Teaching Artist Leah Reddy spoke with co-director Diane Paulus about her work on 1776.
Leah Reddy: What is your theatre origin story?
Diane Paulus: My father was an actor when he was a young man. His parents were German immigrants. He ended up directing plays in Tokyo as an American GI stationed there during the American occupation of Japan. He was part of the army entertainment unit there, where he met my mother, who was Japanese. I later did a show at the Vineyard Theatre about my parents’ meeting — it was called Swimming with Watermelons.
When my dad came back to the US, he worked in television, at CBS. He didn’t pursue further theatre work, but he passed on his love of theatre to me. As a little girl growing up in New York City, theatre was always a part of my life. My father would cut out articles from The New York Times about shows and plays, and we were constantly going to the theatre as a family.
LR: What excites you about 1776?
DP: I was excited to share this musical because of the history it portrays. When I first read the script, it provoked questions about my own personal knowledge of American history. In particular, I was hooked by the dramatic action towards the end of the play, when Congress is debating the final language of the Declaration of Independence. In Jefferson’s original draft, there’s a paragraph condemning the “execrable commerce” of slavery — and the Congress decides to cross it out for the sake of unanimity.
When I read this, I remember thinking, “Did this actually happen, or is this a dramatic license taken by authors Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards?” And that sent me on a personal journey of learning. It was pretty easy to find out that this actually happened—the clause condemning the slave trade in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration was deleted during debate. I didn't have to read a lot of books; I had to just Google it, and there it was.
I wondered "Why didn't I know this? Why wasn’t I taught this in my American history class in high school?" When I further reflected on the overview of American history that I was taught, I feel I was taught that the Civil War was the fight over slavery, and the Revolutionary War was about the fight to separate from Great Britain. My education didn’t emphasize that the transatlantic trade in enslaved people was at the very roots of our country, central to the Revolutionary War and to our founding document, the Declaration of Independence.
I believe deeply that unless we look backwards and really reckon honestly with our American history, we can't move forward. And 1776 emphasizes this often-overlooked or minimized aspect of history in a unique way: it’s not an article, it’s not another book — it’s a work of drama, with human characters who wrestle with ethical questions that resound in the present day. So I was inspired to share and underscore this aspect of 1776 with audiences by bringing it to theatrical life. The reason why I love musical theatre is that it reaches audiences in a very powerful way. It goes into your gut and your body because it's music, it's vibration, it's song, it's dance, and in this case, a really important historical subject matter.
LR: Building on that, you talk about the audience as a partner in your art, as a collaborator. How does that influence your process as a director and how has it specifically influenced the process on this show?
DP: I'm always interested in thinking from the outset: "What is the event going to be when we finally share the piece with an audience?" And I say “finally,” because as we know, the theatre has a long process prior to the arrival of the audience, where we're in an internal process in the rehearsal room. I think the job of the director is to be a substitute for that audience from day one. I think that an audience member attending a show is a very generous act. Everybody's very busy, and people have a lot of competing things in their lives. So why would anyone even want to go to the theatre? That question motivates me to ask: "What am I going to make people that really want to come to?" And then once they're there, what will make them say, "I am really glad I came”?
I find that approach stimulating and challenging. Being a theatre artist, especially a director, is making a gift. It's a gift for the audience, and you want it to make an impression, you want it to mean something. Usually when we put a gift together for someone, we are really thinking about the meaning it might have for that recipient. I get very inspired about thinking about that gift and the meaning that it will have for an audience. Thinking that way informs and stimulates and inspires me to think about the choices that we're making throughout the rehearsal process.
LR: You workshopped 1776 over Zoom during the pandemic. How did those conversations shape the production?
DP: We created this production at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. Part of what is so exciting about that relationship with Harvard University is the collaboration that we can forge with our faculty. We invited several professors to be a part of our process, which we do for many of our shows. When we went to Zoom during the pandemic, it was a moment of pivoting—we didn’t have to coordinate travel and figure out when professors could get to New York City to be in the rehearsal hall. So the Zoom workshop provided this accessibility for all these faculty partners to be right there talking to the cast, very intimately, very personally.
