The Crucible: Changes – Arni Kristjansson, Assistant Director

Let’s go back and imagine the situation from which The Crucible came to being. We set our scene on a countryside highway in the early 1950’s.

A car is being driven from Connecticut to Massachusetts. The driver is in his late thirties, his name is Arthur Miller. He is a well known and rather successful playwright, however somewhat anxious. He has recently translated Ibsen and battled with Hollywood producers because of his Marxist opinions. His anxiety is understandable, since the FBI are keeping an eye on him. For over a decade The House of Un-American Activities Committee has existed and would soon start interrogating his colleagues.

But Arthur Miller is driving North. He is heading for a small village called Salem. He wants to research a historical event that has lived in his memory since he took a course in American history in the University of Michigan. The event occured in 1692 and nearly thirty people were killed because the village accused them of being witches. When Arthur read about these events in University he thought they were absolutely absurd. All of a sudden, the thought that something like this could happen in 1951 wasn’t so absurd any more.

In June 1951, Senator Joe McCarthy accused General George Marshall of being at the heart of a conspiracy to betray his country, and suggested that he had the president of the United States in his power. It was time, McCarthy insisted, to seek out the enemy within. Within the next year, Arthur would hear about his colleagues being interrogated and giving up names of other Communists.

There was with out any doubt parallels in the paranoia and persecution of the McCarthy era and the witch hunt in Salem, but there were also deeper and more human themes that have, with time, made The Crucible a modern classic.

Arthur was on this drive not only heading North, but also getting ready for heading inward. A protagonist burdened by guilt of being untrue to his wife, John Proctor, was brewing at the back of his head.

What Arthur Miller found in the Salem witch-hunt of 1692 was a small repressed community that had imploded with moral judgement, paranoia and guilt. In his research he found the witchcraft was almost always linked to lust and to repressed sexuality.

In his autobiography Timebends Arthur Miller writes:

The relief came to those who testified was orgasmic; they were actually encouraged in open court to talk about their sharing a bed with someone they weren’t married to, a live human being now manacled before them courtesy of God’s lieutenants. Timebends, page 341

And that is where the idea of The Crucible is born. A crucible is a metal or ceramic container that when subjected to very high temperature is used for melting metal and other substances. For example, in order to melt iron from the earth, a crucible is heated to 1510 degrees.

The Crucible is a parable about a community where passion is overthrown for reason. Where the villagers transform and turn on each other. The root of its delusion lies in the use, or rather misuse, of power through language. Language can overpower our senses and alter our minds, like it was witchcraft. And funnily enough, it is the same transformation which happens in the theatre.

The Crucible plays at Bristol Old Vic between 8 Oct – 7 Nov. Find out more, and book tickets, here

And Then Come The Nightjars: A Strange, Singular Time – Bea Roberts, Writer

I first started working on …Nightjars around 2011 which was the ten year anniversary of the Foot and Mouth crisis of 2001. For me and friends of mine who grew up rurally this prompted a flood of memories and discussion; we swapped stories of that strange singular time when the countryside was ‘closed’, the roads were littered with disinfectant sodden straw and smoking pyres haunted our horizons and TV screens. Somehow though, this anniversary seemed to go unnoticed by the mainstream media. All that pain and destruction was a footnote for most of the press and, to the best of my knowledge, almost entirely ignored by the arts community. A friend told me of how the crises had affected his dad who’d worked as a vet, often having to kill the animals of farmers he’d worked with – and that relationship was the seed of an idea I bought to Sharon Clark at Bristol Old Vic.

And Then Come The Nightjars - Photos by Jack Sain

Back in 2011, I was only just out of drama school, a very new playwright trying to work out how to be a ‘proper writer’ and I soon learnt that setting deadlines with Sharon was a fantastic spur and framework to writing. My working with Sharon came about after asking to meet her for a coffee and then repeatedly asking to return for coffee and notes on the fledgling script. She was (and remains to be) a great mentor; insightful, patient and sufficiently scary that I never wanted to disappoint her with sloppy work or missed deadlines. Two years later, the script was ready for a rehearsed reading at Bristol Old Vic Ferment Fortnight which helped knock it into shape further and spurred the next draft. After winning the Theatre503 Playwriting award in November 2014, more work lay ahead with the Theatre503 team who’ve bought a diligence and care for both the subject matter and the script that I could only have dreamed of.

