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Social issues, not Broadway aspirations, mark ART’s new season

American Repertory Theater will present a production of “The Plough and the Stars” by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Pictured: Lloyd Cooney (front) and Liam Heslin.
American Repertory Theater will present a production of “The Plough and the Stars” by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Pictured: Lloyd Cooney (front) and Liam Heslin.Ros Kavanagh

American Repertory Theater announced its 2016-17 season Wednesday, and this time around the big, new musical that artistic director Diane Paulus will helm and then likely send to Broadway is . . . well, there isn’t one.

Such material has become the Cambridge company’s most high-profile stock in trade in recent years, with “Waitress” and “Finding Neverland” both advancing to Broadway. But there’s nothing quite in that model next season, which trades in the pie crumbs and fairy dust the theater has sprinkled on its boldfaced shows for less-buzzy pieces that deal more overtly with contemporary social issues.

The season opens with an audience-interactive piece by Anna Deavere Smith about a “school-to-prison pipeline” for American minorities, includes a visit from an Irish theater company timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, and a new play based on autobiographical interviews with transgender women.


It will also be the first ART season without a Paulus-directed show since her inaugural year of 2008-09.

“I’ve been on a pretty aggressive journey of output,” she said, noting that she’s directed multiple shows at the ART in each of the last two seasons, “and I have about five shows in development, but none of them are ready for production next year. So I’m kind of into the development mode next year, devoting most of my year to workshops and progressing work that will appear in the [following] season and beyond.”

Four Paulus-directed shows have debuted at the ART and moved to Broadway since 2011 — most recently “Waitress” — plus another, “Witness Uganda” (later retitled “Invisible Thread”), which played off-Broadway this season.

Smith, an actress (“The West Wing,” “Nurse Jackie”) and play-maker known for basing multicharacter solo pieces on extensive interviews, wrote and will perform “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education,” which kicks off the ART’s 2016-17 season in August. As is Smith’s custom, she’ll incorporate some material specific to Greater Boston. In the second act, the audience will break into discussion groups.


“We were really hoping that we could catalyze a discussion around race relations in America,” Paulus said, speaking on the phone from the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York, where “Waitress” is performing. “This is a time, I think, for the arts to enter this dialogue and contribute what we can to the necessary examination of issues surrounding Black Lives Matter and everything that’s happening day-to-day on our front page.”

Dublin’s Abbey Theatre visits with its acclaimed production of Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars,” set in a Dublin tenement amid the violence of the insurrection against British rule that roiled the city during Easter week in 1916. The Abbey has a long history with the play, first staging it in 1926. The new production finishes its Dublin run on Saturday, and will then tour Ireland before a series of US engagements; the ART is among five destinations announced here.

“Knowing the strong Irish community that exists in Boston, being able to celebrate this playwright with this incredible company from Ireland, it feels very special. And even though it’s from Ireland, it feels local,” Paulus said, adding that this will be the first production of an O’Casey play at the Cambridge theater.

The season will also feature only the second-ever original ART production of a Tennessee Williams play — “The Night of the Iguana,” which will be directed by Michael Wilson and begin performances in February 2017. The ART’s 2013 production of “The Glass Menagerie” transferred to New York and received the first Tony Award nominations, and the first win, ever garnered by a production of that Williams classic.


One of two US premieres on the schedule is “Trans Scripts, Part I: The Women,” Paul Lucas’s play based on interviews with transgender women around the world. Jo Bonney directs. The other is “Arrabal,” a piece presented through dance — including a preshow onstage tango lesson for some game audience members — with original music by Academy Award-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Babel”), and live band Bajofondo on hand. It’s directed and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, who won an Olivier Award last year for his choreography of “Memphis.”

“This is a work I’ve been following for years and hoped we could bring to ART,” Paulus says. “We haven’t done anything recently with Latin America and I feel like we’ll be able to bring in a whole new audience with the piece . . . we’re so happy to be getting it, this big debut on our main stage.”

The season also includes “Fingersmith,” based on Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel and directed by Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director Bill Rauch, who previously helmed 2013’s “All the Way,” which starred Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson. It, too, transferred to Broadway.

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.