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5 Takeaways from Diane Paulus' Curated Conversation

April 23, 2019

This afternoon, at the most recent HUBweek Curated Conversation, Tony Award-winning theater and opera director Diane Paulus chatted with The Boston Globe’s Managing Director, Linda Henry. In this intimate conversation, Paulus, the Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University and one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in 2014, spoke about her background and journey to the A.R.T. while sharing her insights on communication and collaboration, leadership, failure, the influence of art, and more. Read on below for five highlights from today’s conversation.

Communication and Collaboration
After over two dozen years in theater, Paulus has learned a thing or two about communication and collaboration. As a leader, she understands the importance of taking the time to communicate about the purpose of a project. “When you’re leading something, you have to think of yourself as a pedagogue. You have to put the time and energy into speaking about what you’re doing,” she explained. Otherwise, a lack of communication can hinder creativity. And when it comes to fostering collaboration, Paulus encouraged the audience to let others into their process by making space for all opinions and ideas, and finding the "third way" that combines a variety of perspectives.

In May of 2008, Paulus was named the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director of A.R.T. During the conversation, she explained her job as director: “You’re on a boat and you’re in a horrible storm at sea. The boat is turning and people are threatening to jump off and then mutiny is going to happen, but you have to keep steering the ship.” The nautical metaphor described the ups and downs that leaders must balance, while still staying true to the course. “That’s the job!” she remarked. Yet there’s so much more to being a successful leader. Paulus believes that her role as director is to elevate her performers: “[I] monitor everyone and get engaged...because my job as a director is to make everyone perform in a way that they never thought they could before.”

During a lightning round of questions, Henry asked Paulus, “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?” Paulus answered with a quote from Diane Venora, the first woman to play the titular role in Hamlet at the New York Shakespeare Festival: “Well you know, you fail and you fail and you fail and you fail and you fail and you fail and then finally you will have success.” This wisdom, imparted on Paulus during a college workshop when she was 19 years old, made an impact. As both a private school and then Harvard University student, “you didn’t talk about failure,” she explained. But she knows now that “failure is what teaches you.”

Art, Culture, and Wellness
Now, more than ever, wellness matters. According to data from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), nearly 40 million people in the US experience an anxiety disorder in any given year. And while life expectancy across the globe is, on average, increasing, the same can’t be said about for Americans, whose life expectancy has now declined for three years straight. Paulus believes that the theater can be a place to discuss these pressing issues, and that art and culture can augment our country’s wellness. She shared that, since 2016, she has become convinced that culture is not an “add on,” but instead something that “makes the meaning of our lives.”

Art, Science, and Innovation
Just this February, the A.R.T. announced a new home in Allston, thanks to a $100 million gift to Harvard University. Paulus is excited for the new location on Harvard's Allston campus, near the future expansion of the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the opportunity for artists to partner with scientists. She’s already asking how the A.R.T. can contribute to and participate in finding a solution to the issues we’re facing. In fact, she believes that this future intersection of art and science is “a model for Boston because we’re such a community of technology, engineering, and the arts.”

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