And Then Come The Nightjars - Photos by Jack Sain

The play you’ll see on stage is the culmination of four years work, hours of discussion, the talents of many, many people and so many redrafts I’ve lost count. I feel very excited and privileged to bring …Nightjars to Bristol Old Vic; I hope you enjoy the show.

Photos by Jack Sain

And Then Come The Nightjars plays in Bristol Old Vic Studio from 6 – 17 October. For more information and to buy tickets, click here.

The Crucible: Rehearsal Diary – Week 2

by Dominic Allen, Company Member

We leave London in the early throes of autumn and arrive in Bristol to find the summer hasn’t ended. The days are still sunny, even hot at times, and our clean white rehearsal room (coffee most certainly forbidden) transforms into a sauna early in the week as we begin to rediscover our pelvises.

Dominic Allen in rehearsal - Photography by Mark Douet

George Mann, Associate Director, who is in charge of the movement, points out that these Salem dwellers would have used their bodies more fully in their day to day lives. Their survival would depend on it. So it’s important for us to re-learn the strength of our bodies, especially our core and pelvis, that in our world of computer based industries and comfy chairs we may have forgotten. As predominantly farmers, it seems likely that the villagers of Salem would have strong pelvises from which their energies emanated. George also makes the case that activating this part of our bodies will prepare us well for the emotional rollercoaster the characters have to endure, as a strong, responsive core will help us access those emotions more readily.

So, throughout this week, we keep coming back to working through our bodies, re-engaging parts we may have lost touch with. George shows us a number of exercises to strengthen our pelvises, including dragging each other round the room, while the other person hangs from the waist, digging their heels in. It’s inevitably good ensemble-bonding too!

The company in rehearsal. Photo by Mark Douet.

Dave Price also gets a chance this week to hear what we’ve been working on with some Puritanical singing. He also brings a host of possible Psalms to sing, that we split into parts for and slowly start putting together. Even after just a few hours’ work, they start to sound great; haunting, beautiful, disturbing – perfect for the play. It’s not clear yet how they’ll be worked into the play but for now we have a varied palette of music to experiment with.

Next, in the spirit of being pragmatic, we try to pin down how the characters sound and talk. This is an unusual and common problem for productions of The Crucible, as Miller has written the dialogue in a stylised way of speaking that, while evocative of an ‘olde worlde’ time, has no real bearing on place. To that end we have Gary Owston coming in this week to lend his ear and expertise on what sounds right, what makes sense and, most importantly, what tells the story for these characters. Here is another element that takes time, trial and error to get right. We are working on the premise that some of the characters emigrated from particular areas of the British Isles and that those characters in family units probably have the same accent as one another.

At first we try out the idea that Salem’s ‘next generation’ have some sort of amalgam accent. Naturally, our initial attempts sound confusing and even, at times, a little alien. However, it’s all part of the process, and Gary and Tom between them gradually siphon off the phonetic anomalies that confuse the ear until we can settle on one or two pronunciation guidelines that make a cohesive accent for the community. This proves very useful in telling the story as it becomes apparent that different accents help distinguish a character’s status, their origins and, perhaps most usefully, if they are in any way outsiders of the community.

Dom in rehearsal at Bristol Old Vic. Photo by Mark Douet.

Of course, all of this work (movement, singing, accent, etc) is in the wake of our work on the ever-mammoth text. Working through Act Two (of four) takes up a significant proportion of the week’s rehearsal, purely because Miller’s writing is so psychologically dense it requires some heavy-duty unpacking. The first step of this is always round the table, which Tom has taken to calling Arthur Miller as it’s the place we go to when we have questions about the play. Once we’ve mined as much subtext as we can, we put the work ‘on its feet’ and see what happens. Working like this in small sections at a time (Miller has only given us great big acts to work with) we manage to piece together Act Two by the end of the week, meaning that we have some grasp on the shape of the first half of the play by Friday, which is very exciting – both heartening and, somehow, intimidating that Act Three, the trial, is next week.

