Environment Takes Center Stage
An interview with Diane Paulus, Ryan McKittrick, and Diane Borger of the American Repertory Theater
Diane Paulus is the Tony-award winning Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University. Paulus and her A.R.T. colleagues Ryan McKittrick, Director of Artistic Programs/Dramaturg, and Producer Diane Borger, spoke in late April with HUCE Director Daniel Schrag about the ongoing A.R.T.-HUCE partnership to create new artistic pieces that speak to environmental issues. The first collaboration, “O.P.C. (Obsessive Political Correctness),” by playwright Eve Ensler, premiered at the A.R.T. in December 2014 (see photo essay on pp.22-23). What follows is an edited excerpt of their conversation.
Daniel Schrag: Diane, O.P.C., Eve Ensler’s play at the A.R.T. this past fall, wasn’t by any means the first A.R.T. production that had an environmental theme, but in some way, you said when you introduced it that it was the first “ecotheater.” What did you mean by that?
Diane Paulus: Because Eve’s play dealt with issues of consumerism and waste, we decided that as an institution, we had to “walk the walk” and embrace a culture of reuse and sustainability throughout the entire creation of the production. We decided not to print programs for the show, and we also stopped selling bottled water in our lobby. Rather than ordering wood, our scenic artists took inspiration, and their raw materials, from local waste—and as a result our set was composed of 80% recycled materials. Eve was a galvanizing force at the theater—she helped us think critically about our own impact on the environment.
During my time here at A.R.T., I have been interested in programming that tackles the important issues of our day. I look at theater as an opportunity to provoke dialogue and catalyze discussions around important subjects. That is one of the guiding principles behind the artistic choices I’ve made, and that is where my heart is in terms of the artists I invite to make theater here at A.R.T. The environment is at the top of the list of issues that I feel we need to tackle. Dan, I was so deeply moved by the visit you made to my office—and I tell this story everywhere I go, because it’s such a tribute to what the arts can do. I was inspired when you came to me at A.R.T. and said, “You know, I need you. I need the arts. The arts need to help tell the story and need to help get people to listen. We need the arts to get people to think about the future—otherwise people may choose not to.”
The idea that we could contribute to this important dialogue on the environment is galvanizing. I love how you said that this collaboration should not just be about plays related to environment. This is about getting everybody thinking about the environment—including artists who hadn’t thought about the environment previously. How can we make issues of climate change and the planet part of our reflexes as artists? How can they enter our creative process and our creative thinking, and become one of the constants when we think about the work we make? Eve Ensler is already committed to the cause—she’s already activated as an artist. And I look at our partnership as an opportunity not only to bring artists who are already thinking about these issues, but also to raise awareness and activate artists.
Schrag: So, we were sitting at dinner last year, and you cautiously asked me whether the Center for the Environment would be interested in sponsoring playwrights and artists to create works of art here at Harvard. How long have you been thinking about that idea?
Paulus: We don’t have a regular commissioning program at the A.R.T., and it’s something that I realized we were lacking. I’m very interested in how we can change the assembly line of creating a production. We tend to think about bringing the expert in at the end the end of the process to comment on the production or lead a post-performance discussion. And I thought, “What if we change that assembly line and bring in a leader in a field, or a leader in research—or, like you said—an economist, a thinker, a writer, a public policymaker at the beginning of the process? How could those experts actually be part of the generation of a creative project?”
So I’d been thinking about new ways of commissioning work, and your stepping forward was catalytic. We’re putting into motion the idea of not only commissioning new work, but also doing it in partnership with experts at the Center for the Environment and the rest of Harvard.
Schrag: I think that to me what’s so exciting is that it’s another mode of interaction between the A.R.T. and our university. Frankly, the A.R.T. is fabulous for those of us who go to the performances. We are the consumers of what you produce and love it, but I think there’s a broad thirst—not just among the English faculty and the art history faculty, but among all of the faculty—to experience or take part in the artistic process. Not directly, and again as I’ve told you, I don’t think it’s a good idea for scientists to tell artists how to talk about climate change. I have a lot of faith that the interaction will lead to something interesting, though I hope it’ll surprise us. I mean, it shouldn’t be linear. It should be surprising and unusual.
Paulus: Yes, exactly.
Schrag: Ryan, do you want to weigh in on this mode of interaction between A.R.T. and the University? You’ve been part of this university community for a long time.
Ryan McKittrick: To echo what Diane said, what’s so exciting here is that we’re not just bringing faculty members in at the end—it’s at the beginning and middle and end of the process. We did something like this with our Civil War Project, a multi-year initiative that is just coming to an end. As part of that project, we led a series of roundtable discussions with artists and professors from all around the University, who got together to talk about a wide range of topics related to the Civil War. A number of projects in our current season at the A.R.T. developed out of that process. We’ve already started talking with artists we know about our collaboration with the Center for the Environment—and they’ve all immediately responded to the idea. They’re excited not only about the idea of creating work that’s related to the environment, but also about being in dialogue with faculty members from around the University as they’re creating a piece. We found that with the Civil War Project, the professors were inspired by the artists, and the artists were inspired by the professors.
Paulus: Very much of a two-way street—it was really thrilling to see that interaction.
