“Wheels Within Wheels, Fires Within Fires”: Joshua Bates on the Inner Workings of The Crucible
Q: Let’s lead off with an easy one. What made you want to direct this show?
A: I think it’s one of the few classic shows, modern American classics, that has really raw feelings in it, and raw emotions that aren’t typically found in that time frame. And it’s been a while since I’ve done a heavy show, an emotionally-draining show, so I thought it was time to do one.
Q: We’re about one week away from opening night as we conduct this interview. How are you feeling about the show at this point in the process?
A: I think the cast has done an amazing job as far as being prepared. Most of them have been off-book for over three weeks now, so we can really delve into characterization. That’s been extremely helpful. Now it’s just putting everything together, putting acts together, lights, sound, props. But no, we’re ahead of schedule, and that makes me very happy.
Q: You’ve made the decision to stage the show partially in the round. Viewers can sit on the stage, if they want, or they can keep their distance and stay in the house. How do you think this involves the audience in the events of the play?
A: So, being such an emotionally-charged show, it’s going to be an amazing experience to sit there and be inside John Proctor’s home, to be inside the meetinghouse where the trial happens, to see their expressions, to feel like you’re part of the action. It’s going to be quite an amazing experience. I’m very excited about it. You can’t avoid it. Being onstage, you can’t avoid the emotions, the anger or the frustration, or the violence that occurs. You have to be in it. You can’t look away.
Q: There have been a few high-profile adaptations of The Crucible in recent years, most prominently Ivo van Hove’s Broadway revival in 2016. Do you take any inspiration from those productions, or is there a conscious decision to try and avoid this?
A: What’s the saying, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?” No, not from the Broadway show. I liked it, but I didn’t take much from it. The Old Vic did The Crucible in 2014, with Richard Armitage as John Proctor, and it was phenomenal. And it was hard not to take themes from that show, and that really, when I watched it, that was what really got me excited about this play.
Q: What’s been the highlight of the rehearsal process? Conversely, what’s been difficult?
A: The pleasure, of course, has been the cast. They’ve been very open to direction, they’ve challenge themselves, they’ve challenged each other, they’ve just been so pleasant and pleasant with one another. We’ve been able to work on the craft from the beginning. The difficult part has been some of the raw emotions that some of the actors get to, and doing that over and over, I know it takes a toll on them. It’s draining, emotionally, and to be able to just pick it up and just do a 180 has been a challenge.
Q: What was your inspiration for the set design? Besides being staged in the round, there’s a lot that visually striking about the world you’ve created for this production.
A: So I wanted, originally, to do it in the round and have no set whatsoever, because I thought the words of Arthur Miller were so well done that I didn’t want anything else to take the eye away from the actor, and what the actor was doing, So we’ve done a little more than that, where I wanted to create an abstract stage, a piece of art to look at, something you can take your own meaning from. But purposefully, it’s minimal costumes, minimal sets, furniture, very set to a minimum. Because the show doesn’t need it. It needs a focus on what they’re saying and what’s going on.
Q: What about those hanging chairs?
A: Originally, my idea was, in Puritan homes they’d hang their chairs with two nails and hang them to make room in the small living conditions they were in. And chairs were a very easy craft to create, and houses had chairs, and not much more than that. With the striking look of all of the chairs onstage for the audience members, and all of the actors bringing in chairs during different scenes; the chairs, in the courtroom, everyone brings one in, because it isn’t a court, it’s a meeting space. It was just made of chairs, and of course, the significance of the one red chair is an homage to The Scarlet Letter. At the same time, I think audience members are gonna come up with their own reasoning of why those chairs are there.
Q: The Crucible is not a short play; this production runs about 2 hours, 30 minutes. I understand that you’ve made some adjustments to the script to make the running time a bit more manageable. Can you discuss what those were?
A: Sure. So, Arthur Miller is pretty notorious for mansplaining. He has a lot of men in roles that say the obvious, but will take two paragraphs to say it. A lot of those, we’ve cut to the chase and gotten to the motivation of the line, which cut out probably 30 minutes just off that. There’s also a famous scene with John and Elizabeth that’s removed in most Broadway and off-Broadway productions, but we’ve completely omitted that as well. That’s helped, too. We’ve done some heavy editing. In rehearsals it’s been like, “take those four lines out and just say that last line,” that’s all that matters.
Q: With it’s themes of witchcraft, this is an appropriate play for October. Do you believe that it’s just paranoia and hunger for power that’s motivating the actions of the show, or could there really be something paranormal happening?
A: No, I don’t think there was anything paranormal whatsoever. I think it’s just fear, what people do when they’re driven by fear. It’s all in their heads. Now, what their individual truth is? I couldn’t tell you. I think some of the women in Salem thought they really did see something, or have visions, or danced with the devil. But I think it was paranoia and fear. I think we tend to look at The Crucible as some kind of mystical show, and it really isn’t, and I find that really interesting.
Q: The Crucible was written by Arthur Miller as an allegory for the Red Scare and McCarthyism, so it’s no surprise that it’s been a politically-relevant play even over half a century after it premiered. What do you think it has to say in today’s society?
A: It says today that we haven’t really changed as a society. There have been some things that have changed judicially, where the judge isn’t also the prosecutor. But this country is still run by rich, white men. There is a difference in how we treat sexes in America, in 2018 and in 1697. We’re still driven by fear, and the populus, and our social circles. And, you know, something that has majorly changed is Abigail. Arthur Miller portrayed Abigail as a harlot, where John is innocent. Hopefully, that’s slowly changing, but it’s taken over 300 years for that to change. But even when Arthur Miller wrote this, he had that feeling in it, and that’s kind of...that’s been hard for my actors to portray that.
Q: Last question. Give me your best pitch: why should people come out and see The Crucible?
A: It’s the closest you’re going to get to professional theater on a community stage. These actors are doing just as good as any Equity actor in the country, period. It’s raw, it’s real, it’s emotional, it’s not the boring play you remember from high school. And to revisit it, most people haven’t since they read it then, they think they know it, so looking at it now with a different lens is worth the watch.
The Crucible opens October 19th and runs through October 28th. Tickets are available HERE or over the phone at 843-875-9251.