Diane Paulus on running away to join the circus (or the Cirque, at least)

Credit: Cirque du Soleil
Paulus directs her multinational cast. “Amaluna” runs May 29 to July 6 at the Marine Industrial Park.
Credit: Cirque du Soleil

What does it take to attract a Tony-winning director to the circus? If you’re Diane Paulus, artistic director at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, you’re just waiting for the chance.

Paulus, who directed the Cirque du Soleil show “Amaluna,” which opens May 29 at the Marine Industrial Park, says she’d been “a huge admirer of their work for years.” The show first premiered in Montreal in 2012, but has since journeyed widely before making its way to Paulus’ hometown. “I was excited to take on this kind of project because I knew it would stretch my brain in new ways,” she adds.

Another contributing factor? Cirque indicated that they wanted this show to be “an homage to women,” per Paulus. As such, the cast is 70 percent women, and has an all female band, both of which are highly unusual for the company. Paulus created the story herself, drawing inspiration from both Greek mythology and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” “I was fascinated by the Demeter-Persephone myth, mothers and daughters, and the idea of life cycle and renewal,” she says. “I thought about Miranda from ‘The Tempest’ as kind of an archetypal character coming of age. And I thought, well, what if Prospero became Prospera and it was a queen and her daughter?”

Cirque usually has multinational casts, and this show is no exception. Performers hail from 17 countries, which Paulus calls “one of the most challenging and ultimately most rewarding aspects of the entire show.” Rehearsals take place in an airplane hanger near the headquarters in Montreal, with the set already in place. “You’re directing on a mic, because it’s an enormous space and that is the only way anyone can hear you. So I would say on the mic, ‘OK, everybody, let’s take it from the top,’ and immediately I would hear in four different languages, Japanese, Chinese Spanish and Russian, instant translations over the microphone to the artists so that they can hear.”

Though Paulus says in some ways working with acrobats instead of, say, Bryan Cranston, is much the same, there are some big differences. “They can’t repeat the most difficult tricks over and over,” she says. In play rehearsals, actors can keep redoing scenes, but with Cirque, “It’s almost like an Olympic athlete,” Paulus says. “You just can’t work that way with this level of physical duress.”

And of course, it’s fun to play with the idea of being in a circus. “It was so delightful to direct in a big top, I just love the whole ritual of it,” says Paulus. “When you’re onsite in the tent, it really is a tent. You camp out with the company, you eat [in a] cafeteria, which is on a truck bed, and it’s all on site. It’s that feeling of the circus coming to town.”


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