PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Diane Paulus, The Ringmaster of Pippin and Cirque Du Soleil's Amaluna

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27 Mar 2014

Diane Paulus
Diane Paulus
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus is doing double duty as the ringmaster of two major New York productions this season. The Tony-winning circus-inspired revival of Pippin is entering its second year on Broadway, while her Cirque du Soleil show Amaluna, a riff on The Tempest, has put up stakes at Citi Field in Queens for a run through May 20.

At first pass, Amaluna would seem like a logical follow-up to Pippin; however, the big top Cirque du Soleil spectacle premiered in Montréal in 2012, just as Paulus was was preparing for her Tony Award-winning revival of Porgy and Bess.

Paulus reveals that during this time, her next Broadway triumph, the first-ever revival of the Stephen Schwartz-Roger O. Hirson musical Pippin, was never far from her mind, and that a "confluence of circus" helped bring the projects to life. spoke with Paulus just as Amaluna pulled into New York City as part of its North American tour.

While this is inspired by The Tempest, Amaluna is not a text-based show. What kind of physical or visual vocabulary do you use to bring audiences into this journey?
Diane Paulus: I'm so glad you're bringing that up, because I think that sometimes Amaluna gets plugged as "the Cirque show with a story," and I want to say, "Let's just make it clear that it is still a circus show without a script." It's a circus-driven narrative. Guy Laliberté, who is the head of Cirque, wanted a big top show, which is kind of the bread and butter of Cirque — old fashioned, big top touring shows.

He wanted this one to be an homage to women; that was the kind of gauntlet put down, and I loved that idea. It meant two things: One, we were going to commit to casting a majority of women in the show, so it's 70 percent women artists and athletes; and two, they wanted a director to propose an idea that would be an homage to women. I'm not interested in doing a kind of women's agenda show. Some people were pitching me, "What if you do an act and they're all like women in high heels?!" I didn't think so. I thought, "Let's make great theatre and put in the center of it characters that are female heroines." So I started dreaming about Greek goddesses, Demeter and Persephone, a mother and daughter, the changing of the seasons and the spring, the rape of Persephone and what that mythologically means when a girl is kind of initiated into womanhood.

Then I thought of Miranda, because I love Shakespeare, and I thought of a young girl in this brave new world and her experiencing life. Then I thought, "Well, if it's 'Prospera' and Miranda, then we could get the mother-daughter relationship there." I had also just directed The Magic Flute for the Canadian Opera Company, so I was living inside of Magic Flute and young love and initiation. So Amaluna is a mash up of Greek mythology, an homage to The Tempest and a little bit of Magic Flute. But to do the narrative, you first have an acrobatic skeleton, which is kind of a science in Cirque. Literally. there are acts that get coded red, yellow and green, which are different levels of excitement and skill. I spent a year in what they call "the creation rooms" in Montreal, with a story board on a wall, moving this act here and that act there, and I tried to frame the acts in a way that felt necessary.

Paulus and Randy Weiner

The artists essentially showcased their specific skills for you, and you began laying out a story?
DP: Yes. I also brought Randy [Weiner], who's my husband/partner. He's a dramaturge, and he started giving ideas on how to structure it. We were looking at women athletes from all over the world. I would fly to Montreal and sit in a room and watch hours of YouTube tapes: "Look, here's a woman shooting herself out of a cannon, one with a bow and arrow; and here's one with a machete, and two sisters from Spain who can balance on their head, and here's a contortionist from Africa!" [Laughs.] It was just looking, looking, looking, and I was having very visceral reactions to what I thought really celebrated women.

In the same moment I was developing with Randy and Fernand Rainville, the creative director at Cirque, what this story could be. We imagined a community of women on an island. What if there's Prospera and what if the Knights of the Round Table get called and then have different clans like the Valkyries and the Amazons? All of these different figures coming to an initiation of Miranda. Then we'd see an act in "the creation room," and I thought, "Oh, they could be the Amazons." You're constantly going back and forth and taking an acrobatic act, sticking it inside your narrative, and fitting the narrative to the acrobatic act. But what I think is different about this show is that there is real attention to the through line of characters. It's not, "Here's an act, and here's the next act!" There's a through line tracing through the whole show, with a goal that it will engage an audience to feel invested.

After something like Porgy and Bess, that was so about the text, was it liberating to approach this show that is not at all text-driven, or did that pose a challenge for you?
DP: It was more like directing a story ballet, which I grew up on because I grew up in New York as a little kid dancing in all those NYC ballets like Nutcracker and Coppélia, those great Balanchine story ballets. There are no words, and you're just using the body and physicality to convey the story. I love visceral theatre, and it was thrilling to be inside that full on. The hardest challenge in developing Amaluna was that you're dealing with acrobats, not actors, so the language is all acrobatic.

In Pippin it's half and half; you have a combination. But in Amaluna, it's all acrobatic, and I quickly learned that they can't do the tricks multiple times a day. They're training for up to six months. We were approaching the premiere, and I still hadn't seen some of the tricks done in a rehearsal because there are certain tricks that unless you have the adrenaline of an audience, they won't do the trick. It's too dangerous because, literally, you need the pressure of the moment. It's so virtuosic. These artists are like Olympic athletes. They would perform and then we'd meet with multiple coaches and choreographers for each act to watch the video. All the artists are there analyzing the video beat by beat, looking at what could be stronger. I would look at the tape with them, and there was a lot of directing through that video. I would ask, "Could you make that section shorter? That big trick you do there, I think it will be more powerful if you move it and it's the climax?" And it's an international situation. There are Russians, Chinese, French, so you are directing to multiple languages with interpreters. It's like the United Nations of a creation. [Laughs.]


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