Published in KPBS On Air Magazine February 1993
It’s like marrying someone with a checkered past; you hope not to inherit the baggage. But Paula Kalustian has done everything possible to unburden herself. When she became artistic director of The Theatre in Old Town last March, the organization was $100,000 in debt; it had proved an excessive challenge to public and private groups and a university theater program (USIU).
But Kalustian was indomitable. In January 1991, she directed “Beehive”, the sixties, teased-hair, all-woman musical revue that became the Theater’s biggest hit ever, with a nine month run and 171 performances. The Frances Parker School , a private institution that currently leases the building from the State, was sold on Kalustian. By December, the Theatre was out of debt and breaking even.
Kalustian brought in her own creative team. Jill and Steve Anthony, fresh from Kansas City , did a smashing job on “The All Night Strut” last December, as co-choreographers and, in Steve’s case, show-stopper. Two actress-singers who came for “Beehive” and “Strut” — Laura Lamun and Tajma Soleil — stayed in San Diego to continue their work with Kalustian. “It sounds corny,” says the petite, energetic, 41 year-old director, “but it’s really like a family. This is what I’ve wanted all my life. I’m weary, and have a lot more gray hair. But I know we’re putting our energies in a good place.”
Being artistic director of a new theater company is a full-time job, but it’s only one of Kalustian’s two. She’s also an Associate Professor in the Drama Department of San Diego State University and head of its Master of Fine Arts program in Musical Theatre. Sometimes, she intertwines her two roles. Several of her SDSU students have appeared in Old Town shows, and she wants Frances Parker interns involved, too. Twenty-one year-old Rachel Lynn has been in six Kalustian productions, including “Beehive” at Old Town (she did a dynamite Janis Joplin) and “Assassins” and “Into the Woods” at SDSU, where she’s a senior in the Drama department.
“I met Paula my first week of school,” Lynn recalls. “If she thinks someone’s talented, she’ll cast them even if they’re young or inexperienced. She’s amazingly supportive, constructive and intelligent. There’s no difference in how she works at school or professionally. She always has a good attitude, always has a smile on her face. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t like working with her. I imagine if you’re an actor who doesn’t like to do your homework, you might not like her. She doesn’t have time to spoon-feed actors. She’s probably one of the busiest people I’ve ever met, but she’s got more energy than a 20 year old.”
Kalustian’s schedule is a nightmare. “I have absolutely no time for a private life,” she admits. “When your life’s dream is dropped into your lap, you have to give it all your energy. I’ve given up my personal life. A couple of times I came close to marrying, but I chose my career instead. Sometimes I’m lonely, but so are other people. We all have our own path to march along… From the moment I came out of the womb, I was meant to be in theater. I started dancing at four years old. I started choreographing professionally at sixteen. I’d choreograph every moment of a musical; it was a natural progression to directing.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles , Kalustian spent the eighties in New York , working on and off Broadway. As a freelance director, she traveled six months a year. “By nature, I’m a solo kind of person, a traveler,” Kalustian explains. “But the idea of staying put for awhile and making something happen was very intriguing.” Before moving to San Diego in 1989, she had taught at three colleges in the midwest, always trying to mesh education with professional theater. “It’s a very good marriage,” says Kalustian. The Old Town/Frances Parker arrangement is perfect. “There’s a place here for the school and for a professional venue. We’re investigating a pilot theater education program… I want to create a professional theater space that’s comfortable, has good talent, does good shows. Primarily contemporary, high-energy, small musicals. Family fare that spans the ages.”
Next up at Old Town is “Song of Singapore” (opening February 6), a madcap, big band, musical mystery that ran for 13 months off-Broadway in 1990-91. This will be the premiere regional theater production. “It’s zany, funny kitsch,” says Kalustian. “We want people to feel like they’re walking into a Singapore bar in the 1940s.”
Almost at the same time, Kalustian is directing “Birds of Paradise” at SDSU (opening February 26 in the Experimental Theatre). “I’m used to the hectic pace,” she says. “One freelance year, I did 12 shows; you gotta keep working.” The new musical is about an amateur theater group doing a musical version of “The Seagull”. All the group relationships directly mirror those in Chekhov’s play.
Of course, Kalustian would love another “Beehive” phenom. But she’s realistic. “A hit like “Beehive” comes once in a lifetime,” she says. “It was the first time in my twenty years of theater. I’m glad it happened to me before I died… In the middle of my life, I feel like everything up to now has been preparation… My work and my friends have come together.”
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.