Thayer Global Speaker Series: A.R.T.’s Paulus delights, inspires

Thayer Global Speaker Series: A.R.T.’s Paulus delights, inspires

“An Evening with Diane Paulus” proved a veritable feast for theater lovers, but the Feb. 1 event actually started with dessert. 

Watch the full conversation                                  

“You were amazing,” Paulus told a group of students after they’d begun the night by performing a medley of songs from Pippin, Finding Neverland, Waitress, and Jagged Little Pill, all Broadway musicals helmed by Paulus. The group — featuring students from Thayer as well as Inly School, Duxbury High School, Holbrook Middle-High School, and Silver Lake Regional High School (all members of Break A Leg Theater Works) — had practiced for weeks to offer the surprise musical tribute to Paulus, who was moved to tears by the gesture. She embraced the moment as part of what she called “the extended community of the theater.” 

Held in the CFA’s Hale Theater, “An Evening with Diane Paulus” was an installment of the Thayer Global Speaker Series. It featured a lively discussion between Paulus, longtime artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, and the event’s moderator, Harvard professor and current Thayer Scholar in Residence Dr. Timothy Patrick McCarthy. 

“If Diane Paulus were a drink, it would be a triple espresso,” McCarthy said at one point in the conversation, a nod to the Tony Award winner’s passion and energy. 

A native of New York City, Paulus described the circuitous path she took to become a theater director but emphasized that her love of theater has been a constant. 

“I had a family who really believed in the arts,” said Paulus, whose parents met in Japan after World War II, her mother an opera-loving Japanese citizen and her father a member of the U.S. Army’s occupation forces. 

As a young girl, Paulus attended the theater, studied acting, and practiced the piano. Over time, she said, interests came and went, but her passion for the theater never waned. At one point in her life, she realized that being a part of plays and musicals was something she never tired of despite the frantic pace and long hours. 


“To be a success, you have to work really hard,” Paulus told the audience. “Why not work hard at something you love?” 

Best known for musicals and revivals, Paulus touched upon both during the evening’s 90-minute conversation. 

“The musical is collaboration escalated,” said Paulus, who earlier had explained how drawn she is to theater as a group process among actors, directors, choreographers, set designers, and so many more. And that group process, she said, extends to the collective attention of the audience which, in its own way, becomes part of the performance through its applause and various other interactions. 

“I love the moment of the audience being present,” she said. “That is really theater. The musical leaves space for the audience to say, ‘I’m here.’” 

Paulus also noted that musicals are a staple of the high school curriculum, so most audiences have a strong familiarity with them. 


“Musicals are in our DNA,” she said. 

As for revivals, Paulus expressed her interest in taking the canon of American musicals and reimagining them for a different time. 

“You’re creating something new while dealing with cultural memory,” said Paulus, whose revival successes include the aforementioned Pippin as well as Hair, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and 1776. 

Paulus said her role as a director is not to have all the answers but “to make a group happen” and be a part of that creative process. “You’re in charge of creating the conditions for people to be the best they can be,” she said, adding that the role is not unlike that of a parent or teacher. 

Later in the discussion Paulus made the case for theater as essential to the human experience, a dedicated time and space for people to pay attention to someone else’s story. 

“Theater can’t be a nice-to-have,” she said. “It’s a must-have.” 

Thayer Global Speaker Series

The Thayer Global Speaker Series brings thought leaders, innovators, and difference-makers to the Thayer campus to engage the community in issues that matter to the world. 

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