NEW YORK — It was heading toward late afternoon on a gray December day, and Diane Paulus was looking weary. Inside a studio on West 43rd Street, she had been casting the American Repertory Theater’s workshop production of the new musical “Finding Neverland,” slated for March in New York.
For Paulus, the ART’s artistic director, 2013 was a year of snowballing commercial success. In June, she won her first Tony Award as a director, for “Pippin,” which transferred to Broadway from the ART last spring, recouped its $8.5 million capitalization in December, and continues its run. It is Paulus’s third Broadway show, and her third to win the Tony for best revival of a musical.
In November, her production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which premiered at the ART in 2011 and spent nine months on Broadway, kicked off a national tour that will stretch into July. Her Cirque du Soleil show, “Amaluna,” is on the road, too, and will open in Boston in late May, she said.
Also on Paulus’s directing agenda: the world premiere of Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews’s musical “Witness Uganda,” which begins performances at the ART in February, and developing an adaptation of the 2007 indie movie “Waitress,” with a score by Sara Bareilles. The “Waitress” project is propelled by Broadway heavyweights Barry and Fran Weissler, two of the lead producers on “Pippin.” Barry Weissler is involved in “Finding Neverland” as well.
Paulus, who spent part of her autumn co-teaching a class on theater and magic at Harvard, is also collaborating with Boston Ballet on a new take on Moliere’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” to be performed in 2015 at the Opera House. Meanwhile, she is running the ART, commuting between New York and Cambridge, and managing to spend time with her family: her husband, producer Randy Weiner, and their two daughters, ages 6 and 9. She’s told her children, she said, that she’s making “Finding Neverland” for them.
Q. You seem to be perpetually in motion. Do you have anything remotely like a typical day?
A. The typicalness is that it usually starts at 6 o’clock in the morning and continues until midnight if I don’t just pass out before then. I’ve gotten to the point that I don’t even know what tomorrow brings. When I’m teaching, obviously I’m in town for the class every week. I think actually what keeps the intensity manageable — it’s a little counterintuitive — is that it’s changing all the time. Every week is different for me.
Q. What feeds you? What gives you strength?
A. Being a director, whether you’re in rehearsal or you’re in auditions or you’re in a creative meeting, is so much to me about being present in the moment. There’s a sense of time stopping. That’s why I went into the theater. There was something about being in the theater that didn’t feel, ever, like I was looking at a clock. Being in rehearsal, it’s just a zone. Making something better? Infinite energy for that. One o’clock in the morning, after a preview, notes session, it’s still not working: How do we make it better?
Where it does get sometimes draining in the theater is when you’ve made something, and in the world it’s wrapped with a bow now. You’ve opened it, and maybe it’s won a Tony Award. So maybe you’re like, OK, I’m done with that. We don’t remember that there’s a whole other task to keeping a show vital: going back in there and connecting with it and inspiring the performers and reminding everybody about what the heart of it is. That’s sort of the flip side of having a show that has a long life. It actually is a lot of work.
Q. What does a project need to have in order for you to say yes to it?
A. I listen to music, I read scripts, and I know pretty intuitively if I can unlock it in a way. It’s actually very liberating when you understand that not everything is for you. It’s funny: I finally saw “Book of Mormon” when I started working on “Witness Uganda,” because I was like, I’d better go see that other musical about Uganda.
Q. Which is how most people think of “Book of Mormon.”
A. Not! [Laugh] I thought there’d be like one scene in Africa. The whole thing is set in Africa. I so appreciated the craft of the show and what they were doing with the musical-theater form and how they were subverting it. And yet I just looked and was like, I could never direct that musical. There’s a whole spectrum of theater, and there are certain things that you can get inside of, and others you can’t.
Q. What about as a producer?
A. When I put on my hat as artistic director of the ART, it feels much less personal and much more about the mission. I do have my taste, but I’m really looking at what are the shows that will be the biggest catalyst for engagement with our audience? And that could be, with “Woody Sez” [in 2012], the hootenannies in our lobby. When I saw 300 people in our lobby with their spoons, washboards, and guitars that they had hid under their chair during the whole show, I sort of thought, I could die and go to heaven and my whole vision for ART has been achieved. That, of all the shows we’ve done, was the most concrete, primal, visceral example of an organic happening after a show — and it happened time and time again.
Q. Do you ever feel like you were born late?
A. Yes! All the time! Are you kidding me? I grew up morose my whole teenage life, feeling like I had missed my decade. I was really profoundly upset that I wasn’t alive in the ’60s. Profoundly. And that had to do with not only the politics of the time but really the theater of the time. I was so interested in ensemble technique and the collective creations. So doing “Hair” was this fantasy of getting to be alive as a young person in the ’60s.
Q. One of the oldest debates in regional theater: If you transfer to Broadway, there’s a whole camp that says that’s a bad thing.
A. We never take on a show with the end goal of transferring to Broadway. That’s not the reason that we ever take on a show.
Q. Even if some of the people you’re working with have that in mind? Like the Weisslers.
A. Yeah, they might be interested in that. I can’t summon up my energy for that. For “Pippin,” it was about this interest in stretching the boundaries of musical-theater storytelling. That’s why we do it: for the mission, for the artistic exercise and community-building — what it will bring to our community at ART and our audience. If it’s working in a way where there seems to be a potential opportunity to continue it in New York, on Broadway, that’s a very happy moment for all the artists involved, because guess what? We get a chance to elongate the process. If I were to tell you we made easily over a hundred changes in “Pippin” from when we closed at ART and we opened on Broadway, I would not be underestimating. And that’s the joy of being able to pick up your paintbrush and go in again and work on it.
Q. Has your success changed you at all as an artist?
A. It definitely opens doors to people who want to talk with you or work with you. So that’s been exciting. It’s funny, because inside it — like, really in the trenches of it — nothing feels different. It feels the same, like when I was an artist 10 years ago: projects that you fight tooth, nail, and claw to figure out and unpack. But I do find now more when I’m seeing an audition for a new show, an actor will walk in who’s been someone I’ve watched for years and say to me, “I’m a fan of your work.” That always surprises me.
Q. The past two years, you haven’t staged any operas. Where has opera gone for you?
A. I love the opera, which is one of the reasons I so quickly threw my hat in the ring [to direct] the opera that the ART is now commissioning, the Matt Aucoin piece. When I got to know Matt and we asked him to create something for us, and he came back with this stunning proposal of a new opera based on Whitman’s “Memoranda During the War” and I heard the music, I immediately said, “Will you have me, please? ’Cause I would like to do this one.” That will be in spring of 2015.
Q. Who’s on your wish list, now that you can work with people you’ve admired from afar?
A. I’m working now with Eve Ensler. We’re talking to her about several projects and really having her be an artist in residence at ART. That’s an example of someone who was on a wish list and is now in my life.
Q. How do you manage to have this enormous career, and then, you know, you have a family and a life?
A. I’ll tell you: My kids completely are involved in my life in the theater. I share everything about the theater with them, and I feel very lucky to be able to do that. When I have to go to the theater, they come with me and they watch the show. They sit on my lap while I’m taking notes. I can’t imagine spending as much time on my work if I couldn’t share it with my kids. I have a husband who’s really dedicated to the family. If he had his druthers, all he’d do is be with our daughters. We have dedicated grandparents and aunts and amazing babysitters who become our family.
Q. When you listen to music just for fun, what do you listen to?
A. It’s a lot of Sara Bareilles these days because I’m working with her. I’ve been through different phases. There was a phase where I would only listen to hard rock, but I moved out of that: Led Zeppelin and AC/DC and the Rolling Stones — I’ve always been a huge Rolling Stones fan. I was part of that whole Adele mania. My daughters always know: “Put Adele on for Mommy.” [Pause] Yeah, she’s on my wish list! [Laugh] Adele — oh, yeah: Pink.
Q. When are you happiest, most fulfilled, most energized?
A. When I’m in the moment of creation. Even if it’s hard, you want to be there, because you want to crack it and figure it out. It’s like an endurance test. I know that now, in my bones. I get interested in something if I sense a potential: I can actually see the top of the mountain. How we’re gonna get there I have no idea. But my job is to just train and motivate and inspire everyone to start climbing that hill. And when we are halfway up the hill and people are discouraged, we gotta keep going. My job is to keep pointing to the top. People strive for losing ego: through meditation, through sports — I don’t know if you want to write this, but through sex. So it’s always funny when you’re talked about as the director with a vision. I never relate to it that way. I relate to it as how can I create a situation where I can get in a room and lose my ego with a bunch of people, and we’re gonna make something great? I don’t know how we’re gonna do it, but we’re gonna figure it out.
Q. And where in there does time stop?
A. Time stops when you start climbing that mountain.
This interview has been condensed and edited. Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly described the creative team for the musical adaptation of “Waitress.” Paula Vogel is no longer attached to the project as its book writer.