Peter Dubois hits his stride at the Huntington

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Wednesday May 19, 2010

On a recent morning, Peter Dubois sits in the balcony of the BU Theatre, beaming like a kid in a candy shop. Below him the crew for the Huntington Theatre Company's production of Prelude to a Kiss, which he's directing, is running through scene changes. As the apartment for the play's protagonists - Peter and Rita - smoothly slides into place, he shouts his approval. Next the set glides away and the panels at the rear of the stage change from green (the predominate color of Scott Bradley's set) to midnight blue, creating a dreamy, nocturnal look. "I love the way that's done," he says. "It's so beautiful."

Cut to six days later. Dubois is standing on the stage of the newly refurbished Paramount Theatre accepting the Elliot Norton Award for Fences, which won the Best Production - Large Company from the Boston Theater Critics Association. There was little doubt he would be standing there accepting that award since the Huntington Theatre Company, where Dubois is completing his second year as artistic director, had a monopoly on the nominees. (Along with Fences, the acclaimed productions of All My Sons and Stick Fly were short-listed.) And, again, that look of joy again comes across his face.

If Boston theater (or theater anywhere) has an unabashed cheerleader, it is Dubois, whether it be acknowledging the Huntington at an award ceremony or explaining to the company's board of directors the meaning of a sexual term used in The Miracle of Naples, David Grimm's ribald comedy that Dubois put up at the theater's Calderwood Pavilion his first season. He's obviously doing something right - in addition to winning awards, the theater has a return subscription rate of 80%, some 20% above average. But back to the balcony where I'm speaking to Dubois about two things: his recently announced 2010-2011 season, which includes two plays he will be directing; and Prelude to a Kiss, his production of Craig Lucas's 1988 fantasy about a seemingly healthy young woman who is possessed by the body of an aging man on her wedding day.

First produced in January 1988 by South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, Prelude... opened off-Broadway (with a cast featuring Alec Baldwin and Mary Louise Parker) two years later to rave reviews, which prompted a move uptown where it was nominated for a Tony and was short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize. In 2007 the Roundabout Theatre Company produced its first Broadway revival with Lucas providing an updated script.

Why Prelude?

EDGE: You are ending the season with Prelude to a Kiss. Why this play, and why now?

Peter Dubois: Because it’s a really beautiful play. I think Craig has written a stunning piece of writing that has endured -- a contemporary masterpiece. And in rehearsal we have found out why -- it is this beautiful love story. Craig is really great at getting you incredibly high on the story then taking you someplace very, very dark, then pulling you out at the end. So the challenge is for us to honor that emotional arc.

EDGE: It was originally produced on Broadway in 1990, and it was revived in 2007. Had you seen those productions, or any others?

Peter Dubois: I’ve never seen it on stage. And I got the movie and turned it off after two minutes because I didn’t want it in my head. Instead I rented The Dying Gaul, the film that Craig directed based on his play. (The Dying Gaul concerns a deadly game of cat-and-mouse played by on the Internet three distinctly Hollywood types.) That was really informative in terms of approaching this play in terms of the sense of suspense, crossing over into the other worlds. It is why I hired Scott Bradley, the set designer, he did the New York production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, and I have this really strong sense of his ability to tap into the metaphysical; and Craig writes from that point of view. He’s deeply political, he’s deeply intellectual, and at the same time, I always say to the actors that he’s really good at f’ing the ineffable. He goes into the ineffable and finds the ’f’. He’s just incredible at tapping this sense of crossing over to the other side and people and souls connecting in way that’s profound and beyond flesh and blood.

EDGE: Much has been written about the play being a metaphor for AIDS. It certainly was viewed that way back in 1990; but this begs the question - how does the play hold up today?

Peter Dubois: In a lot of ways it holds up. At the time the idea of going to bed with someone young and waking up with someone old was resonating with people. This play, Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America cropped up at about the same time as commentaries on the epidemic; but I think this play endures as a love story, not just as a touchstone for AIDS. It was that in terrifying 1980s; but I think what now plays is this is this fairy tale/fable-like story that comes up as a metaphor for so many difficulties and challenges. I think people can project onto it many different things.

EDGE: I read in the program notes that you are doing an updated version of the script. Who is responsible for that?

Peter Dubois: That was Craig. They did a revival at the Roundabout about three years ago and he updated it for that; then he said that if I wanted to use that script, I could; or I could use the original. It was up to us. We’ve primarily used the script from the revival and we put it in the present.