Before then, however, is the weekend and the Bristol sunshine before we get back to the Salem hysteria on Monday.

The Crucible plays at Bristol Old Vic between 8 Oct – 7 Nov. Find out more, and book tickets, here

The Crucible at Bristol Old Vic. Director Tom Morris. (Photo by Mark Douet)

The Crucible Rehearsal Diary – Week One

by Dominic Allen

The Crucible is one of the iconic plays of the twentieth century and, like many iconic plays, it is a beast. The scale of the play was something we were all palpably aware of as we gathered for pre-rehearsal coffee on day one in the cafe of the Jerwood Space in London. The size of the cast alone runs up to a whopping twenty people and Miller has carefully crafted entire lives, motivations and machinations for every single character they play; no one is wasted. We crammed into our temporary rehearsal room upstairs ready to embark on the mammoth task we are about; realising Miller’s timeless masterpiece in the very theatre in which it received its European première in 1954.

Dominic Allen in Rehearsals – Photography by Mark Douet

It’s important first of all to get to know the people who are joining you on the journey, and on the first day there’s not only the cast but also some of the people who will be working hard behind the scenes to bring the play alive – the design, the marketing, the music, the stage management, etc. It is in this moment that we begin the fumbling attempts to learn some interesting facts about one another as well as retain nearly thirty people’s names for longer than ten minutes before leaping into a read-through. However, by the end of the week, it starts to feel as though we’ve known each other our whole lives and slowly, surely, our sense of community grows – and it is that very idea of community, we shall discover, which the whole play revolves around.

So, with practicalities and logistics out of the way, we set about weaving the strands of rehearsal that will follow and lead us ultimately to the final production. This first week is all about tentative exploration – trying things out, scratching the surface of the text and seeing where the play takes us. Tom Morris gets people on their feet for the read-through and it has a dramatic effect; the play sweeps you along on an emotional tide that you are powerless to resist. It’s sometimes impossible to say what we’ll discover next as the week progresses. At some turns, doors open and vistas of possibility present themselves; other times we push and Arthur Miller pushes back. It’s exciting and full of potential either way. We spend a little time trying out singing a few psalms, with Peter Edwards doing his level best in composer Dave Price’s absence to teach tone deaf people like me some beautiful arrangements for them. The Associate Director, George Mann, begins his work in making us turn our bodies into storytelling tools and playing with the possibilities of movement such a large ensemble allows. The off-stage story we carry in our bodies, and the way our bodies interact in the space will be crucial to creating the sense of our living Salem community. Along with this, there is, of course, the delving into the rich and complex text – at times so straightforward seeming and plain speaking on the surface – it hides deep currents of drama that surge up unexpectedly as we read scenes.

Dean Lennox Kelly & Neve McIntosh in Rehearsals. Photography by Mark Douet

Finally, to get a firm grip on this strange world, where The Devil looms large in the dark of the forest, and witchcraft is whispered of in every fire-lit homestead and draughty church, as well as the enduring parable-like nature of the tale, it is essential we begin to divide up areas of research. The list of topics is near endless: McCarthyism, Colonial Government, Puritanism, Witchcraft, Marxism, The Pilgrim Fathers, and so on. We carve them up between us to feed back at a later point and almost immediately most out-of-hours discussion drifts to the fascinating details we’ve come across that Miller must have surely known.

Bristol beckons at the end of the week as we move our rehearsals home to King Street and better weather, but we have begun! And one thing is most surely for certain – there’s a lot more to come than simply buckled shoes and big hats.

The Crucible plays in the Bristol Old Vic Theatre 8 Oct-7 Nov. Find out more, and book tickets, here

Life Raft: Rehearsal Diary – Week 4

by Amy Kemp, Company Member

Day 18 – “Who are they?”

24th August

The countdown begins. Ten days until opening night. Over these next days are scheduled countless runs of the script, a number of tech rehearsals and a dress rehearsal. To top it all off we are moving into the Theatre on Thursday, beginning the tech runs and finally getting to see the set in its entirety.

