Lockdown interviews – The director/producer: Erica Miller

Today’s Lockdown Interview is with one half of the Merry Spinsters, Erica Miller. Erica studied theology and fine art before making her way into theatre, training at the Young Vic and StoneCrabs Theatre.

Header image by Catherine Harvey.

How are you coping during the lockdown?

Well for the first three or four weeks I was ill (presuming it was Covid) so staying in felt a necessity anyway and everything was incredibly tiring. In fact, I’m still not 100% healthy but now I am most of the way there. Also I’m not living in my home so I have really been missing having my own stuff. I have never been so excited to buy body lotion!

Mostly, I’m a social person and I’m not a person who likes remaining indoors all the time so all of this feels so odd to me. I also feel lost because the theatre industry has shut down. Unmoored even.

I don’t feel at all creative at the moment and I wonder at times if what I do is worthwhile? Then I remember what keeps us all sane are books, films, making art which are all forms of telling stories and making sense of the world around us. 

Tell me a bit about your role as director/producer. How did you get into it, and how would you describe it to others?

I started out as a director after realising that acting was mostly fun but my passion and drive was awakened by organising how the story was told and helping far more talented actors find their way within it.

I gave up working in admin and managed to persuade StoneCrabs Theatre to take me on their young director course. I haven’t looked back since, but I did have to delay my career for roughly 7 years be a carer for my mum. I still managed to keep a up with doing a small selection of short plays for my sanity’s sake but I couldn’t fully take advantage of bigger opportunities until 2019. 

I am far more of director than producer, but I also realised I know my worth/vision and I couldn’t wait endlessly to be seen or helped. In Merry Spinsters (formed in 2019 with myself and playwright Maev Mac Coille) we’ve made a theatre company to make work we believe in – making women central to our plays.  

We both work as artists outside the company but within it we have control of a large portion of our own work and that’s important, and we’ve been able work with amazing collaborators along the way.   

Directing is presenting a story or even a conversation to audiences in such a way that they’re willing to engaging with it both intellectually and emotionally. It’s a director’s job to bring the actors, plays, set, sound and lights together (with a team of people) to make a whole live event happen.

What has been your favourite project to work on?

Every project I do has a place in my heart because I got to make live art but if I have to choose then it’s Meat by Joe Von Malachowski. 

It was part of Bush Bazaar – an entire building was filled with a market place of devised interactive theatre and we took over the Bush Theatre’s dressing room to give Meat its new home.

Twelve ticket holders were blindfolded and led to seats for a live audio drama that used smells (yes we fried meat on a hot plate), foley work, water guns and 6 characters (played by two actors) to weave a tale of power, greed and cannibalism.

It took only twenty minutes (repeated 4 times a night) to do, but to see the audience go on the journey and then their awe on taking off their blindfolds to see how it was done was wonderful.

What has been your greatest achievement?

I’m going assume you mean in theatre or else my answer would be different! I didn’t do this alone, but it was definitely hard and can easily be called an achievement: putting Tell it Slant on at the Hope Theatre. 

At that point Merry Spinsters hadn’t put on any full run plays when we got the offer from the Hope. We didn’t have any cash or any backers. As it was our first full run, very few people had heard of us. We had a play written by Maev Mac Coille but had struggled to find a home for it, or so we thought.  

The problem was the filter on our email. Yep, the first offer from the Hope Theatre had gone into junk and disappeared. Their second email also went to junk but happily I saw that one. This was a few days before Christmas 2019. The only problem was that Maev was about to go back to Dublin for the holiday. So, I made a mad dash to City Airport, so we could talk the offer over in person – and as it happened, the Hope Theatre called us as we sat there deciding what to do! 

We made decision to say yes to a full production for three weeks, starting on 25 February. We had nothing but our talent, a play and determination to somehow make it happen.

Then the really hard work began, to fundraise for the show, find our cast of four, get creatives on board, rehearse the play (and having to do that twice as the two romantic leads swap roles every other show) and do all the promotional work to make sure we sold some actual tickets! It was the biggest and busiest two and half months of our lives that ended on 14th of March, just two days before the entire theatre industry shut down.

Publicity for Tell it Slant. Courtesy Merry Spinsters.
Publicity for Tell it Slant. Courtesy Merry Spinsters.

What do you think will happen to the theatre space after this pause in physical production?

I think the world actually needs live art/theatre to process, grieve and even to forget what has happened but I think its form will have to adapt.

It might mean the audience numbers need to go down, so people can be socially distant, but that will probably mean the costs of those few tickets will have to increase. Or it might be a live televised feed happens and no audience is there in front of the actors. Mind you, I know I would prefer to be wrong on both counts.

I do think video etc will become more of a norm, because this pandemic has shown me that there a wider audience for filmed theatre. Before now out of ignorance, cost and a fear it’s not the same experience we as an industry have shunned it in the main – I think this has to change. 

The theatre industry seems saturated with new companies, ideas, performance models, collaborations, and innovation. Is there enough time, space, talent and funding to support the direction of travel or do you think a complete rethink is due?

Saturated? I think there are a lot of new innovations because we thrive on new ideas but they don’t all make it to the top or even sometimes the mid-levels of the industry.

To be honest, I don’t want to discount or discourage new people coming in. But it’s not an easy industry to maintain a career in because it’s not well paid for the amount of work and time put into it. It’s just not valued enough in the UK.

What has been your favourite theatre experience where you haven’t been directly involved?

Improbable’s Shockheaded Peter. Yes, it’s from many years ago but as a half German person I was raised with those childhood tales and the dark humour within them. It was glorious to see the stories combined with a live band and to this day I followed the Tiger Lillies because of their part of Shockheaded Peter.

Looking forward to when all this is over, what’s your next project?

I don’t have one at the moment – so yes, I am for hire. My last almost gig was to been part of the wonderful Power Share at The Bunker – which hopefully will get another chance in the future.

We’ve been kicking around some ideas for Merry Spinsters.  We have a play that is currently being written, but I know we both want a far longer lead up time to plan for that than we had this year. I am currently figuring out how to make films during this pandemic, so no matter what I want to learn more about how to continue with that. 

Thanks to Erica, and get well soon!