Film Director’s Blog

CIRCULAR FIRES – AN ENCOUNTER AND A CONVERSATION

With today’s announcement of new European territories for the release of #TheCrucibleOnScreen we further extend the reach of Miller’s profound masterpiece of social and political commentary.

This unique opportunity to share with a large international audience the social observation and insight of the original drama extends in a real sense the desire shared by Yaël Farber and The Old Vic and summed up in Yaël’s article in The Independent at the time of the London production – ‘With the audience seated all around us, we literally face ourselves. Like a hall of mirrors, in-the-round theatre is an evocative ritual of reckoning with the self. The beauty of the ancient arenas and circular fires around which stories were once told, is that no one is excused from the conversation. We are a part of the transmission.’

World-wide audiences and students will now find themselves part of this extended ritual, another wave of the transmission, that Yaël speaks so eloquently about.

When I met Arthur Miller at the time of another production of The Crucible, one I was directing for the Sheffield Crucible Theatre, an apt space for the title, regardless of the shared name, I was able to ask him a simple question. It was a crisp spring morning and we walked along the Serpentine and talked about the memorable interpretations that he recalled having witnessed from the dozens of productions he had seen over the previous years. He had a keen memory and seemed enlivened by the variety and range of the performances he had witnessed and who had really ‘got that part,’ or ‘had really ‘got into the heart of a role.’

The conversation ended in a broader and more delicate exchange about time, the purpose and meaning of drama and indeed finally – I thought why not? – life. At 83, I saw him, at 25, as an iconic figure in a young man’s imagination, yet he was now there beside me on a bench squinting into the sunshine, glancing sideways, investigating the tone of my questions. I asked, ‘Do you mind me asking you what you have learnt from all these experiences?’ He stopped for a moment and stared into the distance, and smiled carefully, taking a closer more searching look at me as I waited in an awkward silence, looking at the gravel beneath my feet. He had, he said, learnt of courage, that it was indeed ‘the greatest virtue,’ and that his experiences had showed him this time and again, ‘…its about courage Robert.’

He then quoted from Winston Churchill – ‘Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak and also what it take to sit down and listen ‘ – and he re-iterated that this also spoke to him….’this idea of courage.’ He then stood up and said, ‘let’s walk again. ‘

Yaël Farber continues in her article with a question about ‘who we choose to be,’ and what defines us as individuals. The play and production pull us into these central questions and, we follow, both the desire of the writer and the director of this production into the arena of personal choices.

‘I am drawn to expressions of the heroism of which individuals are capable. It was for these same reasons that, in the early 1950s, Arthur Miller felt the need to give voice to a largely forgotten chapter in world history: the Salem Witch Trials of 1692…history will show that we are no more enlightened now than the Salemites were in the late 17th century.

The Crucible is not about malicious individuals who engineered an exceptional chapter in history when human beings lost their way. It is an articulation of the endless propensity we have for harming each other – when we believe ourselves to be righteous in so doing.

When a community abandons its ability to discern what is morally right, and when it prioritises collective obedience, it manifests what Hannah Arendt termed the “banality of evil”.

But when evil becomes legitimised and integrated without resistance, how does the individual reawaken the capacity to think? When we break from the collective, making ourselves accountable only to ourselves, do we awaken, as The Crucible’s hero does, asking of himself: “What is John Proctor?” In these defining moments, when the shadow falls over our door and demands that we betray others to survive… who do we choose to be?’

Here at Digital Theatre we hope that the opportunity to encounter both the play and production will light within its audience their own encounters with what it is to be human and what is most valuable to them in their daily lives.

LIVE OR CAPTURED?

There’s a debate in the air about capturing theatre, which can often appear self-serving, and I think may prove, in time, redundant.

It swerves around the sensibilities of artists and swirls around the adventure in capturing live performance, blowing onto the arts pages from time to time as audiences grow and a mass market develops for live and recorded arts. Does the debate about live and captured really come down to mere taste, a certain ‘house’ philosophy or production style or there something more at stake?

What’s live? What’s a live encore? What’s recorded live?  Do the audience really care?

What is this experience? The act of theatre or performance that is in question, its liveness will never be in question, but what is this facsimile or copy or transmission of this ‘liveness? ‘The boundaries blur and the line diminishes. At DigitalTheatre.com what’s key in our practice is that the line between the audience and the performer are not undermined.

This is where the actor’s focus is and must remain – this is theatre – this exchange – and why so much theatre captured in television studios appears so bizarre and disconcerting – a jumble of languages and signifiers muddling the line from the writer’s imagination to the audience’s perception. The ‘black box’ dominates – a dead realm – a void.

On stage in the empty theatre space what occurs is an act of conjuring, a world brought into existence through the creatives and the artists on the production. Theatre is the art of suggestion, and the more persuasive the suggestion, the better the experience. This can sometime be through hyper naturalism or sometimes through great poetic statements – either can seem utterly real and utterly persuasive in the mind of the audience.

So what of this new facsimile? Is it a new art form, a new hybrid? Or is it simply technology allowing a small auditorium to become a global auditorium. The means of transmission shift and change, adapt and mutate. They will change with technology and confront technology when the act of theatre and the line between the actor and the audience becomes disrupted.

Dramatic truth is a comprehended truth no matter what the medium and the modes of expression. It is this, which the act of capture is engaged in, live or recorded. What this truth is will continue to be debated. There will be many players and the audience, will no doubt makes its own mind up.

A fusion of creative forces

Controversial American film director, Elia Kazan, once remarked that directing is turning ‘psychology into behavior.’ This phrase, from his notebooks on Tennessse Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, is one of many keen insights from his work on the great canon of American mid-20th century drama, where he created seminal productions of what are now classic texts. Miller, as a master of social drama in this era, worked with him to enliven the newly coined texts and bring them into dramatic, urgent life. This process is always partly alchemical, a fusion of creative forces, imaginations and taste.

Yaël Farber and I first met at the BFI over seven hours of talk and debate and storyboarding, searching for the right framework to present her acclaimed work on this London revival. You know when there’s a connection between sensibilities and when a shared vision emerges. The day disappeared as we delved into the imagery, themes and values of the play. It was dark by the time we’d concluded and that newfound knowledge, going back to the origins and founding ideas, would transform our process over the subsequent weeks. When I sat in the notes sessions for the company during our shooting days, it was clear that this sense of shared vision had been embraced by the company and Yaël’s collaborative vision was both beguiling and entirely persuasive.

The shoot, edit and post-production process is to some degree an attempt to re-engage with that spirit, so evident amongst the performers, in Yaël’s dialogue on the play and in the auditorium each night before the first lines of music and the footsteps of Tituba, the Barbadian slave woman are heard. The actors, entering an empty space and recreating a world full of pain, fury and longing, play amongst the flinty, percussive language of Miller’s text and within the imagined world of Yaël’s vision.

The edit process attempts a re-creation of this spirit, the atmosphere, energy and sweep of the work, using film grammar to catch for a moment the mercurial flights of a performer’s craft and share them with the watching audience – channeling human emotion and Miller’s devastating critique of mindless persecution and false accusation.

Profound. Moving. Epic.

Profound. Moving. Epic; three words that have often been used to describe Arthur Miller’s resonant and rightly acknowledged masterpiece of American Theatre, The Crucible. The task at hand is to bring these qualities to the screen and ensure the experience of the play and the qualities of this unique production translate into another medium.

This is where a dialogue with what is true comes into play and the need to be in an edit in the ‘living present,’ as if you were seated in the darkened theatre, transported by the skill of the writer and the interpretive choices of actors and creatives. This is the only place to work from, as if you are re-orchestrating the totality of the experience with the tools of film grammar.

It’s a sketch. A drawing in time, and with time. You find the outline and then you search for what is resonant, profound, elegant, always remembering to avoid making the viewer too self-conscious, so that they don’t become aware of the filmed theatre experience, but rather the writer’s dream, the director’s hidden skill, the actors embodiment of a character. The task is to take the viewer on the journey to the instinct and convictions and original vision of the writer. If our version stays true to the poetry and impact of the original and we have offered the opportunity to engage with another world, either critically or in an immersive way, then we have succeeded.

The material provided by Arthur Miller and translated into searing life by Yaël Farber and her deeply connected ensemble at The Old Vic offer a rich seam to mine and bring to the surface of the screen – heart-breaking images of loss and fury, grief and love, justice and injustice. Images that deserve as wide an audience as possible.

Robert Delamere, Creative Director of DigitalTheatre.com