What I learned. . .

I was the bridge between Artistic Directors who were changing jobs in 2016-’17. First, as we were getting ready to open Peter Pan at Syracuse Stage in November, 2015, Tim Bond, then the Stage’s Artistic Director but getting ready to make a move back to Seattle where he now heads the directing program at the University of Washington, inquired about my interest in directing Deathtrap at the Stage in the Spring of 2017, after his departure. I accepted the offer, and not too long after, also accepted Bob Hupp’s offer to direct Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as part of the transition season at Arkansas Repertory Theatre, when he would step down as AD to take on new challenges and adventures as Syracuse Stage’s incoming artistic leader, as it turned out. In many ways, 2016-17 became about following Bob Hupp from one regional theatre to another – which was not a regrettable situation in which to find myself, especially since Arkansas Rep was new to me, and Syracuse Stage was a familiar home base. Best of all possible worlds.

The Crucible has been a part of my artistic bloodstream since I first became involved in theatre. Our college drama department did a production my freshman or sophomore year, but more than that, I saw William Ball’s searing and staggeringly theatrical production of the play at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre during the company’s hey-day. Two things stuck with me from that production: Jay Doyle’s icily terrifying performance as Deputy Governor Danforth – the epitome of evil; and the way in which Carol Mayo Jenkins, who played Abigail Williams (and who many years later, in one of those “life and the theatre are entirely unpredictable/always expect the unexpected” ways, became a beloved friend and colleague when we began working together at the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee), drew to her and encircled with her arms the hysterical girls at the end of the infamous trial scene (it’s hyperbolic or wishful thinking on my part, but I swear Bill Ball cast every available young woman in ACT’s renowned training program as Salem’s teenage accusers – the operatic pyramids of human flesh he was able to sculpt with those bodies was a lesson in physicalization, picturization, and composition) -- with the lights going out at the exact moment her hand came to rest on Kitty Winn (Mary Warren)’s shoulder, her head craning up and heavenwards, pieta/martyr-like. 

I stole this moment the first time I directed the play (at Lincoln High School in Stockton, California – a production that brought out the largest number of young men to audition for a play in my entire time at Lincoln, second only, perhaps, to Romeo and Juliet which attracted all sorts of male newcomers to the theatre at Lincoln when word spread that nationally renowned combat guru David Boushey would be teaching and choreographing the sword fight sequences for us) -- and then again in Little Rock. Some things become branded in your director’s memory – and as we learn along the way, some of our best ideas are those we have “borrowed” from other directors and other productions, verbatim or embellished. Couldn’t really steal from someone better than the legendary Mr. Ball.

I had an excellent cast for the Arkansas Rep production, comprised of several very fine local actors as well as a number of out-of-towners. Stephen Paul Johnson, who played Deputy Governor Danforth in Jim Edmondson’s production of the play at PCPA when I was Conservatory Director/Associate Artistic Director there, reprised the role in Little Rock; Michael Stewart Allen, new to me but not to Rep audiences played Proctor; Tarah Flanagan, a consummate actress with whom I’ve worked since her PCPA student days, played Elizabeth; Gracyn Mix and Stephanie Lambourn, both GRSF veterans played Abigail Williams and Mary Warren; Eric Gilde, with whom I’d worked at Pioneer Theatre Company and Syracuse Stage, played Reverend Hale; John Maltese and Blake Alexander Henri, also GRSF veterans played Reverend Hathorne and Ezekiel Cheever. Others in the cast were either brand new to me, or actors I’d met through auditions or whose work I had seen but hadn’t had a chance to cast before we came to Little Rock to work on “The Crucible.” I also engaged about eight young women from the Rep’s education programs to play Salem teen-agers; in addition to really wanting to fill the stage with teenage hysteria when the time came (Puritan bonnets off; hair unleashed, writhing and flying as they fled the imagined courtroom bird swooping down upon them), I also wanted to add a kind of prologue to the play in which Tituba, Abigail, and the young women danced in the woods, as Miller describes in the opening scene of the play. Mission accomplished.

I’d worked with two of the three design team members before: Marianne Custer, costumes, and my artistic partner-in-crime, lighting designer Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz (without whom it almost seems impossible now for me to direct a play). Mike Nichols, the set designer and the Rep’s resident technical director, was new to me but as a first time director at ART fulfilling a “gap year” assignment, Mike was a blessing, even if he seemed to fancy himself something of a curmudgeon. He knew and understood the theatre’s capabilities, and was way ahead of the game once we agreed on the design – which we both wanted to keep simple, imposing, stark, and fluid. The Crucible has four different locales, and we knew that trying to create four different sets (including the woods surrounding Salem, Massachusetts) would not serve the production or the script. Working from the idea of an ever-present, over-sized scaffolding suspended over the playing space, Mike developed a series of four large gently raked platforms with piles of furniture under dust covers lurking in the shadows for actors to retrieve and then return to their places; the set became evocative, versatile, fluid, and wonderfully ominous.

Marianne researched the period thoroughly and developed an appropriately dark palette for the clothes, but was also able to introduce some variety of color, subtle and restrained though it was, according to what she learned about plants and berries indigenous to New England that could be used in dying fabric, combined with what she also knew about color symbolism among the Puritans. Salem was also a community with its own sense of hierarchy, and Marianne capitalized on class differentiation in Salem, according to Miller’s descriptions, and historic records regarding land ownership, wealth, title, and/or profession. The results were earthy and muted, yet varied enough to help distinguish the people in the story from each other.