McKittrick: And it also means that when you involve people over a long period of time, rather than just after the production has opened, faculty have a stake in the work that’s being created, and then there’s a possibility to design courses around the work. This kind of long-term planning and development allow us to integrate the projects into the life of the University in a completely different way.
Schrag: I think that’s exactly right.
Diane Borger: The one thing I want to add, is that when we look at the work that we’ve done here that we consider to be the most successful on artistic grounds, it’s work that we’ve put the time into developing. And that’s another thing that’s fantastic about partnering with you, because it gives us the opportunity to be thinking two or three years in advance, and theater doesn’t always do that. I know universities do, but we often are in the mode of, “what just came through the letter box … let’s get it on stage.” And so I think that it will lead to better work: thematic work that we feel is so important, but also the quality of work has a chance of being higher.
Schrag: I hope that it creates an atmosphere where arts are part of the conversation—over in my part of campus, too. That it’s not something you dabble with every now and then, or you go to the theater once every couple months, but it’s actually something that’s part of our regular conversation.
Borger: I think that’s really important, and often we find that our natural partners are scientists—though it may seem counterintuitive at first glance. We’re all trying to solve a problem, or explore something that we don’t know.
And just to add to that, this idea of making art a part of the conversation—that’s been our fight here at the A.R.T., and it’s the fight of arts in America right now. The arts are not the add-on sort of luxury entertainment for diversion that can be cut out of a school curriculum because you don’t need it.
Paulus: We really—on the artist end of it—need to change the perception of arts in America. Otherwise, we’re in trouble. This kind of partnership is critical because it suggests that an arts component is needed for the most important political, social, and scientific inquiries. It speaks volumes about the role the arts play in our lives as citizens engaged with our planet.
That’s a huge symbolic gesture that I hope will reverberate from our partnership—not only throughout the arts here at Harvard, but arts in the public education system across the country, which is in need of this kind of example.
Schrag: I think it’s really exciting. Of course, it also means the pressure’s on—you have to produce something beautiful and inspiring and impactful.
Schrag: Last night, I attended the opening of The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville. To put it simply, I was stunned. Who would have thought that a musical with almost no spoken words could have made such a powerful statement about the future? It seems like a perfect example of how artists see the world in a slightly different way, and a perfect example of what we are trying to achieve. How did this production come about?
Borger: The producer Staci Levine talked to us in 2011 about an idea that Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac were exploring—they’d met and loved each other’s voices and asked director Susan Stroman to join in with them to make a piece from scratch based on the music they both loved. We were of course intrigued as they are such phenomenal artists so we agreed to support it. The first workshop was in 2012, and they continued to work on developing the show whenever their busy schedules permitted over the next couple of years, with a couple of workshop runs along the way. It is thrilling to see what it’s become, and we were delighted to premiere it at the Loeb.
McKittrick: It’s a piece about companionship and survival after a flood—a source of hope and inspiration, perhaps, as we think about the challenges we face now and in the future.
Schrag: So let’s just briefly touch base on what’s in the pipeline. There’s some exciting work developing around the theme of indigenous people and nature. Do you want to say a few words about that?
Borger: Do you remember the genesis of the NOMAD project?
Schrag: Yes, I was a videoconference participant in one of the early meetings in New York.
Borger: It started with the photographer Russell James, who grew up in Western Australia and felt he had to reconcile his upbringing with what indigenous people in Australia had gone through. And inevitably, when you talk with aborigines, the conversation turns to land, and how to preserve it. And now Russell’s work has expanded into this amazing collaboration to promote art and artists from indigenous and marginalized communities around the world. We are working with Russell and his organization, NOMAD, to develop a piece that explores the shared spaces between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures. Karole Armitage, a dancer and Tony-nominated choreographer, is coming to campus in September as a Radcliffe Fellow, and will help us move along our thinking on our NOMAD project. She’s been making work around environmental themes for several years now. Just this spring, her dance company Armitage Gone! created a climate change dance production, “On The Nature of Things,” at the Museum of Natural History’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life in New York City. We’re thrilled to be working with her as a part of our collaboration with HUCE.
Schrag: So what’s so interesting for me, when I watch you work with artists, is that—whether they’re writers or directors or actors— it often comes from a very personal place, the inspiration to create whatever it is they create in their performance or a play. And so the development, in that artistic process, is a lot more collaborative than people understand. Isn’t that right?
Paulus: Right. For me the heart of theater is the act of collaboration—you are bringing people together who may not share the same point of view or experiences. They have different histories or different backgrounds, and the meta-act of theater is to get people to lose themselves and their egos and become part of something that’s greater than any one individual. And with the environment, you could try to parallel what we in the theater world have to do.
We all have to start to lose whatever we’re clinging onto, and understand that there is something greater than all of us that we need to address and wrestle with. That is the act of theater among artists, and in order to do that, you have to create conditions for that work to happen. And that involves trust and an atmosphere of risk-taking and encouragement for people to—what I would say in an artistic process—get beyond themselves.
You always know actors are working well when you don’t recognize them—there’s a transformation happening in a performance when they actually get beyond the limitations of who they are.
That act of collaboration and trust is what leads to progress. If you want to put it in a social term: progress in the arts is to pose a difficult question and to begin answering that question in a group think tank. That’s going to lead to something—an innovation, something that will move us—that none of us thought we could attain.
This interview originally appeared in Environment@Harvard, Volume 7 Issue 1.