PEABODY — It isn’t often a Tony Award winner comes to town.
But that’s just what happened last week when Diane Paulus topped the bill at Northeast Arc’s Black Box Theater.
The artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University enthralled the packed crowd with how she chose a life in the arts and how it can transform us.
Paulus, 53, grew up near New York’s Lincoln Center, and Damrosch Park was her playground. Her home was filled with music — a sister played the harp in the living room, mom loved opera, her father played every composer from Bach to Stravinsky — and the family went often to Broadway plays.
But in the 1980s, she attended Harvard University and thought she might sidestep music, dance, and theater in favor of politics.
At 19, during her freshman summer, Paulus served as an intern for New York City Councilor Ruth Messinger. The liberal Democrat rose to be Manhattan borough president, but lost her bid for mayor in 1997.
“I dreamed of being mayor,” she said.
But there was a light bulb moment.
“I asked myself: ‘What do I really love to do where I could stay up all night doing it, not care, and it wouldn’t feel like work?'” she said. “I searched my heart and decided the arts was the way I could make an impact. I believe in the power of the arts to transform the world and you.”
She shared a story about how that choice became clear.
“If you go to a movie and the theater is empty, you think it’s great, because you can stretch out, put your bag and coat on the next chair and have all space you want, it’s delightful,” she said. “But if you went to a theater and it was empty, you’d think it was sad. There’s something about that collective experience that thrives.”
Her choice paid off.
In 2013, she received a Tony Award for best director of a musical, Pippin, her circus-inspired production that featured an acrobatic troupe of performers.
The ensemble cast tells the story of a young prince who longs to find adventure and meaning in his life. The son of the medieval French ruler Charlemagne is encouraged by the troupe to try his hand at war, love, and other joys before settling down.
She was selected as one of Variety’s “Trailblazing Women in Entertainment for 2014” and Boston Magazine’s “50 Thought Leaders of 2014.”
She won a second Tony for the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess for best revival and best direction.
Among her latest shows are Waitress on Broadway which, like the film version, tells the story of Jenna, a waitress and pie-maker who dreams of a way out of her abusive marriage. Complete with music from Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles, one reviewer said: “change is on the menu, as long as Jenna can write her own perfectly personal recipe for happiness.”
The show, Paulus said, has brought theatergoers to the stage entrance following the show, telling the players how the performance gave them the ability to leave a troubled relationship.
The Public Theater’s Tony revival of Hair on Broadway and London’s West End is also drawing crowds and strong reviews.
In an interview following her talk, Paulus said after college she trained as an actor, performed briefly in shows she directed, and considered an acting career.
“But I wasn’t patient enough to be a performer, I just wanted to make shows happen,” she said. “But I eventually realized I wanted to direct and leave the performing behind. I still have that vicarious experience by working with actors. I love seeing a performer do things they never thought they could do.”
She can’t say which show is a favorite.
“Every show is like a child, you can’t have favorites,” she said. “But the project I love the most is the one I’m working on.”
Up next for Black Box is “From Stage to Screen,” an evening of favorite songs from Broadway and the movies, including Music Man, Oklahoma, King and I, Phantom of the OPera, Les Miz, Rent, and Cats.
The show, scheduled for Friday, April 26, stars Broadway performers Caitlin Burke and David Macaluso. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. For tickets go to www.ne-arc.org.