I recently had the chance to sit down with a couple friends of The Playhouse and talk about their experiences working with Arthur Miller. Suzanne Bradbeer, author of Gulfshore Playhouse’s World Premiere play The God Game, and Naomi Buck, former Director Of Programming for Artis Naples, were both incredibly generous to take the time and share some stories and impressions of Mr. Miller, one of the great dramatists in the history of American theatre.
Coincidentally they both worked on the same play, just decades apart. The American Clock first premiered on Broadway in 1980, and Naomi was a stage manger on that production. Suzanne had the opportunity to work as dramaturge on Signature Theatre’s revival of the play in 1997.
The thing that struck me most about the way these two women spoke of Mr. Miller was the reverence in their voices. Clearly, even through the intervening years, the impression this theatre artist left was deep and very important in the lives of Naomi and Suzanne. In fact, Naomi said, “It was the apex of my professional life.”
Right off the bat, Suzanne jumped right in with, “He was hugely charismatic. All the girls in the room were like, ‘I see what Marilyn saw in him.” And Naomi agreed. “When he spoke, the room stopped. Part of it is because he’s Arthur Miller, you know you are in the room with a legend, someone whose work will be read around the world forever. But it wasn’t just that, it was also that he was very comfortable with himself. He was very humble, not to say that he didn’t take his credit, but he never pushed it. With his ease, his fame, the content of his conversation, and his easy sense of humor, he became the whole room.”
Naomi continually talked about the sense of humor. Not just his own, but the importance he placed on other’s sense of humor. And this wasn’t about people laughing at his jokes, it had much more to do with people being able to participate in a conversation in an easy and humorous way. Suzanne added a story about the first time she was going to be speaking with him privately on the phone. It was during previews, and sometimes Mr. Miller would be in attendance at those previews, but sometimes not, and Suzanne was tasked with calling him the morning after the preview and giving him a report on how the show went, and how the audience received it. “I was supposed to call him at 8:00 AM and it must have been a few minutes before the scheduled time, because when he answered the phone, the first thing out of his mouth was a loud ‘YOU’RE EARLY!’” Suzanne stammered an apology, as quickly as she could get it out of her mouth and hung up the phone, mortified. She waited a few minutes, and then apprehensively dialed Mr. Miller back, ready to apologize again. This time the first thing out of his mouth was, “I was just kidding you.”
It was during these phone conversations that Suzanne really began to appreciate Mr. Miller’s work ethic and drive to get the play right. He would ask her every time they spoke, “How is the audience responding? Were they getting it? Were they appreciative?” Suzanne realized how cool it was that you are never too old, never too celebrated to care deeply about what the audience thinks. And she was also impressed by how naked those questions were. There was no mask, no cover. Naomi added that she thought this was the core of his work ethic, “He always wanted to know if the audience got it. Otherwise he would have to explain it differently.”
It was a thrill for me to get a chance to these women and hear their first hand accounts of Mr. Miller. They spoke with respect, humor, reverence and joy. And they both expressed how wonderful it was to revisit these memories and that time in their lives. However here at the end I do want to include two last thoughts they shared.
Suzanne spoke of the time right after Mr. Miller’s death in 2005. She was at The New Harmony Project walking with fellow playwright Theresa Rebeck, and they spoke about how there a tremendous moral center was missing both from the larger world, and from the smaller theatrical world.
Naomi said, “He was so human. There was nothing high falootin’ about him. He lived up to the legend status, because he was such a real human being. He didn’t have any big star bullshit. He was just there. He was everything you wanted him to be. We need all our heroes to be like that.”