The first part of the day, post-super-quick warm up, was a stagger through of the whole production, primarily for Iris (playing Amy) and the team to figure out Amy’s movements throughout the performance. This was a good chance for us all to have a specific amount of time to secure our lines and movements before our first full run through of the play, costumes and sound included. A couple of tweaks and few blocking issues were solved, and we got to prepare ourselves for our first full run through in afternoon – blood and all.

Life Raft at Bristol Old Vic

I won’t apologise for continuously raving about how much I adore Fin’s adaptation of Georg Kaiser’s 1945 play The Raft of the Medusa. The original play itself is inspired by true events of World War 2, with Fin’s play now approaching a more ambiguous setting that suggests a ‘near-future dystopia’ as Fin describes in article about the writing process undergone for the play. Life Raft has this universal quality, giving it the strength to adjust its themes of suffering and helplessness and so forth, to allow any generation of audience to face the harsh contextual realities of the play, and not be ‘let of the hook’ when it comes to the brutality becoming a reality in our own time. Fin has moved the play forward in a way that is both sensitive to the original Kaiser play, yet allowing for a powerful, universally relatable story to be told.

The company are blessed to have two amazing professional actors in the cast, and both Zara and Fionn display, is such an articulate way, the discipline and self-sustainability an actor is required to carry. Having seen Zara in several other shows, knowing the high standard of intelligence and professionalism she has under her belt, I was keen to tap into her understanding and experience of the industry (and to have a good old chat). We spent a good part of the lunch break discussing the industry, its misconceptions, realities, positives and so much more. Zara has help me realise what it means to be an actor and to live as one, and has also helped me to get clear in my head what I would like to do once I have completed college.

It is one thing to rehearse the show with the familiar faces of the director, assistant directors etc. watching, but when you are performing to a new set of faces, the prospect of performing to an audience of hundreds becomes even more real, slightly more daunting, and a whole lot more exciting. We completed our first full run with beaming smiles and cheers, and although it wasn’t perfect, it is amazing to see how much we have achieved.

Day 19 – “We have to stay strong, look out for each other?”

25TH August

As a company of young people I have come to realise that we are extremely lucky, in terms of the opportunity this show has given us to gain a number of skills that professional performers are required to have. For me personally, my ability to learn lines has improved significantly. Especially in the early stages of rehearsals when the script was being adjusted and redrafted regularly, and alongside revising for exams and school work we were required to know sections of the script. This was a demanding task at first. Fast forward six months, and now if I am given a section of lines to learn, it can take me just minutes to remember. It is not just lines, what feels most rewarding is a gain level of awareness about myself as a performer, how I respond to certain stimulus on stage and in rehearsals, and my ability to work with a diverse range of ages and people.

Life Raft at Bristol Old Vic4

During the vocal warm up I became very aware of a sore throat, which is always worrying. Yesterday’s run saw high energy performances from us all, and without thinking about my voice I must have strained it towards the end when Ann becomes hysterical. Another thing I have learnt from this process is the demand on an actor’s body and that it is vital to keep up your physical health. More and more of our warm ups have features the importance of safely projecting the voice, alongside clear diction and appropriate emotional communication. You can see a contrast in the company’s performance depending on whether we have or have not done a vocal warm up. Looks like a week of Lemsip and throat soothers for me…

It baffles me that I have not referred to this before, but it is important to mention the significance of the ‘Raft of the Medusa’ painting by the French romantic painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault, and the influence it has had in the rehearsal room. Tragedy is at the centre of this image, which shows starving desperate figures clinging to a make-shift life raft, surround by gruesome waves. The painting itself is haunting and has been a point of focus for us on many occasions in the rehearsal room, with the intention of exploiting its disturbing ambiance through our own physical language. At the very start of the play a number of the characters are given objects, and Melly found a perfect opportunity to mimic the paintings desperation to obtain these items. In the painting many of the figures have their arms outstretched at various obtruding angles. Our performance starts in a very similar way, for once we are on the raft we lay very still, bar a gentle rocking from side to side, with our arms reaching out in the hope being granted the ‘gift’ of a salvaged item. The ending incorporates the painting also, with the company draped haphazardly over the slices of furniture, some half dead from starvations, which is an idea that has derived from the painting and supports the children’s rising desperation.

