a stickler, he says, when it comes to music performance; making certain orchestral accompaniment especially is what it needs to be in terms of nuance and fidelity to the composer’s intention.
Music has been in Paul’s blood since his childhood in Potomac, Md. He had a Peter Pan costume his mother made for him when he was 4 years old. He began taking voice lessons at age 9. His parents, who were subscribers to Arena Stage, took him to theater and opera not only at Arena Stage but also the Kennedy Center and touring shows at downtown D.C.’s National Theatre.
He taught himself piano and began accompanying performances by his theater friends at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. Watching the way directors worked in the shows in which he acted; listening to his friends talk about directing appealed to Paul. And so, the student who entered Northwestern University’s theater program as an actor “came out to my theater friends in my senior year not as an actor but as a director,” Paul said.
He directed a production of John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” in his senior year. He was hooked.
He sent out inquiries to Broadway and London stage managers seeking their advice on how to fashion a professional career. With a proud smile, he said that he has in his possession the mist complete collection of advice from the best in the profession.
During spring break of his senior year at Northwestern, Paul met with Molly Smith, artistic director of Washington, D.C.s’ Arena Stage. Paul’s mother had approached Smith during an intermission at Arena Stage and told Smith that her son wanted to be a director. Smith told Paul’s mother to have Alan come by her office.
“I went into her office during that spring break and came out as assistant director [for Smith’s September 2006 production of ‘Cabaret’].”
Paul’s association with Shakespeare Theatre Company was engineered during the summer of 2007 when Paul met Rebecca Bayles Taichman, who was directing Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Taichman helped Paul get an interview with Michael Kahn which led to Paul being offered a fellowship — a directing internship. Paul draws social satisfaction in directing; in making theater happen.
He sees theatermaking as a collaborative enterprise that can be done only with other people “in the room.”
“Theatermaking is so rewarding and heartbreaking,” he said in response to an email question, “because it’s like building sandcastles that will be washed away with the tide. The fact that it is ephemeral is what makes it thrilling and so vital.”
Paul is not unused to juggling a lot of balls at once. There was a period in 2018 when he directed four productions, all of them musicals, within six months — three in Washington, D.C.; one in Seattle. Needless to say, he’s been on the go since taking over at Barrington Stage on Oct. 1. There’s the task of packing up his place in Washington, D.C. for his move to his new home in Lenox. He’s been busy getting to know people — his staff at Barrington Stage; the artistic directors of Berkshire County’s other professional theaters; the community. And there is the matter of putting together his first season which he plans to announce in January.
“It’s a challenge to schedule your first season when you don’t really know the audience,” he said.
He’s been reading scripts at the rate of one a day. Neatly stacked piles of scripts fill the waist-high cabinet that runs nearly the length of one wall in his studio. He promises it will not be long before those piles will occupy just about every available surface in the office; augmenting the artwork he will mount on the office’s now barren blue walls.
In an interview with The Washington Post in February 2020, Simon Godwin, who took over from Kahn as the Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director in 2019, described Paul as someone who is “able to see the big picture. You have to be a pragmatist as well as a visionary,” Godswin said, and Alan brings together these two sides of being a director extremely well.”
Paul sees Barrington Stage Company as an incubator for new work, especially musicals (“give quirky young musical writers a chance,” he’s been advised by Broadway composer-lyricist William Finn, who supervises BSC’s Musical Theatre Lab); for revisiting older musicals and making them fresh, in subtle and nuanced ways, for contemporary audiences.
Among the bigger challenges Paul faces is winning back audiences that have been lost thanks to the COVID pandemic; a dilemma BSC shares with other cultural venues in the region.
He’s keen on moving forward in a way that will involve taking risk but in a way, he said, “that will not take away what Julie has built.” In an email, Paul said he would consider it an “absolute honor to have Julie return to direct a production at BSC in the future.”
Paul acknowledges it is going to take some time to define the brand; “to know what that is here, not only in terms of our audience but also within the industry.” He said he wants theater artists to know “that they can come here and feel their work will be treated well.”
In the meanwhile, he already has learned an immediate perk of being an artistic director.
“When you’re directing a play, you’re the one calling agents. As artistic director,” he said with a light laugh, “agents are calling you.”