We had this two-week period where we could focus on research, focus on conversations with faculty from Harvard around important topics, including the transatlantic slave trade with Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies, Vincent Brown. We also spent time in that Zoom where we had conversations about our personal relationships to the history and to topics inside the play. I remember thinking, "Every production should have a two-week Zoom." I don't think that anymore, because I think we're all like, "We can't stand another Zoom!" But it was just an extraordinary opportunity to dive into everything, especially with this show. Our frame for the show was always this concept of the acting company stepping on the stage as their 2020 — well, now it's their 2022 — selves, to perform an enactment of history. The idea of being able to have conversations around our own lives and the history was incredibly inspiring for the production.
LR: How do you think 1776 speaks to this particular moment?
DP: We are in a moment in our country where partisan politics dominate and we feel very divided. I think we can reflect on our predicament today by illuminating the parallels between the tensions and the divides of today and those that Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards chose to animate in their dramatization of the creation of the Declaration of Independence. 1776 the musical invites us to understand this history as a predicament.
I’m inspired by a quote from Brian Stevenson. He said, "People do not want to admit wrongdoing in America because they expect only punishment. I'm not interested in talking about American history because I want to punish America. I want to liberate America." That quote deeply inspired me as a mission for the production. "How can we look back at our history as a predicament and not an affirming myth? How can we shift our cultural memory in a way that allows us to forge a collective path forward?"
LR: That's fascinating. What has your collaboration with co-director Jeffrey Page been like on 1776? How have you navigated working together?
DP: When I first started the production Jeffrey was studying directing at the Columbia MFA program. I met him there. I remember thinking, "This is someone I need to work with!" When this project came to me, I met with Jeffrey and asked him about participating, and he came on board as the choreographer. He's had an incredible career as a choreographer. And that's how we started, through our first reading and through the Zoom workshop.
When the pandemic hit and we were in the hiatus, I asked if he would continue with the project as both co-director and choreographer. I felt that relationship most accurately represented the collaboration that we were co-visioning this production, and that we should steer the process ahead together as co-directors. We had a lot of time to think about our future because there were two years in between the workshop and the production. In the meantime, we taught a class together at Harvard University about the power and relevance of the American musical, using 1776 as a case study.
Our relationship was deepening, even though we weren't in rehearsal. Even though we were on this hiatus as artists, we were really in a very profound discussion around the play and around what a musical can be and do. Our incredible associate director, Brisa Areli Muñoz, who has been critical to this production, was also the teaching assistant in our class. Like any team you put together, the team completely shapes the path forward. One of the very first responsibilities of a director is to build your team. That team lays the railroad tracks, lays the path forward. Jeffrey and I have been in collaboration on and in conversation about this musical for quite a while now.
LR: Are there specific things you learned from the A.R.T. run of the show that you're planning to incorporate in New York?
DP: We ran it for almost 10 weeks, so it was a long, thrilling run. I think with any show, you learn in front of an audience. So coming to Roundabout, we've had the benefit of hearing the show with an audience, hearing how it lands, feeling the audience, talking to audience members.
It’s like you look at a painting in a museum and you think, "Oh, that artist just painted it and it came out just like that." And then actually, if you excavate the painting, you realize there was actually an object in the bottom right corner that the artist painted over. So I feel like we are going to Roundabout with the paintbrush in hand, ready to go in and detail and refine and make some strategic changes that we think will strengthen the offering, the vision.
It's also hard, by the way, because you've done it for 10 weeks and it was warmly received by audiences. There’s a tricky moment where you have to say, "Well, you know what? We're not done yet. We can make it better, and we can make it clearer, and we can make new choices." That opportunity is thrilling for a director, because you don't often get that chance.
LR: I think that's important for our students to hear, just knowing young directors and how they work.
LR: What advice do you have for emerging artists?
DP: Think about what interests you with a capital I, not little interest, but big Interest. What Interests you? What motivates you? What inspires you? What keeps your pilot light on?
Feed that Interest with the things that you are exposing yourself to. Think about what you're reading, what you're seeing, and feed your soul, your mind, your heart with everything around that interest. That practice will help guide you in your journey as an artist, because it will help you navigate the projects that you want to take on, the artists that interest you. Through it all, ask questions. Don't think about having to have the answer, especially for directors. Don't worry about the pressures of the result. Identify the question you're asking. Think about the biggest possible questions you could ask, because the bigger the questions you ask, the deeper and greater and more rigorous your art will be. Don't settle for a small question.