EDGE: The play has a magical, I guess, whimsical quality. How do you capture that on stage?

Peter Dubois: I find with this one in particular the important thing is to keep the acting extremely naturalistic. Where it is quirky, let it be quirky. Then the challenge is to keep those naturalistic rhythms, but let them fill a 900-seat house. The casting was difficult because we needed to find actors who could be completely real -- genuine. We needed actors who don’t feel like ’actors’ -- like real life human beings. Lived-in, like a broken in pair of jeans. We needed actors who could be fresh and alive, and also smart. What was most difficult was casting the role of Rita (the young bride). We didn’t find Cassie Beck until ten days before rehearsals because we spent so much time find exactly the right person. And seven of the actors are based in Boston and three from New York, which gives it a nice local feel.

Keeping theater fresh

EDGE: You recently announced your choices for next season. It has some traditional works (Bus Stop, Educating Rita), but also some challenging works by playwrights not known here. What drives you as an artistic director in making your choices?

Peter Dubois: Keeping the theater fresh, vital and alive. Even with the more more traditional works, I hope we have a strong point of view as to why we are doing them. And letting each play be an event onto itself. So it’s not just doing this particular play, but letting it known that this particular director is going to imagine this particular play in an exciting way. And now that I am going into my third season, I’ve come to realize that Boston audiences appreciate the literary values of plays more than in other cities I’ve been in. That has been an interesting thing in my programming -- how do I plug into the values of the audience we have and how do I program for the new audience members we are trying to pull in, and how do I stay true to myself as an artist?

EDGE: There’s a general consensus that subscription-based theaters such as the Huntington have a predominately graying subscription base. How do you meet the challenge of getting younger audiences into the theater?

Peter Dubois: It is a challenge, but we are finding ways. For instance this year we did for the first time we did an Under 35 party and we had 160 people show up. They showed up for the first preview of Becky Shaw, they pay $25 and go to the show, and an after party in our Studio 210 space catered by Symphony 8, which is a new restaurant around the corner from Symphony, with an open bar. That one lasted until 1:30 in the morning. That was the first event. (Note: the next 35 Below Wrap Party is scheduled for this Friday, May 21 and will be held in the Huntington’s paint shop. For more information visit the Huntington Theatre Company’s website.)

And I know the traditional thinking is that younger audiences are drawn to more adventurous works and older ones to more standard works; but I’ve learned that’s not true. What I’ve found is that our older audiences are engaged in the new writing and adventurous plays and the younger ones also appreciate the more traditional works. So to see that stereotype debunked is a really cool thing. We’ve been doing post-show discussions for every show (except Saturday nights), and we are averaging 30% stay, which is amazing -- to have 80-100 people stick around is really cool. And the blog is really active, and we are one of the only theater that don’t edit our blog, so when people come on and say ’that was a piece of crap,’ or ’you’re director is full of shit,’ we don’t pull it down. We keep it up.

EDGE: Becky Shaw, which you directed, really did divide audiences. I don’t think I spoke to two people who had the same opinion of it. But some didn’t like it because they didn’t like the characters, which seems strange to me to dismiss the play outright for that reason...

Peter Dubois: Which is a really ridiculous notion. And, yes, I found that the word on Becky Shaw ran the gamut. There’s this thing that is interesting where certain people come to the theater expecting the people on stage to act better than people do in real life. For me that is just death. So unexciting. I like to tell them to go the Greeks -- theater is always about people behaving badly and what happens to them. It is about conflict and flaws. So the idea of looking to the theater for examples of nobility is just ridiculous. Sometimes that is what we get; but I find it very exciting to see flawed people find their ways in life. I think Gina Gionfriddo writes that, I think August Wilson writes that. We are working with Gina on a new play and are pretty exciting about that.

EDGE: This year you directed two plays, and next year you’re directing two plays. And both are new...

Peter Dubois: Yes, and they both have Biblical titles. Sons of the Prophets and Vengeance Is the Lord’s. Vengeance is a new play by Bob Glaudini. Bob wrote Jack Goes Boating, which I did at the Public, and A View from 151st Street. We are going to premiere the play right when the film of Jack Goes Boating is released. We are working on which city we are going to set the play, but somewhere between Boston and Providence; and it tells the story of a mob family over a time span that includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. So it has this epic structure and it’s very exciting -- gripping and bracing.

