Arthur Miller – No Villain: An interview with director Sean Turner
When Sean Turner learned of Arthur Miller’s very first play, he set about trying to find it, and he now brings it to the London stage for its world premiere. A freelance theatre director based in London, Sean trained at East 15 School of Acting and the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts. His directing credits include the 2012 production of Three of Hearts, which garnered five Off West End Award nominations, including Best Director.
We caught up with him to find out about his directing style, and to share his findings about the long lost Arthur Miller play, No Villain.
What was your first experience of Arthur Miller?
Honestly, I think it was my sister playing Betty Paris in a local production of The Crucible; I must’ve been about 12 and she 11. I remember being terrified by the possession scenes. there was something truly affecting about the rhythms in the text, but I didn’t really find his other works until much later.
How did you stumble upon No Villain and what was it about it that made you want to bring it to life?
I didn’t so much stumble upon it as hunt for it. My interest was piqued by a paragraph or so in Miller’s biography about his first attempt at play-writing. It had won an award in Michigan at Miller’s university and I felt sure a copy must exist. I spoke to the Miller Trust and Arthur’s agent and to my astonishment neither had heard of the play. I approached the University of Michigan and luckily they had Miller’s original typed script complete with handwritten notes. When I read No Villain I knew it was a vital part of the Miller repertoire and it really deserved a staging.
Why has it taken so long for this play to be produced?
The honest answer is I don’t know. Miller wrote the play in order to win the Avery Hopwood Award for writing and, whilst they offered a healthy $250 prize, they did not offer to stage the finished work. My best guess is that Miller had no means with which to make a production and so it got shelved as he continued to write, mainly journalism and later radio plays. I guess no one has been as dogged as me in trying to find it!
Miller has spoken of No Villain as being autobiographical in some respects. Did you feel you got to know Arthur Miller more intimately than you had before?
Yes, I guess so. Certainly it explained a few things for me. Hopefully it will prove enlightening for our audience. He often wrote autobiographical characters so I don’t think that in itself is remarkable but No Villain certainly has less of a mask than some other plays. Interestingly the other play that so visibly deals with the realities of his life is Finishing the Picture, his last play, about trying to make The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe. This kind of self-reflection bookends his work and is indicative of how closely entwined his personal life was with his writing.
Is there additional pressure to put on a world premiere, as opposed to a re-staging?
Of course there is an unnerving element to presenting something new at any time, but I feel a particularly great pressure to do justice to such a towering figure and a personal idol. Re-staging Miller’s work is tough because of the weight of expectations. This is the opposite, it’s tough because I think people expect it to be substandard in some way. Which I can categorically say it isn’t. The onus is on us to prove it.
Does No Villain feel like a Miller piece? Are there motifs that you recognise because he expanded on them in later plays?
When I first read the play, I sent it to a friend as a blind test, removing the author’s name entirely. He wrote me back within a couple of hours saying: “It’s great and it’s Arthur Miller, how did you find it?”. No Villain has all of the hallmarks of his great plays. A host of great characters (many prototypes for later heroes), rich poetic language and a battle between individual duty and social responsibility at its centre.
Can you outline how you begin your creative process, once you’ve taken on a play?
I read a lot: the script (until I know it backwards), contextual reading and research. My ideas tend to formulate organically. I don’t set out to solve the play before rehearsals, I’ve learned it is futile and that discoveries made as a whole in the rehearsal room have a much more lasting and practical effect.
Are you quite rigid in the way you direct, or have you changed over the years?
I’d probably like to think I’m less rigid than I am, but I do have a house style I guess. Each play presents different challenges and each cast offers different ways of answering them so it changes project by project.
Which is your best-loved London theatre?
I am an avid theatre-goer so this one is tough, but right now I would say the Young Vic and the Almeida have the most consistently exciting programmes. I’m really enjoying Matthew Warchus’ first season at the Old Vic too.
As a freelance director, how do you manage to network and stay abreast of new opportunities?
I go to the theatre a lot. I read a lot of plays and I try to align myself with people who I think are making great work. I try to create my own opportunities where possible.
Do you have a favourite Miller play?
My favourite is All My Sons, it is a blisteringly well-crafted play and so moving. I think it’s about as perfect as theatre can get.
What do you think is the best play to start with for people new to Miller?
I’m biased but I would really suggest coming along to see No Villain. It is his first work and it tells the story of his early life in remarkable autobiographical detail. The dilemma he tackles in No Villain is the same that underpins much of his later classics and to understand Miller is to understand his plays, they are so interlinked.
No Villain is on at the Old Red Lion Theatre from 8th December 2015 until 9th January 2016, for further information or to book visit here.
For further information about Sean Turner, visit here.
Watch the trailer for No Villain here: