SesayArts in Conversation with Jeff Miller: The Enduring Relevance of To Kill a Mockingbird (…plus some thoughts on the Fool!)

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Sesaya specializes in music and arts education.

To Kill A Mockingbird, YPT

Jeff Miller (Atticus Finch), Caroline Toal (Scout); photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The Young People’s Theatre has a lot of nerve. The 49th season opener is To Kill a Mockingbird, Christopher Sergel‘s dramatization of Harper Lee‘s classic novel. Since its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird has been surrounded by controversy. The novel’s portrayal of bigotry, abuse, racism, systemic injustice, and loss of innocence made it both timely and ahead of its time.

Now, 54 years later, it holds an iconic and ironic place in the canon. It’s a Pulitzer-Prize-winning bestseller and required reading on school syllabi . . . yet it is also a banned book. Many school boards still refuse to look beyond its depiction of racial intolerance to see its enduring relevance to current issues of discrimination and the inadequacy of the law to rectify it. They fail to see that, presented from a child’s perspective, the story also depicts compassion, friendship and maturation. And it reminds us that “different” should not mean “other.”

Long before the run began at YPT, the real buzz in local school staff rooms was not overflowing Kindergarten classes. It was field trips to YPT. Teachers wanted to take their classes to see the production. Principals were leery of potential backlash from parents worried by the play’s difficult themes.

Yes, despite all the legal reforms and social organizations that have taken root in our society of 2014, we still have not managed to create equality for all. As our nightly newscasts make clear, the themes in the story are as relevant today as they were in 1960. So YPT’s nervy move to produce the play — despite the inevitable controversy — is reason for applause.

The show, which runs until November 2, has been enthusiastically received by audiences and critics. In fact, the demand for tickets is so high that YPT has added rare Saturday evening shows. To good end: the performances are as compelling as the production itself. Jeff Miller, in particular, has received unanimous praise for his understated, poignant portrayal of Atticus Finch, the judicious lawyer-father whose defence of a wrongly-accused black man, Tom Robinson, forms the major plot of the story. Jeff spoke with SesayArts about his preparation for the role, how the story’s timeless themes resonate with young audiences–and in which production we can see him next.

1. Atticus Finch is such an iconic role. How did you prepare for it, to make it truly your own interpretation?

The first thing I had to do was to not let myself be intimidated by the role and the affection that so many people who have read the book or seen the movie have for the character. My job is to look at the character, try and understand as much as I can about who he is, how he thinks, the way he lives his life and then marry that information with what I can bring to the role. My interpretation of Atticus will be unlike any other actor because I will never be able to duplicate what any other actor does with the same role.

To prepare, I read the book a couple of times and found it extremely helpful because Harper Lee writes about Atticus in a lot of the detail. I worked on the Alabama accent by watching some stuff on YouTube and working with a dialect coach. I am lucky to know a few lawyers, so I was able to pick their brains on some of the legal details of Atticus’ journey in the play.

2. How is Christopher Sergel’s dramatization of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is set in 1935, still relevant to today’s young audiences?

It’s perhaps an overused expression, but I believe To Kill a Mockingbird is truly a timeless story for a number of reasons. Chief among them, it is a story of serious social injustice happening in the American South in 1935, but, unfortunately, our world continues to be filled with a large amount of prejudice, bigotry and injustice for individuals and groups of individuals who do not enjoy full human rights.

We have already played a few performances of the show for student audiences, and we are delighted at how attentive and involved they have been with the story — including reacting quite vocally to a number of events in the play where unfortunate, unjust events occur involving characters that they have come to care about.

Atticus, the character I play in the show, speaks about “…never really knowing someone until you consider things from their point-of-view, until you stand in their shoes and walk around in them”. This notion of developing empathy and caring for something and someone other than ourselves is an idea that I think will always be relevant, particularly with young people, for however long human beings inhabit the earth.

Matthew G. Brown (Tom Robinson), Mark Crawford (Mr. Gilmer), Jeff Miller (Atticus Finch), W. Joseph Matheson (Heck Tate); photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

3. My three children are all excited to see this play at YPT, yet they are cautious about the serious themes they will have to confront. What do you hope the children in the audience will take away with them after seeing the play?

With reference to the serious themes in the play, I would first encourage you to review the excellent study guide that YPT has prepared for the play. It includes material (historical background, study questions, etc) that will assist parents and educators in discussing the themes of To Kill a Mockingbird with young people.

As far as what I hope children in the audience will take away with them, my first hope is that they have found our play exciting, engaging and maybe thought-provoking. They may find themselves thinking about what it means to make choices between right and wrong in their world today, and they may perhaps consider the importance of justice, of respecting and honouring differences in each other.

4. What is the best and worst thing about acting on the stage?

The best thing about acting on stage is, after rehearsing for 3 weeks, discovering that an audience is being successfully transported into the story of the play, that they are going with you on this journey, and that they care about the story you’re telling. That, to me, is enormously exciting.

The worst thing about acting on stage is that every great show that I’m involved with, like To Kill a Mockingbird, eventually has to close, and you have to say goodbye to all the remarkable artists you’ve just spent the last 7 weeks with, working on something very special.

5. What’s next for you?

In early 2015, I will be working on a production of King Lear for a company in North Bay, Ontario with one of my favourite actors of all time, David Fox, in the title role. And I will be playing the Fool. I am extremely excited about this opportunity. I have had the honour of working with David on a number of productions over the last 20 years and I always learn a great deal about the craft of acting every time I am in a show with them. Can’t wait to work with him on Lear!

News You Can Use

What: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, dramatized by Christopher Sergel, directed by Allen MacInnis

Who: Hume Baugh, Lisa Berry, Matthew Brown, Mark Crawford, Joan Gregson, Thomas Hauff, Joe Matheson, Jessica Moss, Jeff Miller, Tal Shulman, Noah Spitzer, Caroline Toal, Rudy Webb

When: October 9-November 2, 2014

Where: Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto

FYI: youngpeoplestheatre.ca and 416.862.2222

Cool to know: To Kill a Mockingbird Study Guide for teachers and parents

© 2014 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

Posted in Interviews, Performing Arts, play, Theatre, Toronto, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .