Silent House’s The Crucible is a 17th-Century Horror Story
If you attended high school in the US, you probably read Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. But let’s face it, you likely forgot about it not long after, except perhaps for a lingering memory that someone in the play saw someone else with the devil, and things got a little crazy.
And sure, while you may not have seen The Crucible performed, you might also remember it was Miller’s ‘50s-era response to McCarthyism and the persecution of artists and free thinkers under the guise of rooting out communism. And you likely recall, even from the text, the sense of looming catastrophe and rising panic Miller conjured.
Now you have a chance to catch the final weekend of Silent House Theatre’s production of The Crucible and experience the palpable terror, tragedy, and tumult of a literal and figurative witch hunt. It won’t be a comfortable performance, but then, that’s the point.
Realistic Human Stories, Not Hyper-Realism
It began as a joke. Collin Selman and Bradyn Braziel, co-founders of Silent House Theatre Company, traded offhand comments about dramatizing The Crucible, one of the most-performed plays in the US and, by dint of that fact, one of the most difficult pieces to do justice. But, once the idea was released into the wild, it began to take hold. Perhaps it could work. Perhaps they could bring back some of the intensity to the play, without veering off into campy hysterics.
“Every high school has done it,” jokes Braziel, who plays Elizabeth Proctor in the play. “Everyone’s read it. You’ve probably seen this show so many times, and you’ve probably seen it done poorly. But we were like, we could do it really well and make it a showstopper, you know? Come see us do it really well.”
Selman, who is growing into his directorial role with this play, is sticking closely to the play’s text and original setting in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts.
“He’s really taken a more realistic approach,” says Braziel of Selman’s directorial choices. “We’ve done extensive research on the time period, and we even went to Salem, Massachusetts, a couple of weeks ago, so we could bring that knowledge back to our actors.”
Braziel, Selman, and their production crew soaked up the grim reality of the Salem witch trials by visiting the reconstructed dungeons where the prisoners were held, and they’ve imbued their production with much of the ambiance they absorbed during their trip. But they have also taken some artistic liberties, with an eye toward creating a more relatable story and inclusive cast. Actors will be costumed in bonnets and breeches, but some elements have been updated for a modern audience.
“It’s not hyper-realism,” says Selman. “So, we’re not playing the character of Tituba in the play as a slave.” Tituba, an enslaved young woman from Barbados, is one of the characters swept up in the witch hunt frenzy, and she is traditionally the only character of color in the play.
“We have several people of color in the cast,” says Selman. “So it didn’t make sense for the time period for Tituba to be a slave but Ezekiel Cheever, who is played by a good friend of ours, Devin Mays, to be a [African American] member of the legal court. So it isn’t hyper-realism in that way, and it is a very diverse cast. But we did feel it was important for Tituba to be played by a woman of color. We wanted to make sure that we played it correctly because Tituba is from Barbados, but we also wanted to leave it open-ended in the way that we’re approaching the character in the show.”
Calamity Looms Large
While the action onstage will be true to Miller’s original vision, Selman worked with his in-house tech director, Jacob Goldstein, to take the production design in new directions with the use of creative lighting, original music, and sets designed to heighten a sense of forboding.
“This is the first production I really got to play with the artistic side, and this is my favorite tech we’ve done on a show before,” says Selman. “We have some cool lighting stuff that’s happening. I play with the color red a lot. We also added live music, so there will be live piano, and my really good friend, Evan Graves, wrote an original seven-minute score that we have spliced throughout the show.”
Audiences can expect a multi-sensory immersion into the horror and tragedy of a witch hunt.
“I want the audience to get a little creeped out, so I played with the horror aspect of the show, and that’s where the red comes in. Like, how are we creating that palpable sense of dread and horror? So the moment they walk in, the audience is going to see this stage that’s fully red. When the lights dim, there’s a can light over an arch, this ominous-looking arch, and it’s going to feel like trouble looms.”
Those in the deaf community will be able to immerse themselves in the terror of the play too, thanks to Silent House’s commitment to incorporating ASL interpreters in their productions. With such a large cast, Silent House has employed the help of three ASL interpreters to bring The Crucible to life for deaf audience members, and you’ll see interpreters Alex Blanton, Dakota Clayton, and Erik Vaughn translating during Friday’s performance.
Audiences Draw Their Own Conclusions
Selman and Braziel carefully avoid drawing any direct parallels to current political events or cultural movements, preferring to let the audience draw their own conclusions from Miller’s parable and the elements of horror that weave their way throughout the production.
“Director-wise, this is one of the more traditional approaches for me,” says Selman. “So early on, one of the decisions we made was to make the production parallel McCarthyism. When Arthur Miller wrote it, it was a sort of ode to that time period, and I think that it still applies, always—crying ‘witch.’ But I’m not trying to make any sort of statement with this.”
Ethan Trueman, a Baylor theater graduate with several years of Waco theater under his belt, has taken on the role of protagonist John Proctor. Like Selman, Trueman is more focused on bringing relatable, human elements to his character, rather than playing with larger themes or parallels to contemporary issues.
“I tried to make it more realistic,” says Trueman, “just a more down-to-earth approach and not worry too much about the themes of the show because that will be done by the director and his creative team. A good actor is one that’s pliable, that can go in whichever direction the director needs. So I make the motivation make sense to my character. Being who I am and having as much experience as I have—32 years on this earth—I have quite the library of experiences. I am going to die—impending doom,” he jokes. “I have a long catalog of memories to recall that have helped me in this role.”
Likewise, Braziel will be playing to the real tragedy of Elizabeth Proctor’s predicament.
“Literally her life is at stake,” says Braziel. “I think I started to come to terms with that only a few days ago and realized I’ve got to actually get this through to people. It’s a very spooky concept, downright terrifying if you take it seriously.”
Finding The Silent House Moments
Braziel and Selman choose their subject matter carefully and always with one goal in mind.
“We are always searching for shows that give us the silent house moment,” says Braziel. “It’s the moment in the show where the actors and the technicians and the audience are so glued into what’s happening that the house is silent, and you can hear a pin drop. Everybody is right in that moment. I always say we don’t want people sitting in their chairs thinking about what they’re going to do after the performance.”
While Selman and Braziel, both devoted thespians since their childhood days at Waco Children’s Theatre, appreciate a wide variety of theatrical productions, you likely won’t catch them putting on a production of Grease. For their next show, they have something entirely different in mind.
God of Carnage, a contemporary play by French playwright Yasmina Reza, will be Silent House’s next project. Braziel and Selman are confident that the production, while very different from The Crucible, will feature many more silent house moments for audience members.
“When we picked The Crucible, there were so many silent house moments in the show,” says Braziel. “And you can find those in comedies, in musicals—it doesn’t have to be so dramatic. So our next production, God of Carnage, will be in July at McLennan Community College’s Black Box Theater and it’s quite different from this show. It’s a four-person show, two couples, and it’s hilarious. It’s dark but hilarious.”
“We are striving to bring art to the stage that makes you think, work that is going to leave you asking questions at the end,” says Braziel. “It’s always going to be challenging art that’s challenging actors as well as audience members. We don’t want people to come in and think, ‘Oh, that was easy, and now I’m going to go home.’ We want people on the edge of their seats and asking questions.”
“Thoughtful discourse,” says Selman. “It’s in our mission statement.”
Tickets are available for the Silent House production of The Crucible at the Jubilee Theater, 1315 North 15th Street, on Friday, June 3, and Saturday, June 4, at 7:30 pm, and Sunday, June 5, at 2:30 pm.
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