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She Has a Passion for Theatre

Diane Claussen is managing director of the Theatre and Interpretation Center

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December 1, 2011 | by Stephen Anzaldi
Diane Claussen

Diane Claussen

Diane Claussen has a glow-in-the-dark passion for her work as managing director of Northwestern’s Theatre and Interpretation Center. She acted until she was 25 before transitioning to a career in arts administration and tackling her favorite question: “What happens when the audience sits down?”

“That’s when the real conversation begins,” she said.

“Northwestern theatre is exciting because we’re educating the next generation of professional artists right here in Evanston,” Claussen said. “And through that process, we want to reach into the community to discover what’s relevant and vibrant in our work so the action on stage becomes a jumping-off point for dialogue.”

Claussen has been working at Northwestern for a year after stints at companies on the East Coast and at the Court Theatre of the University of Chicago. One of the reasons she’s here is to expand existing audiences and cultivate new ones at a time when it’s difficult to sell tickets in the performing arts industry.

She has a plan in mind for this challenge, and Northwestern’s role in the community plays a large part.

“This region’s theatre scene is so deep and rich,” she said. “Northwestern is a part of a larger fabric, so we have the freedom to work in niches because we don’t have to be everything to everyone. What we’re trying to do is get at shared values — what’s important to us all — so we can advance the conversation bit by bit and help make Evanston and Northwestern the best place to work and live.”

Here she talks about being a good neighbor, what makes Northwestern theatre special and the origins of her own passion.

 

You’ve worked primarily for regional and professional theatre companies. How do they compare with Northwestern theatre?

To start, we’re a mix of undergraduate student actors, graduate student designers, and faculty and guest professional directors and choreographers. That makes for an interesting combination of talent.

 

How is that manifested in being a good neighbor?

Northwestern is an incubator for emergent art and artists. So I see the University as a community center, but not in a paternal way. It’s an economic driver, certainly, but it’s also part of the cultural energy of Evanston and the region.

We want to share our creativity with the community. And, in turn, our doors are open so that people can talk to us and bring their own ideas. We’re proud to host Backstage Evanston to celebrate our city’s arts diversity. And moving forward, we’re looking for ways to team with other arts organizations to co-produce works in the future.

 

What do you expect will be the “market” in Evanston for this type of outreach?

There are no walls to break down here, and that’s more than can be said of some places. When I reach out I’m greeted with enthusiasm. It’s easy. One meeting and we’re off and running. As a result, we have the opportunity to keep doing more. We can focus on HOW to deliver instead of wondering IF we can deliver.

 

What is special about Northwestern theatre?

This is a wonderful lab in which young people can formulate and test their ideas in a supportive environment with world-class faculty and staff.

Because we create in this amazing research institution, we can engage in campus-wide dialogue on important themes and topics that cut across many disciplines.

For example, we finished last month performances of Northwestern alumnus John Logan’s “Never the Sinner.” The play recreates the first “Trial of the Century” in 1924, when Leopold and Loeb murdered a boy from Hyde Park in their attempt to pull off the perfect crime.

Prior to two shows, we hosted two law symposia exploring the historic and contemporary legal issues embedded in the case. So we had the director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, a retired judge and a defense attorney talking about legal strategy, the death penalty and what’s happening in Illinois today.

In another example of cross-pollination, I enjoyed getting the Second City comedy writers to interview coaches and student-athletes to gather material for the homecoming revue, “The Second City Does Northwestern.” It’s another way we’ve stretched to make unlikely connections.

 

Let’s talk about that glow-in-the-dark passion.

It’s true, I have an obvious passion for theatre. I love that it brings to life, in a very immediate way, themes and stories and other ways of thinking. By having people act right in front of me, it makes the experience real and personal.

 

Where does that passion come from?

I remember when I was eight, seeing “Fiddler on the Roof.” I thought, “Oh my God, I just saw an amazing story.” That moment in history, the family’s love, it opened to me the power of storytelling. It’s probably my earliest memory of the theatre.

I still believe theatre can change the world!

By having a deeper understanding of what has happened in the world — and what is happening today — we can build tolerance and understanding for many points of view. And that leads to a healthier and fairer democracy.

 

What do you mean when you say you STILL believe?

I fell in love with theatre when I was little. A lot of people did the same. But then they grew out of it. I still have that childlike enthusiasm and optimism.