As I sit writing this, it is October 17, 2015, the 100th birthday of Arthur Miller. I find myself very moved reflecting on this benchmark. Arthur Miller means so much to me. Almost by accident I viewed, on my family’s old Zenith console TV, the CBS Network version of Death of a Salesman. I was 16 years old. Instantly, I understood the power of drama. This masterpiece is about an everyman, very much like my own father. Dad was a salesman who used to bring me along on trips throughout his “region”. I remember going to a barbershop in Princeton, NJ and the barber not only telling me he cut Albert Einstein’s hair (a rather questionable claim) but was able to point out to me the venerable old genius riding by on his bicycle that Friday afternoon so long ago. Such memories. So it was with these deep impressions from my youth that I viewed the downfall of Willy Loman. I had been a musical comedy kid until then, and this changed everything. I felt that if I could make people feel the way I felt that night I would have accomplished something, and I have spent most of my adult life in that pursuit. In 2002, I fulfilled a lifelong dream and directed Salesman for the Montana Repertory Theatre. It is a high point of my career. Miller felt so deeply: he had such passion for people and the traps in which we all are caught. Mankind’s struggle for authenticity, meaning and hope for a better future were what drove his plays and his soul. All Americans respond to his questioning voice. He was never still, always challenging, always searching. It is this restlessness, this longing for “more” that is so much a reflection of the quintessential American Character that Miller so eloquently captured, and why, generation after generation he is read, produced, and admired.
In producing All My Sons for our 2016 National Tour we continue the Montana Rep’s investigation into the American Character. In All My Sons, an early Miller masterpiece, we witness a strong and passionate example of the “Miller Spirit.”
“…the truth, the first truth, probably, is that we are all connected, watching one another. Even the trees.”
Today marks the Centennial of Arthur Miller’s birth. This time of year, the Montana Rep begins turning much of its attention to gearing up for the National Tour. As many of the Rep’s audiences already know, the 2016 National Tour will present a production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, rehearsals for which will begin this coming January. Therefore, we feel it is important to focus our upcoming blog posts on Arthur Miller’s life, his works, and some important themes and ideas he explores in his plays, and most importantly, 1947’s All My Sons.
Born in Manhattan to an Austrian immigrant and a New Yorker, Arthur Miller spent his childhood living on the Upper West Side in relative wealth until his father’s business collapsed in the stock market crash of 1929. Miller spent his teens and early twenties living in Brooklyn, working odd jobs to help his family and pay for his college tuition at the University of Michigan, where he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English in 1938.
Miller’s early professional playwriting career began and ended quickly with the Federal Theatre Project, an agency of Roosevelt’s controversial New Deal, which congress shut down in 1939 due to suspicions of a Communist infiltration. 1940 saw the first Broadway production of a Miller play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, which won the Theatre Guild’s National Award, but was panned by the critics and closed after only four performances. At just 30 years old, Miller began writing All My Sons, his final attempt as a playwright. He decided that if the play did not succeed, he would abandon the form and focus solely on fiction and journalism. All My Sons opened on Broadway in January, 1947 and ran for 328 performances.
Despite being “a very depressing play in a time of great optimism” (Rifkin 1994), as Miller once called All My Sons, The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson wrote two Sunday pieces and a glowing review, helping the play gain traction and go on to win New York Drama Critics’ Circle and Tony Awards for best author.
In 1948, Miller wrote what is often cited as the most studied and important American play ever written. Death of a Salesman opened on Broadway in 1949, ran for 742 performances, won New York Drama Critics’ Circle and Tony Awards for best author, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (The Montana Rep produced the play for its 2002 National Tour). Riding the momentum of this success, Miller began researching the Salem witch trials of 1692 and wrote The Crucible(1953), a period piece that serves as an allegory of the House Un-american Activities Committee (HUAC) search for Communist sympathizers within American arts industries. Miller himself was called on to testify before HUAC in 1956, refused to name names, and was acquitted. Today, The Crucible is Miller’s most frequently produced work both nationally and internationally. All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and his 1955 tragedy chronicling the downfall of a Brooklyn Navy Yard dock worker, A View From the Bridge, comprise Miller’s next most frequently produced works.
