A Conversation with Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks

It is always exciting to me to see two women collaborate as creative leads on a project. But when the players include playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (who many may know from her ambitious 365 Days/365 Plays project or her Pulitzer Prize winning play Topdog/Underdog) and Director Diane Paulus (SOA ’97 and Artistic Director of The American Repertory Theater), as well as one of the most famous pieces in the musical theatre cannon, the stakes are raised, to put it in theatrical terms.

Which is why I was especially eager to hear Parks and Paulus discuss their collaboration on a new adaptation of Porgy and Bess, currently playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Commissioned by the Gershwin estate with the intention of adapting the story into a modern musical (as opposed to an opera), Paulus discussed how they wanted an updated version of the piece – something that felt current and was ready to play to present-day Broadway audiences.

As is sometimes the case with great theatre artists, the primary concepts around which Parks based her process are quite simple; things that most of us take for granted. “These people are people.” Parks states simply, referring to her approach when adapting the book. “Bess is a woman and Crown is a man.” She and Paulus talked about how a certain amount of humanity was indeed absent from the characters in many previous stagings, largely because of interpretations that they are simplistic stereotypes.  Even actors in the company who had been a part of past productions had to be encouraged to highlight aspects of their characters that were present, but under-examined.

In a rare story about the estate and family of a late artist actually wanting to collaborate with living artists, Paulus described how the Gershwin Estate came to her, wanting an updated version of the play. “They were involved in all the changes we made,” she said. “And they were immensely helpful because some of these family members had literally seen every production of Porgy and Bess that had been staged in their lifetime, all over the world. So to hear one of them say, ‘I never got this moment’ was really meaningful.” This is the polar opposite of what most artists experience when dealing with the estate of any well known theatre artist, let alone the name who many credit with elevating musical comedy to an American art form. It truly seemed that Parks and Paulus felt supported and encouraged as they took on this mammoth of a show and proceeded to shepherd it to Broadway.

“Porgy and Bess ate my children,” Parks joked, when discussing the scale and scope of the work she and Paulus did to adapt and stage such an epic work. She clarified that she had some other projects going on at the time when Paulus contacted her about Porgy and Bess, their first collaboration. But those had to be put aside to work on this juggernaut.

In a testament to the power of collaboration in theatre, whether it is new or existing work, both women wholeheartedly praised their cast of actors. Paulus referred to them as partners on the project, with everyone thinking about how to contribute to the whole. She also takes pleasure in returning to the show during the run and observing how specific moments grow and develop with time. “Any good actor is going to keep working after opening night,” she said. Paulus, an alumna of the SOA Theatre Directing Program said that one of the most important aspects of collaboration is a phrase she learned from acclaimed director and SOA professor Andrei Serban. “Hold on tightly, let go lightly.” Paulus believes this is one of the most important aspects of working collaboratively, and still refers to the phrase often.

As for Parks’ big takeaway from adapting such a seemingly hallowed piece of the American cannon, she immediately referred to the collaborative process, and the diverse team that was brought together to realize this classic American story. “Working on Porgy & Bess reminded me all over again what it means to be an American,” she said. Hopefully it will do the same for audiences.

Porgy and Bess is now running at the Richard Rogers Theatre, located at 226 W. 46th St. For tickets and info, visit the show’s website.

Meropi Peponides, Theatre MFA ‘13

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