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Interview: Paul Miller, Artistic Director of the Orange Tree Theatre

26 August 2014 | Charlie Kenber

“It’s right that we don’t dwell on the past actually, and just get on with planning a future.”

London Calling: So first off let’s talk about the new season – what would you say was your overall vision for the year?

Paul Miller: To mix new plays with rediscoveries is the sort-of overall theme, but what’s interesting about the seven plays is they’re all early works by writers. So it’s Bernard Shaw’s first play, and it’s one of DH Lawrence’s plays that he wrote when he was very young and obviously the new plays are early plays by writers: Deborah Bruce’s play The Distance for instance. She’s a very well established well thought of director, but this is one of her first plays.

LC: Sam Walters has left quite a legacy to follow on from in his 43 years running the theatre – does that make it harder for you to make a mark?

PM: It’s a phenomenal legacy, and the fact that this place was built up out of absolutely nothing at all is the most extraordinary achievement. That is a legacy to live with – for which many thanks! But it’s also a daunting legacy because over forty years it’s hard to name something that Sam and Auriol didn’t at some point do, whether it’s individual plays or types of plays. They covered a lot of ground, so it’s quite daunting to be original in that context.

LC: Before you started did you have an idea of who the theatre’s audience was? Are you attempting to open that up?

PM: The place is at a point in its life where it does need to open up and keep on opening up to new audiences, new artists and new ways of doing things. But actually there is a bit of a misconception about the Orange Tree that it has one single static audience. When in fact – as I observed in the things that Sam did – different kinds of people come to different kinds of things. There’s a very large catchment area out there in Richmond and beyond, so it does respond usually to what you put on.

Of course there is this fantastically loyal core of audience that have grown up with Sam over the years, and I want to keep as many people on board as we go forward as possible. But equally we need to just keep on widening the circle so more people are let in.

LC: You’ve done lots of work on the building over the summer – how has it changed?

PM: So we’ve done some decorating work over the summer yes. We’ve just cleared out a little bit, repainted, given the foyer a new look, and given the auditorium a new look. So I think regulars to the Orange Tree will notice some changes. We’ve also gone to having numbered seating.

LC: The big news is of course the cut in core funding the theatre received from the Arts Council, which announced last month that you will no longer be a National Portfolio organisation. It happened on your first day in the office, so it must have been a bit of a blow!

PM: It was quite something on my first day, that’s for sure! Obviously the season as we have it goes ahead completely as planned because we’re funded through to the spring of next year.

But it’s true that from the summer of next year onwards we will have to adjust our financial model and do some more fundraising and change the way we do things. But in fact what we will do is continue to diversify and produce as broad a range of work as possible. That process will continue.

LC: It does seem odd timing, especially given your arrival!

PM: Yeah, it’s really frustrating, but we’re getting on with it. It’s right that we don’t dwell on the past actually, and just get on with planning a future.

LC: You’re directing the opening show of the season, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd by DH Lawrence. What particularly drew you to that play?

PM: DH Lawrence is an absolutely brilliant playwright. People know him of course as a poet and a novelist. A generation or two ago his plays were introduced into the London theatre with great success, but actually people are starting to forget about them again, and I think it’s time to reintroduce them. He wrote three absolutely blazing masterpieces of which this is one. It in particular seems to suit this intimate space, so I think it’s going to be very exciting.

LC: It was written over a century ago – is it a challenge to keep it relevant?

PM: The writing is incredibly modern: one of the reasons the play didn’t get done at the time was because it was just too modern. So it feels like it could have been written yesterday to be perfectly honest with you. The dialogue itself just feels incredibly fresh and modern.

LC: You’re also expanding the theatre’s outreach projects this year. How will that work?

PM: Yeah we want to get more younger people into the theatre, there’s no question about it. And one way we’re doing that is to make more tickets available at £10 for Under 30s, and particular for Pomona, which is Alistair McDowall’s fantastic new play. So that feels really good to have made that offer to people.

We have got a wonderful community and education programme here at the Orange Tree which reaches thousands of people every year, it’s fantastic. So we’re just trying to find ways of actually bringing those people in to the theatre.

LC: Finally, if you were to be able to skip ahead to the end of the year what would you like your debut season to be remembered for?

PM: I think for people to feel like every time they’ve come to the Orange Tree this season they’ve seen fantastic acting, close up.

The Orange Tree’s new season begins with DH Lawrence’s The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd which plays from 3rd September until 4th October. Tickets and further information are available here.

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