Aside from his plays, Miller is perhaps most famous for his very public marriage to Hollywood actress and public figure Marilyn Monroe, a relationship he chronicles in some detail in his most overtly autobiographical play After the Fall (1964). The two were married on June 29, 1956 and divorced in 1961 shortly before the premier of the film
adaptation of Miller’s novella The Misfits (1957), in which Monroe starred. Monroe’s death in 1962 was classified as a probable suicide due to drug overdose.
Although Miller’s later career was also incredibly prolific, producing film adaptations of his plays and novels, including Death of a Salesman, starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich in 1984, and a highly successful version of The Crucible in 1996, starring Paul Scofield, Winona Ryder, and Miller’s son-in-law Daniel Day-Lewis. In 1987, Miller published his autobiography, Timebends: a life, in which he perhaps best summarizes his own life and work:
And so the coyotes are out there earnestly trying to arrange their lives to make more coyotes possible, not knowing that it is my forest, of course. And I am in this room from which I can sometimes look out at dusk and see them warily moving through the barren winter trees, and I am, I suppose, doing what they are doing, making myself possible and those who come after me. At such moments I do not know whose land this is that I own, or whose bed I sleep in. In the darkness out there they see my light and pause, muzzles lifted, wondering who I am and what I am doing here in this cabin under my light. I am a mystery to them until they tire of it and move on, but the truth, the first truth, probably, is that we are all connected, watching one another. Even the trees.
Miller died in 2005 after battles with cancer, pneumonia, and heart disease at the age of 89. The Montana Rep is very proud to announce its National Tour of All My Sons during the centennial of Miller’s birth.
When people ask me about The Montana Repertory Theatre I tell them that it is a professional touring company “imbedded” at the University of Montana. Allow me to explain:
The Montana Rep, founded in 1967, has always been a vital and integral part of the theatre department at The University of Montana and it has always been a touring company. At first, when founded by Firman H. “Bo” Brown, it was a branch of the graduate school. Students initially toured Montana with two productions to as many communities they could within a single semester. The students then and now receive up to 18 credits for their semester’s work with the Rep.
Around 1976, James Kriley, then the director of the School of Theatre & Dance, changed the make-up of the company. He transformed the Montana Rep into a “professional” company. This was a significant change in that the school welcomed professionals from around the country, and in some cases the world, to come and collaborate with artists working at The University of Montana. The intention was to have students work alongside professionals in a model that replicated professional national touring companies. This has proven to be strikingly successful. There are other professional theatres affiliated with universities. The University of North Carolina and The University of Tennessee are two examples. The Montana Rep’s model differs from others in that the Rep’s artistic director is a faculty member. The director of the school of Theatre & Dance and The Dean of the College of Visual and performing Arts, partner with the artistic director to make policy, financial, and artistic decisions. The Rep is also the only touring company imbedded at a university. This is unique. The Montana Rep is a professional touring theatre, completely integrated with the training program of the University at the curricular level. This coordination and investment is very beneficial to the students in the program.
We like to joke that the Rep is like the Navy: you join the Rep and see the world – maybe not the world (yet), but certainly the country. Not only are theatre students of all disciplines afforded the practicum of a hands-on professional touring experience; they spend three months on the road seeing most of America. From Plains, Montana, to New Orleans, and New York City, they travel the country with the show. The growth of the students who travel with the Rep is significant. By the end of the tour the students know whether a life in the theatre is for them, and they grow exponentially as actors, stage/tour managers, technicians, and as people.
How The Montana Rep chooses between commercial viability and keeping the American canon strong and diverse
August marks the first month of Montana Rep Artistic Director Greg Johnson’s monthly “Note from the Artistic Director,” posted last week (read it here). In his note, Johnson sheds some light on his and the Rep staff’s process for selecting the titles the Rep will produce in a given season. Johnson clarifies that there are a number of conditions that must be met with the selection of each title depending on whether the play will be produced for the National Tour, the local Visions and Voices program, or The Montana Educational Outreach Tour. The boxes that must be ticked range from satisfying Montana State English curricula and titles that will challenge and provoke Missoula audiences’ ever-expanding appetite for “edgy, controversial, thought provoking theatre,” to the title recognition and commercial viability that the National Tour venue presenters expect from the Rep. Ultimately, however, Johnson makes it clear that the Rep “seeks to engage the audience in fulfilling, exciting ways, to bring the excitement, vivacity and the joy of live theatre” to all of its local, regional, and national audiences. Keeping these considerations in mind, however, how does the Rep strike the delicate balance of offering exciting, vivacious, thought provoking American theatre that carries enough commercial weight and recognition to sell to large venues across the nation?
