Saturday, March 27, 2010

Arthur Miller's The Price: Reflections From a First-Time Director

“…everything has to be disposable. Because you see the main thing today is shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn’t know what to do with himself; he go to church, start a revolution, something. Today you’re unhappy? Can’t figure it out? What is the salvation? Go shopping.”

--Arthur Miller, The Price.

When I read those words, I knew I had to direct The Price, a play written in 1968 from the hand of the great American playwright Arthur Miller. They were spoken by Gregory Solomon, a 90-year-old furniture salesman who is about to purchase a huge room of furniture from Victor Franz, a man unloading a burden, in more ways than one.

The Price is one of Miller’s most under-recognized and least appreciated works. It’s the story of two brothers who, after 16 years of estrangement, try to reconcile in the attic of the family residence, where their old furniture is to be sold. Debuting in 1968, the play ran on Broadway for about a year before closing and toured a number of countries before being retired from the stage. I don’t think it was intentional. Miller’s other plays such as The Crucible, All My Sons and the most familiar, Death of a Salesman, became part of the American canon of drama, appearing on student reading lists for years. His plays also became part of the standard repertoire of amateur and professional theatre companies around the world and more recently on television and motion pictures. The Price is in the same company as those works because it offers insight into the relationships between fathers and sons, memory and the consequences of making choices.

Reading a play is a different experience than reading a novel or an essay - or a blog. If the playwright is any good, the words are very important. Words are the weapons characters use to express how they feel about one another. They are written like poetry: nothing is wasted. In the works of Arthur Miller, the characters are deep, emotional and lively. An actor’s job is to bring a play to life; to put blood in the veins of the characters and to breathe fire into the story. It is our job to engage one another on stage and therefore engage the audience into the emotions expressed in the play.

Theatre directing is much like being a first-time parent: it’s on the job training. Once you get the first few months (or years) of child-rearing under your belt, you pretty much get the hang of it. You become accustomed to what’s expected of you: leadership, knowledge, improvisation and decision-making all the while nurturing the child to relate to other children in a humane way. Directing a play is similar. As you read and reread it, you try to understand the playwright’s intentions and to decipher the characters, their intent and the words they use to engage each other in a humane way. Directing, as I have learned, is a balance of the small within the larger context. In other words, you break down the play into its essential parts and then bring them all together into the larger story. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle: you have a lot of small parts that, once assembled, create a larger picture.

When I applied for the position of director in 2009, I was given fifteen minutes to pitch 10 people about my vision for the production. I went into the Village Playhouse, a community theatre in Toronto’s Bloor West Village, with only a picture of what the play would look like and how I wanted the stage to appear. I wanted to use music written by George Gershwin because the play is set in a New York brownstone apartment. Whenever I hear Gershwin, I see New York City in all its grit and splendor.

One year later, the play opened to a packed house in the 160-seat studio theatre. I was proud to see the cast, who worked incredibly hard during the 9 weeks of rehearsal, get the applause they deserved. Alas, since we were all volunteering, applause and praise are the currency in which we thrive. Hard work and dedicated volunteers have been operating this theatre for over 35 years. Clearly, I had come to the right place at the right time with a production team already in place and ready to do their best to bring The Price to life.

Theatre succeeds because it engages us better than any other art form. It will never be replaced by the high-speed technologies of 2010 because we need to “feel” the drama of humanity; the drama of life unfiltered.

-- John Corcelli is an actor, musician, writer, broadcaster and theatre director.

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