Five minutes before showtime, director Diane Paulus checks in on the actors (teasing hair, another patting a mustache, straightening a shirt) in the communal dressing room of her current show, The Karaoke Show. Armed with her final notes, the cast members head downstairs to greet and mingle with the audience members. They are creating the overall immersive karaoke experience that blurs the line between real life and theatrical reality. Diane keeps a keen eye on the performers and their interactions, furiously scrawling notes throughout the performance, constantly intent on improving the show.
She has a unique vision—a director willing to embrace and improvise with the audience, someone who particularly enjoys collaborating with actors to create magic onstage. When Diane initially began pursuing a career as an actor, agents were eager to cast the exotic young woman. However, when they learned that the young beauty was a Japanese American, she was immediately relegated to stereotypical Asian female parts. Rather than be typecast, Diane decided to use her experiences towards creating performances and opportunities as a director. Diane uses her skill and training—child dancer with the New York City Ballet, student of classical music, MFA in Directing at Columbia University—to fuse together the traditional and the popular. Spanning across a variety of music genres, her works delve into different music and art forms, including the Off-Broadway Lauro Nyro musical Eli’s Comin’ and the Chicago Opera Theater staging of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, as well as innovative, jazz-inflected pieces.
Diane, who originally aspired to be a lawyer, eventually found her passion in theatre. Early on in her career, the esteemed Paul Sills, her mentor, encouraged the New York born-and-bred actress to create summer theater in Door County, Wisconsin. During her five summers in Wisconsin, she and her creative partner and husband (whom she met at Harvard) Randy Weiner launched their career and developed their artistic niche. There, they founded Project 400 in 1993. “We just want to keep doing our work and let the work guide us.” The name “Project 400”, inspired by a local group celebrating their 400th production at the time, serves as a constant reminder and motivation, “when you put on your 400th show, you know you have accomplished something”, says Diane.
True to their mission, Diane and Randy use Project #48, The Karaoke Show, to craft a new kind of theatre that builds a connection with the audience. Right from the get-go, the couple recognized the merits of teaming with the community. For Diane, “the purpose of live theatre is to build a community. We really believe in karaoke. It is not to be poo-pooed at. It’s not a cheap form. We have just given it a theatrical shape so that there is a story.”
This is a show that promises to “blow open ideas of racial and ethnic barriers, where your race does not have to be limited to how you are perceived,” says Diane. It will lead you through a feast of transformations where the “transformation only ends when you take the stage.” As audience member Frankie can attest, “I can’t tell who’s an actor, and who’s in the show, who’s real, and who’s not! Are you part of the show?” Frankie, consider that a testament to the success of the director’s constant eye for improvement and her creation of that theatrical reality every Thursday night.