Sons of the Prophets is a new play by Stephen Karam (Speech and Debate), that we are doing in conjunction with the Roundabout Theatre. It is set in a small town in Pennsylvania and is based on a true story where these kids do this prank and put deer decoy on the street and this guy swerved to avoid the decoy and is killed. In the play the victim is the father of these two gay Lebanese brothers and their crazy uncle moves in with them. What I love about this play and Stephen’s writing is that he understands the pain of what it is to be human and alive and turns it into comedy that gives you distance and objectivity on your own. He gives you a sense of perspective. It is bubbling with humanity. It’s really, really beautiful. I love having writers in the room because it is part of the process. That’s a really big thing for me. Even working with Prelude... Craig wrote the play about 20 years ago but he’s been a big part of this process.

EDGE: You are also bringing Edward Hall and his Propeller Theatre Company here with two plays by Shakespeare. How did that come about?

Peter Dubois: When I was at the Public I wanted to get Ed, but our schedules never worked out. He did this version of the Henrys called Rose Rage that I thought was really incredible. Then he directed Two Men of Florence for us. I told him we wanted to have Propeller whenever he came back. So he’s going to BAM first, then here. The Comedy of Errors is something he directed in 1998, which is early Propeller; then he’s doing a new production of Richard III. They do all male productions, but it’s not deconstructed -- it’s not like queer deconstruction-- he’s doing like Shakespeare did them: all male. And you realize when you see these productions how interested and focused Shakespeare was on gender and the relationship of men to women. And when you hear it in an all male version, that stuff pops differently. When you hear a man as a woman talking about the behavior of men, it pops in a different kind of way. He’s the only director I know doing Shakespeare this way. He takes the same approach to the language as he does to the physical life of the play. So the way that the language is incredibly adventurous and imaginative and explosive and rhythmic; and the physical aspects are very imaginative and explosive and expressive. That’s a hallmark to his aesthetic.

EDGE: You mentioned the partnership with the Roundabout. You did Stick Fly in conjunction with the Arena Stage, and one next year’s projects is a trio of Annie Baker plays you are doing in conjunction with two companies based in the Boston Center of the Arts - SpeakEasy Stage Company and Company One....

Peter Dubois: I do love collaborating. I find ideas come in conversation. With the Annie Baker plays it was really natural to collaborate with the theater companies at the Boston Center of the Arts to create this constellation. I love Annie Baker’s plays and the way she was imagining this fictional town in Shirley Vermont. Horton Foote’s Orphans cycle has been a big hit in New York. So I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be great to take a writer in their 20s and look at their big, ambitious idea and not wait until their in the twilight of their careers to build a festival around them. It made a lot of sense to partner with SpeakEasy and Company One. The plays really fit our styles as theater companies.

Another collaboration we are doing is with Lynn Nottage’s Ruined (Pulitzer Prize, 2009), which we are partnering with LaJolla Playhouse and Berkeley Rep -- they’re just friends. A lot of good work happens when you talk to your friends, such as this. (Artistic directors) Tony Taccone at Berkeley and Chris Ashley at La Jolla are just good friends and we would get on the phone and talk about what we wanted to do, and we both decided to do Ruined. It’s a huge play -- a dozen actors with music; so the only way we could do it was to share the cost. Then we decided to have individuals from each of the cities be part of the company. So Jason Bowen, who is part of this play, is also in Ruined. So he’ll go to California, and there are actors from those companies coming here. So I hope that Jason will blog about his experiences so to keep that connection with people here. It’s not unlike the experience we had with Stick Fly, and the same thing happened. We were working with Kenny Leon on Fences; Molly and I are friends, so I called her and asked if she didn’t want to do it together. So it’s an exciting thing. It’s really about picking up the phone, calling your friends and having these conversations. And seeing where the interests interconnect. We couldn’t share all our productions with other theaters, but some do work.

EDGE: You appear to have hit your stride this past season with audiences. The critics, though, can be another story. How do you handle their input?

Peter Dubois: I let a production happen and hope for the best. I read the press as a conversation that I am having. My favorite relationship with critics is when I am talking to them and they’re talking back to me. I have critics I have consistently positive response from, then they’ll have an issue with something; but I feel I am still in dialogue with. The only criticism I find challenging is ’cup of tea’ criticism. That is, the play is ’not their cup of tea’ and they dismiss it on that basis. I don’t get that. I think the best criticism judges the work on the merits of what it is trying to accomplish. The criticism that is frustrating is I wouldn’t have written that play or I don’t like these kinds of people. That is bothersome.

Prelude to a Kiss runs through June 13, 2010 at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA. For more information visit the Huntington Theatre website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].