I witnessed an explosion onstage recently at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The explosion had nothing to do with pyrotechnics, although there was plenty of haze and, at times, light so bright it might burn eyes with its ferocity. No, this detonation came from mixing nearly every single ill grieving our society—sexual assault, racism, classism, alienation, gender identity discrimination, addictions to opioids, pornography, and social media misuse—and pouring it all out in tune to the songs from Alanis Morissette’s groundbreaking 1995 album, Jagged Little Pill. The show, a production of the American Repertory Theater (ART) with book by Diablo Cody, opened in May. Its director: Diane Paulus, Artistic Director of ART and director of multiple Broadway hits including Waitress, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Finding Neverland, and Pippin, for which she won a Tony Award for Best Director.
The show’s story depicts many threads unraveling, but the main one running like a bloodline through the tapestry involves a perfect-on-the-surface white Connecticut family whose well-favored son has achieved early acceptance to his first-choice college and whose daughter, adopted and African American, is testing the waters of her sexuality while seeking her identity. The father’s disconnected due to his 60-hour-a-week job and the mother is numbing herself out of existence with pain medication. The heart of Jagged Little Pill is this pain, which is echoed in every character onstage and, really, in all of us. I left the theater stunned and amazed. Who would have thought so much of what ails us as a nation could be addressed with power, clarity, and emotion, all in one show?
But someone did. Somebody saw it was possible and got together with a bunch of talented people and made it happen. That’s my point. And why I’m writing this about Diane Paulus.
Please note, I’m not a theater critic and this is not a review. I’m writing as someone who has been affected by what I’ve seen, and I want to share it so that in some way you might seek it out for yourself, if not in the show, then in the people around you.
I happened to be in Cambridge for the opening night of Jagged Little Pill because earlier in the day I had participated as an alumna volunteer in Harvard University’s Commencement festivities. Whenever people ask me about my Harvard experience, I say that while the professors were top notch and the education excellent, I learned the most from my classmates—and I still do. My classmates taught this steel town midwestern girl to expand my worldview and know that I could have agency, a voice in the world. They taught me possibility, that one could change things that have long been accepted, as “it is what it is.”
One of my classmates who has and continues to demonstrate this is Diane.
It’s not like we hung out or were specific friends—I explain our connection by saying “We did theater together.” She was an actor and director; I was a stage manager and producer, both of us active members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club. In fact, the Loeb still feels like home to me.
Diane and I crossed paths in multiple productions, but the one I recall and love the most was a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II, produced in the living room of Harvard’s North House. The audience sat on the floor and often had to scamper out of the way of charging actors. (“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings”—get it?) I was the stage manager and Diane played multiple roles. I still remember her confident stance and the tilt of her cap when, in the final scene, she played a groom addressing the deposed king in his prison cell.
“Hail, royal Prince!”
Minutes later the groom was gone, Richard killed, and the tears that had gently leaked from audience eyes throughout the play gushed fully.
Years later, in town for a reunion, I stood in front of North House with another classmate. He looked wistfully up at the windows and said, “I saw a production in that building that changed my life.”
I nodded. “You saw Richard II,” I said.
“How did you know?”
“Because I was there.”
Yes, I had witnessed the tears falling every night. I felt the energy whoosh through the room like a cyclone. I couldn’t believe anyone could walk away from that show and not be transformed.
And I know that Diane also felt and understood the transformative power of theater. How do I know? Because after graduation, when so many members of the HRDC went off to become doctors, lawyers, or enter other professions entirely disconnected from the artistic, Diane stayed in theater and at a time when many questioned whether it could ever be vital again. She lives confidently in that world with a stance not all that different from the one I witnessed years before. She is strong, assertive. Not only does she believe in theater’s transformative powers, she’s using that belief to transform and enliven theater itself. In doing so she inspires me and continues to teach possibility.
Not long after she took over ART I heard Diane speak at the Harvard Club of New York City. She was suggesting New Yorkers should travel to Cambridge—and do it often—for a weekend of theater. Some could have considered the thought outrageous—after all, there’s a little thing called Broadway and it’s right down the street! But because it was Diane and because of the passion of her words and her work I could tell no one dismissed it out of hand. Instead they considered the possibility.
Sometimes a little possibility is all it takes.
I see the possibility for greatness in this production of Jagged Little Pill. I see the possibility for the lives it will transform. Surely it will come to Broadway soon, but I’m not waiting that long. I’m going back to Cambridge for a weekend of theater, and this time I’m taking my family so I can share the story with them. Afterwards, during our two-and-a-half hour drive home, I’m sure we’ll discuss many aspects of the show, but most of all I like to believe we’ll talk about hope, inspiration, and of course, possibility.
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