Flight of Imagination
Director Diane Paulus sprinkles her own brand of pixie dust on the Peter Pan creation story Finding Neverland.
Theatergoers, you have been warned: Tony Award®-winning director Diane Paulus is coming after you with everything she’s got.
“My goal is to grab the audience’s heart and soul,” she says. “I want to reach across the fourth wall and make sure the audience’s heart is fully engaged in the experience.”
Paulus’ mission—“to make audiences feel alive through cathartic performance”—is evident in all her productions, especially in the musical Finding Neverland, her stage adaptation of the 2004 film of the same name. The musical, like the movie, follows the life of Scottish author James M. Barrie during his creation of what would become the children’s classic Peter Pan.
“I was always interested in the story behind the story of Peter Pan, and that’s what hooked me about Neverland,” Paulus says. “It feels like Peter Pan has always been in our lives, as a beloved character, as a symbol of wonder and innocence—it’s even the peanut butter on our table—but it took the creative imagination of an artist to actually bring him into our lives.”
For Paulus, it’s important that audiences not only see but also feel the full effect of Barrie’s imagination. “We’re going back to 1904, the historical moment that Barrie wrote Peter Pan, but the musical is not a museum piece,” she says. “Its theme is that you have listen to what is in your heart. That’s what Barrie did as a writer, and that’s what his characters do. And it has a powerful effect on audiences. Everyone can relate to the idea of not wanting to grow up, of holding on to the child within us. The show is emotionally visceral and is exactly the kind of theater I love to create.”
Cue the musical score, which has more in common with a contemporary pop album than with traditional Broadway musicals. It’s part of Paulus’ plan to “bring things into the theater that might be unexpected,” she says, just as Peter Pan was a departure from anything that had come before.
“What Barrie did—his imagination that put clocks in crocodiles, that had characters fly—was radical at the time,” she says. “That really touched me, as an artist, to know that you can take such risks.”
Paulus knows a thing or two about taking risks. The artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard since 2009, she made a name for herself early in her career by directing avant-garde musical adaptations of classic plays, including a rock version of The Tempest and a disco-themed A Midsummer’s Night Dream. She won a Tony in 2013 for directing Pippin, making headlines for casting a woman as Leading Player, the part that earned Ben Vereen a Tony in the show’s original 1973 production. And her Tony Award-winning production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess—which played at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre in 2013—was described in the New Yorker as a “politically radical and dramaturgically original musical adaptation.”
Paulus has continued to push the idea of what theater can do, including making history this year with Waitress—Broadway’s first musical to have an all-female creative team. But the stories are what keep her coming back to theater, especially to musicals.
“I look for a way for audiences to connect with every story I tell,” Paulus says. “Musicals are a heightened form of reality—people are breaking into song, and audiences feel alive. I believe in the power of theater to make people feel alive.”
Paulus has no doubt that Finding Neverland will find itself right at home in San Francisco, where it will play at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre from January 18 through February 12, 2017. “I am excited for Finding Neverland to be in San Francisco,” she says, “because the city is such a creative community, with so many bright, open souls who share the spirit of risk-taking.”