Oscar (playing Alfie) referred to it as ‘second night syndrome’, where the show after opening night isn’t as strong as the prior performance. It is fair to say that after such an adrenalized full run through yesterday, there was a feeling of disappointment that today’s run just didn’t have the same ‘oomph’. Melly was determined not to let this get us down, and after a group discussion addressing what we had learnt from doing that run and what we as performers need to better ourselves on, we were left with the drive to work on those improvements and focus on polishing the performance to perfection of the coming days.

Day 20 – “This is our curse!”

26th August

Yesterday’s run of the show seemed to produce a new atmosphere in the rehearsal room. There was a different level of focus, an awareness that allowed us to follow through with really polishing the rough edges of scenes. We all learnt a lot from the run, and as a company we felt prepared to tackle any obstacles that needed to overcome, so that we were ready to go for the oncoming tech rehearsals.

Before starting today, we went on a very exciting trip through the theatre to… our dressing rooms! As you can imagine excitement was rife as the reality of performing Life Raft drew ever closer. In our masses we made are way down into the lower levels of the theatre, and assigning of the dressing rooms begins. The boys were first, except Oscar, who gets his own dressing room because he is 16+. This meant that when it came to the girls dressing rooms I was by myself too. Whilst having the space and time to be alone is nice, and it will be when the nerves kick in during the show run, it does feel like I’m missing out on the giggles and laughter coming for the girl’s room down the hall. However they are only down the hall, not too far away to have a natter.

Life Raft at Bristol Old Vic

It is likely that this blog entry will be less of a psychoanalysis of the play, and will revolve more so around costume and dressing rooms, so please do spare me this one time! We were also told that we all had to stop washing our hair on Sunday, which (no exaggeration) seemed to be the biggest crisis facing us as a company thus far. With half of us starting back at school/ college next week, how could we cope with the ridicule of our friends and loved ones witnessing our unwashed hair!! I joke slightly, and as I recall Jake (playing Roger) did mention something about his human rights, but we were reassured that it was for the good of theatre and in the best nature of the show. I’m sure we will survive social rejection…perhaps…

Anyway, back to the play itself! We used today, not to do another run through, but to polish and finalise each moment that required it. We started with chairs, or rather chair movements. Fionn gave us a masterclass in expert chair moving, making it appear as though the chairs are bobbing above the water, as well as exploring with contrasting heights and levels when moving the furniture. We did the same with the oars, making sure we clearly portrayed the weight of the oar and the release of the tension once we placed them down.

Let’s talk about sponges. Alongside our matted hair and grubby faces, the children have also been in a storm. During the night between ‘Day 5’ and ‘Day 6’ there is a storm, which finds them drenched in the morning. In order to get the ‘soak to the bone’ look, each of us use a sponge, rinsing it over our heads, so that we wake up a bunch of damp and hungry children. We all got to use the sponges for the first time yesterday, with a warning from Melly not to use ‘too much’, for it would get her in trouble just as much us. I’m really enjoying the ‘dragged through a hedge backwards look’.

My evening ending with meeting my friend Sarah and her sister for dinner and to watch a play, but my mind was fix on the prospect of getting on the stage tomorrow.

Day 21 – “Back to England”

27th August

Crisis! When we arrived in our dressing rooms it appeared that someone had taken a blowtorch to our costumes. However, the burnt hems of dresses and mucky looking t-shirt were in actual fact the work of Pam (costume), or Auntie Pam as we like to call her. She had been getting them all dirty ready for our first day of tech.