The Rep opened its 2015-2016 season with a very successful national tour of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, which is a commonly taught book in American and European high school curricula, is included on the NEA’s national Big Read list, and, according to USA Today, has sold half a million copies annually since its publication (Donahue 2013). Needless to say, the novel’s title itself was the production’s marketing strategy and the Rep enjoyed one of the longest, most widely praised tours in its 48-season history. Last winter, however, the Rep announced that its 2016 national tour would be Arthur Miller’s early play All My Sons, first produced in New York in 1947. Despite the play’s initial success on Broadway and its two film adaptations, Miller’s name is perhaps more synonymous with a tumultuous marriage to his second wife Marylin Monroe than with this great foreshadowing of his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1949 play Death of a Salesman. When the cast and crew of the Rep’s Gatsby tour asked the presenters about the 2016 title last winter, sadly, they were often met with “We can’t sell it.”
In his note, Johnson explains that the Rep has tried to alternate between big titles and lesser-known, but significant works from the American dramatic and literary canons when selecting titles for the National Tour. If the Rep – the only nationally touring company that produces solely non-musical American plays – did not produce the lesser commercially known, but great plays of American drama, does the American dramatic canon begin to shrink? If the Rep only produced highly recognizable titles, what would happen to great plays like All My Sons, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2012 National Tour), and other great American stories that excite, provoke, and vivify the American dramatic imagination? At The Rep, we believe it is our obligation to not only walk the tightrope that comes with a security net of unquestionable popularity, but to sometimes walk a more delicate, unprotected line that ensures audiences around the nation, although sometimes smaller, access to the other great American stories and plays that speak to our collective historical and cultural moment – plays that ask us to tap into more uncharted, sometimes more vulnerable and unrecognizable territories of the human spirit.
How and Why The Montana Repertory Theatre Chooses a Title
Upon entering a theatre to see a show produced by the Montana Repertory Theatre, be it the national tour, the educational outreach tour, or a production of Visions and Voices, one may wonder how this title came to be chosen. Well, we are now here to clarify.
The Montana Repertory Theatre is dedicated to presenting plays of high literary and entertainment value. Years ago we decided to focus on the great American canon. So from Eugene O’Neill to Tennessee Williams to Arthur Miller to Neil Simon, we seek the best that American authors have to offer for our audiences. We also seek plays with recognizable and time-honored titles. There is an artistic and commercial side to this aspect of choice. The well-known plays are most often the best of the lot. No one argues that DEATH OF A SALESMAN, STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, BUS STOP, and BILOXI BLUES are the best these playwrights have to offer and the best of American Theatre. Also the presenters around the country appreciate the title recognition. This leads us to the needs of the presenters. The Montana Rep works in consort with dozens of presenters nation-wide. We are sensitive to the needs, desires and wants of our partners in choosing a production. It is the presenters who must sell the show to THEIR audiences and The Rep is wise to listen to them. To this end we send out a list of possible plays to the presenters every season through Rena Shagan, our booking agent in NYC. Their response to this list goes a long way to helping us choose the material for the coming season. Some titles are more popular with the presenters than others. For example THE GREAT GATSBY was met with great enthusiasm from virtually all our presenters and ALL MY SONS was not. This resulted in a long, fruitful and commercially viable tour of GATSBY and a shortened, less commercially viable tour for ALL MY SONS. Is ALL MY SONS a terrific play? Yes, it most certainly is. Is it commercially viable, with strong name recognition for the presenters? Not especially. And here we have the dilemma. While the Rep is committed to the best in the American canon, how do we balance the need for box office with the mandate to continue to challenge our audiences with the best (if not most famous) of American theatre? This balance is the topic that is essential to our survival and success. We balance a blockbuster like THE GREAT GATSBY or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, with less well-known titles like ALL MY SONS and Ken Ludwig’s delightful comedy, LEADING LADIES. It is a delicate balance, and one that we have successfully navigated for the past 25 years, as we became a preeminent national touring company.
