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A Life on Stage

A visit with Jim Miller Professor of Theatre

Published: - Topics: design performance acting theatre Tennessee Williams
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By LuAnne Roth

MU Theatre Professor Jim Miller emphasizes happenstance events, moments of inspiration, and intriguing connections as he talks about his work in the theatre—from a revelation while working on a Pepto-Bismol commercial in New York years ago (that he couldn’t “stomach” life as a struggling Broadway actor) to selecting which plays to direct at MU. Now, after twenty-six years of teaching and directing at MU, Miller has not only gathered a large repertoire of these stories, but has also come to believe in the power of such intangible resources as serendipity and instinct in the realm of acting and directing.

The fact, for example, that both Miller and famed playwright Tennessee Williams were “Mississippi boys” surely influenced Miller’s performance of Williams’ letters, which had been edited and compiled by MU English Professor Albert Devlin. “I’ve always been drawn to Tennessee Williams’ work,” said Miller, who once directed Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton. Working with Williams’ written correspondence, Miller decided to focus on those letters composed while the playwright was himself a student at MU in 1929: “The letters were wonderful; they were warm, and human, and witty; and they were also like every letter ever written home by any student. All of the vulnerability is there. You see the writer who is going to emerge.”

Over a succession of projects Miller has glimpsed certain truths: “Theatre is theatre, whether it’s in New York or Berlin or Tallahassee, Florida,” he observes. “The thing that interests me about directing theatre is that human being standing in front of a bunch of other human beings and holding their interest.”

Originally starting out as an art major in college, Miller auditioned for a play and became instantly “addicted” to the theatre. Now his career is multi-faceted, ranging from drawing and painting to musical theatre performance and history, costume design, and acting. “But the most rewarding thing,” says Miller, “has been teaching students […] and watching them grow.” But there’s a catch. “I really don’t think you can teach anybody to act, and I don’t think you can teach anybody to direct,” declares Miller. “You have to have a feeling for it. It’s an instinctive thing. What you do with actors is […] provide them with opportunities.” And the nice thing about being in a small theatre department is that students have plenty of opportunity to play lead roles in productions. When choosing which plays to direct, he explains, “I always look around the department and ask, ‘Who do have here now and with what shows can they be successful’?”

Miller also describes the art of rendering costume designs. As he pulls out one after another of his framed costume designs, I am struck by the beautiful, elaborate, and carefully wrought details in these costumes intended for the stage, where clothing must signify so much about the character or plot. “Every director is different,” Miller reminds us. Many have no sense of design, while others ask for costumes to reflect abstract concepts. Good costume designs, he says, support the vision of the director. One season Miller may be called upon to render Molière’s comedy Tartuffe using a circus theme; while in the next, his challenge is to design for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story or Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, set at the turn-of-the-century. When Miller created a set of costumes depicting the legend of Lizzy Borden from the early twentieth century, he used sepia tones of cream, off-white, and ocher, trying to suggest the possibility of Bordon as “a virginal character” so that the audience members would be forced to decide for themselves whether or not Borden had “blood on her hands.”

Being a costume designer and a director, Miller benefits from making costume renderings that look like the actual actors cast in the play. Because “a picture is worth a thousand words,” Miller expands, these drawings tend to inspire actors who then get to see a picture of themselves as the characters they’re playing: “They walk into the costume shop […] and they go, ‘Oh, that’s what you mean.’” Miller estimates that half of his directing work is done “at the drawing board” designing costumes.

And there’s another reality to consider. In light of the unfortunate decrease in regional theatre companies throughout the country, college theatre becomes even more crucial as a place for aspiring actors to learn. Because of this situation, directing at MU has taken on new meaning for Miller, who summarizes by observing that “teaching theatre in college is about as good as it gets.”