It was an early start today, with our call for 9am, so we could have enough time to get ready and get to grips with the make-up, costumes and all the jazz. The girls were presented with the wax and mouse that would grease up our hair, along with make up to make us look grubby and slightly scorched. Getting the right amount of make up on our persons was a trial and error process I must admit, with many of us looking like chimney sweeps on our first go. Wrong production for that I think. After an hour we were all kitted out and ready to get on stage. Or rather, offstage…

Without wanting to reveal anything major and ruin the surprise, I won’t be able to share the start of the tech run with you. But it took a lot of practice, a few stumbles and slips and around ten runs just to make we were all happy with it. We were all learning on the job, all the little tech ins and outs, like waiting for the little green light to go on before we begin the performance. Not to mention getting to know the people involved in the tech. I’m talking about the stage management crew, comprising of Becky Loxton (Stage Manager) Sally C Roy (Deputy Stage Manager) and Jen Warner (Assistant Stage Manager) who are the loveliest group of ladies. Sally has been with us for the past four weeks in every rehearsal, keeping tabs on our movements throughout the play, as well as being a friendly face to go to if we had any queries. Sally is also hilariously funny as well, putting my nerves at ease on countless occasions. Becky and Jen are just as brilliant, and I commend them for putting up with our cheekiness onstage during tech.

Life Raft at Bristol Old Vic

Another exciting and beautiful addition that we got to see for the first time today was the stage draped in plastic. We have been using the plastic for Allan’s dream at the end of ‘Day 3’, but this was a whole new level of plastic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much plastic in all my life. When I say it was everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE. On its own, the plastic has a gorgeous yet haunting appeal, but with added lighting from Tim Streader (Lighting Designer) the plastic is illuminated in an awe-inspiring way. It creates a transparency, adding to the heightened sense of reality, as well as enchaining the dynamic breath of the Bristol Old Vic stage.

It was a very successful first tech run, getting much further ahead than we thought, putting the team in a great position for tomorrow. We also all got given Life Raft t-shirts today. Courtnei (playing Enid) and her Mum had organised for us all to get t-shirts with our names and the show printed on them. I love mine, it has to be one of my favourite tops!

Day 22 – “I’m thirteen”

August 28th

I arrived at the theatre an hour earlier than call time. Alyssa (playing Margret) arrived not long after me. It was after a long chat about rehearsals and the show, and how it feels as though this process has been so short yet we cannot remember a time without doing Life Raft. We then came to the realisation that we only have 6 days left of production. I cannot believe how fast this has gone! It feels like only yesterday we were introducing ourselves back in February, ready to begin rehearsals. Look how far we have come. There is both a sense of achieving something and at the same time a great sense of loss, that soon this will all be over. Still, not wanting to wish away the next week, Alyssa and myself both decided that we should savour all the time we have left and celebrate how far we’ve come as a company, remembering all our hard work and the fun we’ve had doing it.

Right back into tech, and away we go. Today’s tech seemed a little more complicated, and there were many more stops and starts. All for good a cause, for the more lighting and music added to the show, the more it all seemed to piece together and the closer we get to opening night!

I’m also having to keep tabs on all the different movement or placing changes given by Melly throughout the run. Being in the theatre has not only meant the addition of lighting and sound, but also we have had to adapt our positioning on stage so that everything is clear and visible for the audience. Even thinking about having an audience in now fills me with anticipation.

Most of our tech was spent working on transitions and dream sequences. Particularly the anxiety dreams for the children between ‘Day 2’ and ‘Day 3’. Due to our playing space shape altering, we are all having to get use to expanding our actions and changing actions. Our dreams had been reduced to small, sharp movements to mimic the stress, but once they were put on stage it was clear that they would need to be enhanced in order to be displayed clearly. It is incredibly important to portray these small moments of distress soundly, for they give an insightful glimpse into the underscore of trauma that not only runs through their own lives, but acts as the backbone of the production also.

Life Raft at Bristol Old Vic

I must also commend the patience of Charlie (playing Foxy). The character of Foxy has absolutely no lines in the play, despite being one of the driving forces in the production. Charlie has had one of the hardest tasks out of all of us, for even though his character is not engaged in the action verbally, his concentration levels and engagement in the scene must be constant. That sounds incredibly tough, complete focus throughout. Foxy is one of the most compelling characters and Charlie does such an amazing job at portraying that essential silence that envelopes Foxy. Yet, despite Foxy’s silence, in a strange and moving way, he is loudest of all the characters.

Photos by Jack Offord

Life Raft plays in Bristol Old Vic Theatre from 3-5 September. Find out more and book tickets here.