When we got to tech rehearsal, Lonnie’s and my journey became about making the world ever more dark, ever more threatening, ever more atmospheric. It was an all-too-rare opportunity for me to say to Lonnie, “too bright” (encouraged as we were by Mike Nichols, who was hoping for a dingy, dusky environment), but once we found our visual vocabulary, the cold, mysterious, and foreboding winter New England light became profoundly supportive and effective.

As the “bridge” director between Bob Hupp’s departure and incoming AD John Miller Stephany’s arrival (some time during our second week of rehearsal), I was in the awkward position of being a director who had not been selected by the current Artistic Director working on a play also not of his own selection at a theatre in which he was eager to establish administrative and artistic leadership style. Fortunately, I knew John through mutual friends and through his work in Minneapolis, so we weren’t complete strangers. And as with all guest director-Artistic Director relationships, we learned how to dance with one another so that my work could align with his vision for the company and for the production. As a “hired gun,” it’s important to remember that you are a guest in someone else’s home, and that you’re playing by their rules. You can fight for your particular vision or moment only so long and so hard; if you cling to what feels precious to you it can be counter-productive and self-defeating (and can also diminish the chances of return engagements). Plus, that set of outside eyes and ears is vital. We become too deeply immersed in the work to be able to see the forest for the trees, and having a sounding board to help guide a production during its final phases can make the difference between simply “good” and truly “excellent.” The mistake I’ve made (and the lesson I’ve learned more than once) is not to let that other set of eyes and ears’ ideas percolate before you try to incorporate them. Actors in a production have grown accustomed to their director’s voice, aesthetic, and vocabulary, and it can unnerve them if they suddenly feel they’re receiving an inauthentic note. So much of hearing notes from outside sources is about finding what’s worthwhile in the notes, what can be accomplished in the time you’ve got to rehearse, and how to best convey the notes so that actors’ confidence is not undermined at a crucial part of the process.

John’s notes were insightful and helpful, and though we disagreed on some staging issues, I appreciated that he was unafraid to speak his mind and to take the reins of leadership once he arrived in Little Rock. His eyes and ears were very helpful, often picking up small details I had overlooked along the way. And as best I could, I worked to incorporate what felt valid (and to give what was more questionable in my mind a try), with mostly successful results.

The theatre and the city were new to me, and I found Little Rock welcoming and fascinating. I loved discovering the culture and the city’s history, especially my walks to Central High School, site of one of the first Civil Rights era protests. We rehearsed The Crucible during the weeks leading up to the 2016 Presidential election, and as acrimony and tensions mounted during that time, I took daily walks to the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library, about a mile from downtown, the theatre, and company housing, perched on the banks of the Arkansas River and adjacent to the beautiful, park-like grounds of Heifer International’s headquarters. Those walks were comforting and inspiring, and although the election did not turn out as I had hoped or imagined it would, it was a time I will never forget – especially as the out-of-town cast gathered together to watch the Presidential debates and then, on November 8, when they were still in performance for The Crucible and I was in Las Vegas, already at work on Sense and Sensibility at Nevada Conservatory Theatre, when we shared our dismay and consternation about the results by telephone and text. The Crucible seemed to take on even more relevance at that time and the experience of Miller’s stirring, thought-provoking, allegorical play continues to reverberate to this day. 

The Crucible

Arkansas Repertory Theatre

October, 2016

The Crucible

Arkansas Repertory Theatre

October, 2016

“How did this happen?

“All who stand in the frenzied fallout of mass hysteria have asked this question, and that includes audiences of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s latest production of The Crucible. Directed by Paul Barnes, the classic story by Arthur Miller tells the harrowing tale of the Salem Witch Trials — the fear, the panic and the lives destroyed in the process.

“The play opens on a group of girls chanting to the sky and casting ‘charms’ for sport in the woods. Once they are discovered and whispers of real witchcraft fill the air, the feverish sprint toward insanity begins.

“At the center of the story is John Proctor, played by Michael Stewart Allen. As the whole town resolves itself to madness, Allen gives a raw and resonating depiction of a man desperate for redemption for himself and his wife while his own demons hold him under much darker magic than any witch in Salem could conjure.

“Tarah Flanagan plays the role of Elizabeth Proctor, a faithful and picturesque housewife to John, portraying with explicit nobility Elizabeth’s resolute wall of rightness built so high that rarely does her inner turmoil peek through.

“Inciting the chaos is Gracyn Mix’s Abigail Williams, played with all the defiance and delusion of a young girl reveling in attention and reckless with short-sighted vengeance. Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, played by Stephen Paul Johnson, is the undaunted force behind the witchcraft accusations whose steadfast and false logic would almost be laughable if it wasn’t so horrifying.

“The palpable panic as Salem spirals out of control is seen most vividly in Eric Gilde’s Reverend John Hale — the out-of-town expert sent as a voice of reason — and Stephanie Lambourn’s Mary Warren — the one girl willing to expose the others as frauds. As both find that all reason is gone and slip from their once solid principled footing, the blanket of tension over the audience thickens.

“Across the whole of the stage spans a sparse rafter-type construction and little else. With only a few modest pieces of furniture to denote between bedroom, courthouse and dungeon, the set and its harsh lights and deep shadows mirror not only a more bare and abrupt society, but the minds of those entrenched in this witch hunt. ‘This is a sharp time, now, a precise time,’ Danforth says as he makes the matter of witchcraft black and white, a notion the audience sees painted literally as the people of Salem are left stripped with no gradient of shadow.

“Though based in 1692 and inspired by The Red Scare of 1953, this story stands as a testament to the dangers of the hive mentality. It’s a world where conclusions become law, as sturdy as Scripture, and on The Rep’s stage it echoes as pertinent as it does ancient.”

     Jess Ardrey

     Little Rock Soiree