As The Crucible opens at the Yard, artistic director Jay Miller tells Rosemary Waugh why this is a new era for the theatre and how it was ‘liberating’ directing a classic he had never seen
As a revival of The Crucible opens at the Yard Theatre this week, it “feels like a new era is beginning” for the venue, according to artistic director Jay Miller.
The east London theatre has gained recognition for its radical and experimental new-writing productions, as well as scratch performances, festivals of in-development work and youth-led programmes. So putting on Arthur Miller’s work is something of an unconventional decision in itself, marking the first time a classic play by a dead author has been performed there.
What’s behind this sudden desire to rummage in the archive? “It’s been on my mind for two or three years, but I haven’t quite known how to do it. The Almeida and the Young Vic sort of had the monopoly on classic texts,” he laughs.
The 1953 play, written at the height of McCarthyism and based on the 17th-century witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts, proved itself the perfect text for making that leap. Miller says: “I was interested in evaluating the fairly recent past to figure out how to try to move forward.”
Specifically, he was attracted to how the play explores “the sense of people being scared of one another and how in a society and a community, fear becomes the dominant factor in relationships. That feels very present at the moment: we’re all running scared”.
While current affairs are crucial to how Miller is approaching the play, he is not updating the setting. “When I was doing auditions I realised that our copy said ‘crashing into the present’, so everyone was asking how I was going to set it 2019. I was like: ‘I’m not.’ It’s just going to feel present in the theatre. I’m not changing its geographical or temporal location.”
He remains guarded about details, but it’s clear his motivation lies in tackling the bigger ideas underpinning the play and how these connect with a Brexit-weary Britain – similarly, of course, to how Arthur Miller intended his fictionalisation of the witch trials to speak to an America trapped in the Red Scare.
“It’s about fear, and what happens to love – and family – when you’re scared,” Miller says. “Lots of my friends spoke to me about their perceived loss when they discovered how their parents, or brothers and sisters, voted in the referendum. So, for me, it’s about when a culture becomes a state and that state then determines everything.”
The only detail that has been released about this new staging is that John Proctor will be played by a woman, Caoilfhionn Dunne. Again, it was recent events that inspired this choice.
“It was a gut reaction to the Brett Kavanaugh case,” says Miller. “He described himself as being subject to a witch-hunt and I thought the appropriation of that language by him was particularly offensive.
“I felt that if we were going to do The Crucible, a woman needed to own that narrative of being discarded by the culture of witch-hunting. But it was one of my problems with the play in the first place: that it’s supposedly ‘the play’ about the witch-hunt, but it’s about a man.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked in chemical manufacturing, at a sewage firm in Newcastle. I was moving chemicals around the country, but I never really knew what they did.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I had a few acting gigs in Paris before running the Yard.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s not a rush or a race. It’s about creating, sustaining and developing honest relationships.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Music. I was going to study music, but I changed my mind last minute and decided to study English literature.
As a director, what’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t try to be anything you’re not. That’s it.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
If I wasn’t in theatre, either a teacher or a musician.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Never watch press-night performances.
The Crucible opens at a time when London theatres are having something of an Arthur Miller season. The Price, a West End transfer from Theatre Royal Bath, is currently playing at the Wyndham’s. The American Clock runs at the Old Vic until Saturday and is soon to be followed by All My Sons. Death of a Salesman opens at the Young Vic at the start of May.
In part, this is coincidence – one that Jay Miller wasn’t aware of until after the Yard announced The Crucible – but it’s hard not to wonder what’s behind the theatre world’s collective fascination with the US playwright. Why now?
“America is built from stories. It discovered the power of narrative early in its development as a country and was able to communicate that narrative about itself nationally and internationally. Over the last few years, that story – some would say the content of that story, others might say simply the tone of that story – has radically changed.”
Miller continues: “I think the story of the US is going through a period of mass re-evaluation with regard to its status as the ‘world’s leader’, a place of opportunity and a welcoming state where immigrants are allowed a place to strive. I think Miller’s plays deal with the stories America tells itself and the stories we tell ourselves. I think that’s why. Other directors might disagree, but that’s my understanding.”
It’s such a punishing text. If we find the tenderness and the whispers, we’ll discover what’s been lost
Remarkably, the director has never seen a stage or film production of The Crucible – a situation he describes as “liberating” – but he still feels a certain weight attached to staging “one of those plays that’s on the verge of becoming a myth”. How he’s going about that may be quite different to how others have done so. “Miller’s language has a weight. It’s masculine and square, so a lot of the time in rehearsals I’m thinking: ‘Okay, he wants us to shout this, but what if we whisper it? How do we lighten it and find the tenderness?’ It’s such a punishing text. If we find the tenderness and the whispers, we’ll discover what’s been lost.”
It also emerges that Miller has a fascinating approach to directing. Following a brief stint as an actor in Paris after training at École Jacques Lecoq, he became a full-time director only when the Yard opened in a converted warehouse in Hackney Wick. So far, he’s directed four shows at the theatre.
“I always hear a show before I direct it,” he says. “I know the rhythm of it, I know the sounds. I’ll start a conversation with my sound director before anyone else.”
A competent pianist who considered studying music at university before a last-minute change to English literature, Miller doesn’t think he’ll ever compose the music for a show he’s directing. He says this is partly due to not being good enough, and partly because “I’m interested in music being a separate language to the action on stage”.
Juggling being an artistic director with being a director is a huge challenge, but switching the Yard for life as a freelance isn’t on the cards right now. He has previously described the Yard’s founding vision as offering audiences the “contemporary theatre that wasn’t on elsewhere”, while also providing artists with “the support networks and development opportunities to make their best possible work”. Right now, he feels the theatre is approaching “the shape” he wants it to be, allowing him to “more accurately communicate to our artists and to myself what we do”.
So does he have any other classic texts in mind for the Yard treatment? “Yeah, but I probably shouldn’t say,” he says. “It’s just an exciting place to be. I think as soon as theatre becomes formulaic, it’s dead.”
Training: Lecoq, Paris
• The Mikvah Project (2015)
• Lines (2015)
• Removal Men (2016)
• This Beautiful Future (2017)
• Empty Space Dan Crawford Award for innovation (2012)
• Peter Brook Empty Space Award (2017)
Agent: Howard Gooding at Judy Daish Associates Ltd
The Crucible runs at the Yard Theatre, London until May 11. Visit theyardtheatre.co.uk for full details