Paul Miller: 'British theatre is wasteful when it comes to playwrights'

Fiona Mountford
Orange Tree: Paul Miller has been artistic director at the theatre since 2014: Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd

When Paul Miller took over as artistic director of the Orange Tree four years ago, this quirky theatre-in-the-round in Richmond was in an idiosyncratic position.

Blessed with an intensely loyal core of audience members, it nonetheless ploughed a lonely furrow, having long since fallen out of London’s all-important cultural “conversation”. Fast forward to 2018 and it’s one of the most in-form venues in the capital thanks to Miller’s inspired programming, which is some of the most astute and strategic around. He has made the Orange Tree blossom once more – and all this on top of the fact that, on his very first day in the job, he learnt that the theatre was to lose 100 per cent of its £363,695 Arts Council grant.

So clever has Miller’s selection of plays been that none other than the National Theatre has swooped in to transfer the Orange Tree’s choicest hits to the South Bank. Alistair McDowall’s dystopian drama Pomona was the first to make the journey and, next month, An Octoroon will follow in its footsteps to zone one. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s riotous commentary on race and theatre helped win him the 2017 Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright; the idea that it sprang to flourishing life at a theatre until very recently considered irredeemably hidebound is surprising and delightful.

I start my time with Miller, 50, with a question that is a rare pleasure to ask: where did it all go so right? Thoughtful and eloquent, and with an intriguing sense of still waters running very deep, he smiles. “What a lovely framing to the question,” he says. ‘I probably spent around ten years enjoying the [freelance] directing that I was doing, but I craved being building-based. So by the time I took this job on I did have some pent-up enthusiasm for doing it.”

Prior to the Orange Tree, Miller had stints at the National Theatre Studio and as an associate director for Daniel Evans at Sheffield. Watching Nicholas Hytner in action at the National was an “eye-opening privilege”. “His resilience, which is a necessary part of these jobs, seemed to come from the fact that he never seemed to dwell on things gloomily. He had a kind of cheerful accuracy in being able to go, ‘No, we’re not doing that’ and then moving on. I felt I should learn from that, because that’s not my natural temperament. I can dwell a little bit.”

When I ask what it means to him to be an artistic director, Miller gives a typically well-reasoned answer. “When I was a teenager and started to really get into the theatre, I very quickly got the idea that directing was the thing to do. Not because of old-fashioned notions of sitting atop a power structure, but because it seemed to be the job that was in touch with every aspect of the production,” he says. “Similarly if you do one of these [artistic director] jobs, you have the privilege of being in touch with every aspect of the building’s activity. You are connected to the ongoing river which is the theatre’s life.”

The Orange Tree’s funding situation has meant that, perforce, Miller has had to spend a lot of time thinking about the financial aspects of the theatre’s life. It’s been a long slog but, just as in the artistic sphere, the hard work is bearing fruit and the Orange Tree continues to either produce or co-produce everything that plays there. He oversaw a restructuring of the staff and business model, as well as the development of a “brilliant” fundraising team which has tapped into extensive local support. Shows now routinely play to audiences of more than 90 per cent. In short “we’re surviving and thriving”, but this isn’t to say that they wouldn’t like to re-enter the Arts Council fold. Looking at the all-round excellence of the theatre’s output, not to mention its education programme and support for developing artists, it seems incredible that the Arts Council can continue to justify its isolationist stance.

Daniel Evans, now artistic director of Chichester, has this to say of Miller. “He manages to combine an encyclopaedic knowledge of the European and American canon of plays with the most astute nose for the next generation of playwrights. I look at his work at the Orange Tree with awe. What’s happening in Richmond is nothing short of a revolution.” Miller’s programming has been an ingenious blend of carefully selected new writing, such as An Octoroon (“I read it and thought, this is absolutely the maddest play I’ve ever read, how wonderful”) and current hit Mayfly, about a grieving family in rural England, and astute unearthings of unjustly neglected dramas from previous eras. One of Miller’s early Orange Tree successes was a production of Terence Rattigan’s comedy French without Tears, at one point one of the most famous plays in the English-speaking world.

Just prior to Mayfly came Humble Boy, a revival of Charlotte Jones’s National Theatre triumph from 2001 (it’s good to see that it isn’t solely one-way traffic between the Orange Tree and the National). “British theatre is very wasteful,” says Miller. “We produce new playwrights like no other culture in the world. This is an amazing thing, but there is a by-product to it, which is that we treat plays and playwrights a bit like single-use plastics and throw them in the bin. We should be better at recycling and reusing.”

Such mounting excellence has led to musings that Miller might seek other pastures; there’s a school of thought among some critics that he should have gone for the recently advertised artistic directorship of the Donmar Warehouse. Modest and loyal, he’s having none of it. “No. It’s impossible. I wanted to commit myself here. I never saw this as a stepping-stone in the first place and now having been here and seen the artistic space we’ve created for ourselves, the possibilities are endless.”

Miller grew up in Chichester, where his father was a driving instructor. The 1972 Christmas show at the Festival Theatre, the very first piece of drama he saw, proved a pivotal moment: “we got to throw foam snowballs.” It’s amusing to think that the current Richmond renaissance can be traced directly back to some Christmas tat. Until the age of 16, Miller wanted to become a barrister, “but I think I watched one too many episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey.”

Our session almost over, I ask Miller whether he likes doing interviews. “I do, funnily enough. One of the things that happens with these jobs is that, if you’re not careful, your every moment becomes sorting out that problem or facing that issue or dealing with that task and it’s all quick thinking. At moments like this [interview], here I am suddenly with rather large questions, so it’s actually a moment to look at the horizon or look in the rear-view mirror.” Whichever way you look at Paul Miller’s Orange Tree, the view is splendid.

Mayfly is at the Orange Tree, TW9 (020 8940 3633, until May 26

An Octoroon is at the National, SE1 (020 7452 3000, June 7-July 18