Time Out speaks with MTC associate artistic director Sam Strong about life in the mainstream and his new production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible
Fresh from his success with Other Desert Cities, MTC associate artistic director Sam Strong is full of confident anticipation ahead of his latest adventure, Arthur Miller's Salem witch-hunt classic.
Sam, what kind of look can we expect from your production of The Crucible?
The set is very much built around the unique points of entry into the various different spaces in The Crucible. The guiding principle will very much be getting out of the way of the production.
I have particular aesthetic proclivities, as all directors do. My work tends to be visually cleaner, relatively simple and spare, and it tends to be actor focused, and I think that's true across my body of work. The thing that interests me most about being a director is being able to dive into completely different universes that different plays give you. I don't feel like I want to impose my tastes or aesthetics on a work because I know that that is probably going to come out anyway.
Tell us about the transition from Griffin Theatre Company, where you were artistic director for many years, to the Melbourne Theatre Company? Do you feel like aesthetically or stylistically you're headed in a new direction?
I do think there is a distinction between the work I was making with Griffin and the work I'm making here. Griffin is a new writing theatre that only does Australian work, and so a lot of the work I did up there was working on new plays. As a result, I tended to be developing new plays with writers. Another point about Griffin is that it is obviously a unique space, quite an intimate space, so making working in it was a particular exercise, quite boutique and intense.
One of the unique challenges to directing at the MTC, though, is that you're making theatre for a very large audience. The nature of MTC shows is that a lot of people see them, and whatever the size of the space that you're making them in, whether it's the Fairfax or the Sumner, you're making work for quite a large general public audience. On the other hand, there's not that much difference. Even at Griffin I was able to do slots out, which meant I was able to do work at the Sydney Theatre Company last year.
Was it difficult to move between the Griffin and the larger stages?
What I'm interested in doing is making the most communicative version of a play. There's this great quote from Nick Hytner about working at the National Theatre. He says, 'I want to make an experience that speaks to the widest number of people'. So even if you're operating in smaller spaces, I'm still interested in making work that is commercially successful.
Was there ever a light bulb moment where you suddenly realised, Oh, yes, I can still be an artist and also be a box office success?
What excites me about being an artist is making work for a wide and a diverse audience.
But is that something that you've always desired?
There was an interesting moment in my career at the start of 2010, where I did my first main-stage production here, which was a production called Madagascar, and very shortly after that I made my main-stage debut in Sydney, which was a response to the financial crisis by David Hare which was a play called The Power of Yes, upstairs at Belvoir. So I kind of went from making independent work for my peers to suddenly making work for 30 000 people I'd never met. That was when I realised that actually this is a different challenge and I think that is exciting.
Also, at the start of last year, between The Boys and Les Liaisons dangereuses, there was literally close to six months of sold out theatre in Sydney. So it was deeply lovely to think, that well, between a couple of shows I've reached a lot of people in Sydney.
Is there a much younger Sam Strong who might have worried about compromising the vision or selling out? Is it something that the current Sam Strong ever wrestles with?
I think terms like selling out or commerciality come at the thing from the wrong way. I think any artist wants their work to speak to the widest possible audience.
Miller is one of great modern examples of a playwright able to combine artistic excellence with broad commercial appeal, touching so many different people in different situations around the world. What is the secret to this rare combination?
I think what Miller does better than anyone is gravity and power. Whether it's The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, All My Sons or A View from the Bridge, they're all uniquely powerful theatrical experiences. They are blueprints for affecting people.
I think there's an unabashed gravity in Miller's work from that period which we don't find in contemporary writing. I mean, no one writes stage directions that say 'with a cry from his soul' any more. And I think part of the appeal of Miller is that he asks an enormous amount of the actors and directors that are tackling his work, but he gives an enormous amount to an audience in that he is not ashamed to make an audience weep.
He gives them emotion and seriousness, but does he give them a lot of intellectual content, too?
He writes about big ideas. And that's not just true of The Crucible, but all of his work. You're talking about plays that are about not just about what it means to be American, but what it means to be human. The Crucible is not just about one man's relationship with his conscience, but man's relationship with the state, and the relationship between a public and a private conscience.
You've also talked before about the "perfection of the plot" in The Crucible. How important is that to the play's enduring success?
I think that more than anything else that's what drew me to this play. Miller wears his Ibsenite heritage quite proudly on his sleeve, and I think The Crucible, along with Three Sisters, is kind of as close to structural watertight perfection as you can get, the perfect four-act experience that builds where it should build and recedes where it should recede. I don't think people make plays like that anymore so it's really refreshing for audiences to encounter that scale and that gravity and that intensity.
Those are three fascinating names to conjure with, Miller, Ibsen and Chekhov, but while all three are tackling big ideas and are authors of wonderful, well-made narrative arcs, Ibsen and Miller seem to take stronger personal positions on those ideas. Do you think then that it's similarly important for a director of Miller to take a strong position on his big ideas? Especially in a play like The Crucible where the dramatic argument is so strong?
I think Miller is a uniquely political playwright with a really strong political conscience. My approach as a director is that where a work has a strong political point, often you're best off letting the work itself carry the political weight rather than trying to impose your own view.
Do you then feel the opposite when you're tackling something like Three Sisters? Do you feel like you really need to reorientate the piece for modern audiences?
I think so. I think one of the fascinating things about directing the classics is that the approach will always change according to the time, but to a certain extent The Crucible sits outside that. Miller has written about a very specific time period, from the vantage of another very specific time period, and somehow in that temporal alchemy it transcends specifics, so the normal arguments you might have about a work's relevance actually don't apply to The Crucible. The relevance of The Crucible is a given.
And I think that what is interesting about The Crucible for me is that my task is not so much to impose a take on it as to makes sure that I fully realise it. When something is engineered to create an experience as powerful as we find in The Crucible I see my role as making sure that people see not only a moving version of The Crucible, but the most moving version of The Crucible they've ever seen. I don't feel a particular need to do something novel with The Crucible, I feel an obligation to do the best version we possibly can.
In Australia, though, is its relevance necessarily given? Is it possible that in Australia, where we seem to be a little bit more comfortable with compromising liberty for order than in America, where we seem more relaxed about government power, that The Crucible might not speak as persuasively?
Part of what makes The Crucible relevant is it's personal focus as well as its political focus. Miller has zeroed in not just on what's operating at the level of the state, but what's happening between people, particularly the love triangle that is at its heart.
I don't think that Australians are less inclined to see the ideas in The Crucible as relevant because the ideas in The Crucible are timeless in that they are about the relationship of the individual to society. While those timeless questions will take on a different light according to the political climate in which the work is staged, the genius of Miller is that he has been able to transcend specifics in The Crucible, so that it's actually not bound by time. It's exploring something that is unique to all times and all political situations.