Educational Outreach Tour:
Every year the Montana Rep’s educational outreach coordinator, Teresa Waldorf, contacts middle and high school teachers to see what they are teaching in their English and literature curriculums. We then choose a famed writer or topic to develop, write, cast and produce. It is our mission to enlist recent graduates from the program, faculty, staff and MISSOULA COLONY writers to create an original piece every year. Our technique is to respect the literature while giving it a comic spin as a way of introducing the students not only to the literature but also to the various possibilities of inventive storytelling through the medium of theatre. In this vein, we have investigated the Beat Poets, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, Greek Mythology, Antigone, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and this year ALICE IN WONDERLAND. We aim to instruct, enlighten, and delight.
Visions and Voices:
Visions and Voices is The Montana Rep’s downtown presence. V&V’s mission is to interact with the Missoula community bringing edgy, controversial, thought provoking theatre to our downtown. We create low budget theatre experiences that are high in invention, ingenuity and passion. We seek to challenge audiences with plays and approaches they might not be familiar with, but might stir them in ways unexpected, surprising and hopefully fulfilling.
In all cases The Montana Rep seeks to engage the audience in fulfilling, exciting ways, to bring the excitement, vivacity and joy of live theatre to whoever walks into our various spaces.
I will quote Darko Tresnjak, Artistic Director of The Hartford Stage, as his thoughts inspire me.
“What Audiences want:
To laugh till it hurts, to have their heart broken, to be reminded of falling in love, to empathize, to take a walk on the wild side, to see a great show, to feel ALIVE.”
The idea of adapting novels and stories to the stage is not a particularly new one; it has been going on for hundreds of years. The works of Dumas being a particular favorite of the theatre set. The Montana Repertory Theatre has, as one of its signature productions, adapted To Kill A Mockingbird.This title has proven to be our most popular production over the past twenty-five years. In this spirit we are presenting an adaptation of The Great Gatsby for our 2015 National tour.
Adaptation is a tricky business, as the craft of adaptation is one of deciding what to eliminate while keeping the narrative thread and spirit and soul of the writing. This has been done usually at the expense of the beauty and rhythms of the written word. It is said that Ernest Hemingway after selling the rights to a book for Hollywood, would go to the Nevada-California border and throw the book as far as he could while beating a hasty retreat back to Idaho. A wise teacher once told me that for adaptation to work one must consider making a brand new work of art. An adaptation must have the integrity of its own narrative and expressive beauty.
Reading a book at home it is a very personal experience. The reader is one with the writer. The story is shared on a very private level. Theatre is a publicly shared experience. Theatre is also a dialogue-based art form where novels tend to the narrative. The use of a “narrator” in theatre or film adaptations is helpful in keeping the authors sound and sense intact. For instance in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the narrative was switched from Scout to the neighbor, Mrs. Maude. This freed Scout to be a part of the action, and relieved of the burden of narration, she was free to be Scout. One may disagree with the success of this transference but it highlights the tricky nature of the adaptive process. We are fortunate in GATSBY that the original narrator Nick Caraway remains the narrator for the stage play. His direct address to the audience, keeping the rhythms and beauty of the original Fitzgerald help keep the quality of hearing experience for the audience very true to the original. Simon Levy provided the adaptation for The Montana Repertory Theatre. After many years trying, Mr. Levy was granted permission to write a stage adaptation. In 2005 he at long last earned the trust of the Fitzgerald estate and he commenced to create a thoughtful, intelligent, witty and poetic adaptation. It is not only poetic in the word sense but also in the theatrical sense. Mr. Levy’s strong theatre knowledge and experience led him to create a theater event that has great poetry in the way it moves seamlessly from one scene to another, matching the original’s quick cuts and overlaps.