Orange Tree's Paul Miller: 'I want to look to the future, not dwell on the past'

On his first day as artistic director of the Richmond venue, Miller was told it had lost all Arts Council funding. We caught up with him to find out what happened next

Paul Miller at the Orange Tree
Paul Miller at the Orange Tree

I open my interview with Orange Tree artistic director Paul Miller by reminding him that last time he spoke to WhatsOnStage it was just ahead of news that the venue was to lose its Arts Council funding. "That seems a long time ago," he responds.

Indeed it does. On his very first day in the job, Miller was greeted with the announcement that his new theatre, inherited from founding artistic director Sam Walters, had lost its status as a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO), and would therefore have to survive without its (roughly) £375,000 of annual subsidy. As baptisms go, that's a pretty firey one.

"It was a scenario that was possible, so I tried to prepare for it mentally," he says, "but the reality still came as a huge shock."

Miller has at least enjoyed a short stay of execution. The NPO status ends in April, the end of the tax year, so he's been able to stage an inaugural season of subsidised programming.

And what a season it's been, with productions ranging from Miller's curtain-raising revival of DH Lawrence's The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, to the trippy, in-yer-face Pomona, recently dubbed "the hippest theatre event of 2014" by the Guardian.

"It's been terribly exciting to produce one thing after another that seems to have caught people’s imagination," he enthuses, clearly relieved to get off the topic of funding for a moment.

He adds that Pomona, although a risk on paper, ended up playing to 80 percent capacity – an audience total of 4,866. Not bad for a play almost singularly designed not to appeal to the Orange Tree's traditional congregation. (He hints here it could have a future life: "watch this space.")

Nadia Clifford in Pomona
Nadia Clifford in Pomona, the 'hippest play of 2014'
© Manuel Harlan

Our conversation inevitably returns to funding. Did the Arts Council tell him why the decision was taken? He's diplomatic. "That's really hard for them. It's not really been possible for them to go into greater detail about it, and I sympathise with their predicament because I think it’s a complex situation with all sorts of history to it."

The Arts Council has been under "intense pressure", he adds, to justify the apparent concentration of funding in London, though he feels its decision regarding the Orange Tree has left west London "rather short of NPOs". Is there light at the end of the tunnel? "I hope so. I think they were pleased that I want to look to the future rather than dwell on the past."

Speaking of the future, the Orange Tree's next production, opening later this week, is the world premiere of playwright-to-watch Alice Birch's Little Light. The play has been in development for three years, via Paines Plough and the Royal Court, so it's quite a coup for Miller to be staging the first production. He describes it as a "wonderful play with a very strange atmosphere and undertone", that sees the "intriguing combination" of Birch and director David Mercatali, known for his collaborations with Philip Ridley.

And looking further ahead he is "childishly excited" to be staging a revival of Play Mas by Trinidadian playwright Mustapha Matura, who he has long admired, directed by his longtime collaborator Paulette Randall.

I'm intrigued to know what drives, or threads through, his programming decisions. "I'm in the happy situation that everything we're doing is my taste. Thank god I'm not in a position where I'm going, 'we'll do play x, because this audience will like it even though I don't'. My programming is led by plays I like… Of course as part of that I hope to bring people along with me and widen the scope of the venue in the process."

But will his taste alone be enough to guide the venue through the choppy financial waters on the immediate horizon? He's realistic about what is required.

"We'll need to develop a more mixed and diverse business model to echo our more mixed and diverse programme… One of the big things we need to do is up our game when it comes to fundraising, and attracting sponsorship. We need to get a lot more support in that area than we've hitherto had. But of course it won’t be easy as we’re competing with many other theatres for that money."

He also hints there will be a sharp increase in the number of partnerships with other venues, and transfers of work elsewhere: "I've said all along that I want to get more of the world into the Orange Tree, and get the Orange Tree out into the world."

On the evidence thus far, it seems a safe assumption that, under Miller's guidance, the Orange Tree can continue bearing fruit for a number of years to come.

Little Light opens at the Orange Tree on Friday (6 February 2015, previews from 4 February)