Peter DuBois has always been moved by theater

From Prague to Alaska to New York and Boston, the newly named leader of the Huntington has been driven by a love of theater

Peter DuBois Peter DuBois is the youngest artistic director to be appointed at the Huntington Theatre Company. (Globe Photo / Joe Tabacca)
Email|Print| Text size + By Megan Tench
Globe Staff / December 23, 2007

NEW YORK - Outside the Public Theater, hail scatters across Manhattan's streets, cabbies slow to a crawl, and pedestrians scurry and slip down sidewalks that have turned into mini ice skating rinks. But inside the majestic landmark, Peter DuBois, the Public's resident director, is preparing to race from a meeting to a reading without missing a beat, cursing Mother Nature, or uncurling the infectious smile that has become his trademark among those in New York theater circles.

At 37, the New England native has a reputation for sailing past obstacles, whether it's in starting an underground guerrilla theater troupe in Prague or raising millions of dollars for a small theater in Alaska. It's the kind of ability that the award-winning director will bring - along with an impressive Rolodex - to the Huntington Theatre Company, which recently named him its new artistic director, starting in July.

"I think the Huntington made a really very brilliant choice," says Oskar Eustis, artistic director at the Public Theater. Eustis says DuBois's combination of artistic and managerial skills make him a rare theater administrator. "You actually have to love institutions, and that is not always the case with artists," he says. "Usually artists and institutions are at war with each other. But Peter genuinely loves being a part of the institution and the institution's work."

During the past four years at the Public, first as associate producer and then as resident director, DuBois directed produc tions ranging from 2004's "Richard III" starring Peter Dinklage ("The Station Agent") to a 2006 Obie-winning staging of David Grimm's "Measure for Pleasure" and this year's critically acclaimed "Jack Goes Boating" with Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman.

"I've worked with Peter as an actor, director, and producer, and on all fronts I've found him to be open, imaginative, and tenacious," Hoffman says upon hearing of DuBois's new gig at the Huntington.

While DuBois begins to make plans as the youngest artistic director to be appointed at the Huntington, he is leaving some of his colleagues shaking their heads in both admiration and disappointment that New York has lost a rising star to Boston.

"Well, he's on everybody's list in New York," says Tony Award-winning actor Michael Cerveris, adding that he looks forward to working with DuBois here. "I bet there are many people here who are going to be more than disappointed that he's leaving. I guess this just means they are going to have to travel up to Boston."

Grief and joy

In a mirrored dressing room at the Public, DuBois is full of enthusiasm as he muses about crafting a new season at the Huntington. He says he wants to put an edgy and creative spin on the classics, break ground in musical theater, nurture a rising generation of artists, and strengthen ties between the Huntington and other local institutions and communities.

A medium size man in black jeans, a light blue shirt, and faded brown shoes - worn no doubt from maintaining a jam-packed schedule - DuBois often punctuates his thoughts with his hands, and he's quick with a turn of phrase, a charming wink, a joke, or even a pat on the shoulder to make a stranger feel at ease.

Looking back at the last 15 years, DuBois confesses that his drive to go after his art began with one pivotal and heart wrenching moment: the death of his mother, Jeanne, at 52, of breast cancer.

"I was 18 years old," he says. "It really changed my life in the sense that I started to live with a much greater sense of abandon in the best possible way. And a greater sense of just saying that I am going to follow the path that's going to bring me the most joy in my life and the most satisfaction in my life. I am not going to be afraid of difficulty and challenges. And I am not going to make safe and easy choices with my life. And my father really respected that."

DuBois got his first taste of theatrical joy right in his own backyard in Enfield, Conn. He was 6.

He "borrowed" a curious array of old wigs his mother happened to have in her dresser drawer and went knocking on his neighbors' doors looking for an audience.

"I'd do these performances for my neighbors," he recalls, blushing. "I had a fort in my backyard, and I'd go and knock on the doors and say to the neighbors, 'At 6 o'clock there's gonna be a new play!' I would just make it all up. I'd be different characters. There was grandma and Uncle Eddy. I would do 'Grandma takes Uncle Eddy to the Supermarket.' "

He was an instant neighborhood smash hit, he says.

At 8, he landed a role in his church production of "Sentimental Journey," and soon after he performed in an all-kids production of "Guys and Dolls" in Longmeadow. Little DuBois was hooked.

"That really got me sort of excited and interested in theater," he says. His mother, then a librarian in a church seminary, and his father, an engineer, were both very supportive. His two older brothers went in different directions: One now runs the biomedical ethics program at Saint Louis University, the other is an executive at a national insurance company.

DuBois dabbled a little in politics while studying at Villanova University before the tug of theater and the arts pulled him in, he says. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and a few years later, after he completed his bachelor's degree, DuBois packed his bags and headed to the scene of the Czech Republic's Velvet Revolution, a nonviolent revolt against communism that spurred a prolific underground arts movement.

"Prague was this place I was just drawn to like a magnet," DuBois says passionately. "The idea that there was a country being run by a playwright, Vaclav Havel. I saved up some money and got on a plane."

It didn't take long before he hooked up with a motley crew of international 20-somethings hoping to take part in Prague's outburst of long pent-up creative energy. They located an abandoned Salvation Army building.

"We broke in, changed the locks and reconnected the electricity, and created something called the Asylum," he says, laughing. "We called it that because we thought of it as a place where people could come to seek asylum. And it was truly a bunch of young artists making their work."

They had all-night rehearsal sessions, staged underground productions that drew wide audiences and national recognition, and even opened a pub. But after eight months the theater's success drew the attention of the police.

"The police came in and said you're here illegally, this can't happen anymore, and they basically shut us down," DuBois says. "But that was my first experience really being in an artistic community, and that really made me feel like a thriving artist, alive and excited."

DuBois spent 2 1/2 years in Prague, leaving after he saw a stunning production of "The Seagull" by Anton Chekhov, he says: "It was so Czech, so of the Czech Republic, that I really wanted to explore what it meant to be an American artist."

Returning to the United States in 1996, DuBois earned his master's degree in theater at Brown University, where he was mentored by playwright Paula Vogel, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "How I Learned to Drive." She had developed the play while she was an artist-in-residence at Alaska's Perseverance Theatre.

"She drove around the state in a pickup truck and basically wrote the play in two weeks, the first draft," said DuBois. "She would tell me stories about the theater and how wonderful the theater was, so I started to get intrigued."

When he finished at Brown, Vogel and Perseverance founder Molly Smith urged him to apply for the Perseverance artistic director job," he says. "So I did."

In a bold move to the furthermost reaches of the United States, DuBois took over where Smith had left off. It was at Perseverance that he honed his institution-building skills, cutting debt and raising $2.5 million in capital and endowment campaigns to make Perseverance Alaska's largest producing arts organization. He also brokered a relationship with the University of Alaska Southeast in which Perseverance would assume responsibility for all theater education activities at the college, offering minors to its students.

DuBois ran Perseverance from 1998 to 2003, beginning to make a reputation for himself as an up and coming American artist and institutional leader.

On the move

At New York's Public Theater, he stepped into a bigger arena. He oversaw transfers of shows to Broadway, international artistic exchanges - notably with Dublin's Abbey Theatre and London's Royal Court Theatre - and coproductions with high-profile groups such as the LAByrinth Theater Company, the Wooster Group, the Civilians, and Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

Behind the scenes, he was prominent as well, serving as artistic liaison to the Public's patrons, corporate funders, and individual supporters.

These are relationships and skills he plans to bring with him to Boston, along with his partner of 10 years, Ben Bohen - a director with 'Wichcraft Company, a sandwich chain run by famed chef Tom Colicchio - and Simon, his black Labrador retriever.

"I have always been drawn to having an artistic home," says DuBois. "That home for a while was Prague and then that home was Perseverance in Alaska, the Public Theatre here, and my new home is going to be the Huntington."

"Where I think institutions have real value is in the way that they can support artists," he continues. "Artists who work in the performing arts have nothing if they don't have an audience, and they have nothing if they don't have institutions behind them. So I love having a home for me to do my work as an artist, but also providing a home for other artists to do their best work."

Perseverance's Smith, now artistic director at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., says that as Huntington's artistic director DuBois has "a much larger field to play in" and he will bring the Huntington community together with bold and innovative artistic works.

"He connects with people and he connects with material," she says. "He loves the classics, and he also loves new works. I've known him to do works that are visually sumptuous and gritty."

Even as he prepares for Boston, DuBois remains busy developing outside projects, something he plans to continue. "I've really spent my entire career balancing larger institutional issues with my creative life," he says.

He is directing Gina Gionfriddo's "Becky Shaw" at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., starting in February, and staging a new version of Sam Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class" at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater in the spring of 2008.

Other projects in various stages of development include a musical by Rachel Sheinken ("25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"), Michael John LaChiusa, and Lea Delaria; a new take on Clare Booth Luce's "The Women" with Rosie Perez; and a revival of Moliere's "Tartuffe" with Dinklage.

While he is giving away no secrets about which plays Boston audiences should expect in the 2008-09 season, DuBois, whose contract runs through 2011, says that he's already been in touch with executives from the Abbey Theatre and that he hopes departing Huntington artistic director Nicholas Martin, who is becoming artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, will come back to the Huntington stage often.

DuBois also says he wants to bring diversity and a more clearly defined vision to each of the Huntington's three theater spaces: the 890-seat Boston University Theatre and the new 370-seat Virginia Wimberly Theatre and 200-seat Roberts Studio Theatre, both in the Calderwood Pavilion.

"Putting all of these pieces together is really exciting to me," he said. "The large stage enables these big beautiful productions. The Wimberly stage allows for greater degrees of artistic risks, works that have more challenge and more edge to them - and allows for new plays to be developed without the pressure of filling a 900-seat house. The Roberts is great because it's a way to invite theater companies within Boston to have a home at the Huntington and also a great space to invite students."

Pondering the next chapter of his life, DuBois leans back in his chair and grins.

"It's going to be fun."

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