Paul Miller: 'It's time the Orange Tree got back into the London theatre conversation'

The Orange Tree’s new artistic director has ambitious plans for the theatre

Paul Miller at the Orange Tree; he beat over 80 applicants to land the job
Paul Miller at the Orange Tree; he beat 80 applicants to land the job
There was a great turn-out in the basement of a Shaftesbury Avenue cafe for Paul Miller's official induction as the new artistic director of the Orange Tree in Richmond, a theatre that was originated and run – rather well – by Sam Walters for 42 years as a sort of complementary antidote to the "right on" fringe of the 1970s.

And the fact that the event took place more or less in the West End (it was, admittedly, the dark end of Shaftesbury Avenue) was itself symbolic. "I'm trying to pivot in a way, forwards," says Miller, an avuncular, bright and extremely well-connected 46 year-old; "it's not so much a case of a complete break as a picking up of the baton."

Lately, the theatre has become renowned for its rediscovery of lost gems in the feminist Victorian and Edwardian repertoire, and an absolutely brilliant (and critically underrated) distillation by Orange Tree regular Geoffrey Beevors of George Eliot's masterpiece Middlemarch.

But Walters in effect discovered Martin Crimp, produced and championed Vaclav Havel through the turbulent days of Charter 77, sometimes echoed Alan Ayckbourn's innovative theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough and promoted countless important new directors including Rachel Kavanaugh, Timothy Sheader, Sean Holmes, Dominic Hill and Anthony Clark.

He – and we, in the media – was not always very upfront about this. So Miller knows exactly where he's coming from and how to change a few perceptions. "Theatre is often about rhythm," he says as the party gets underway, "and it's about time the Orange Tree got back into the London theatre conversation."

To this end, he's announced a programme that may strike some as similar to any other London fringe theatre programme, a sort of Finborough-meets-Jermyn Street with classy knobs on of Bernard Shaw's Widower's Houses and D H Lawrence's masterpiece The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd (which he directs as his opening salvo in September). Isn't he losing an identity?

"Absolutely not. Sam would approve of Shaw and Lawrence, he's directed both of them, and I'm simply casting my net in different waters. Mustapha Matura's wonderful Play Mas has not been seen for 40 years, and I'm bringing in exciting directors like Paulette Randall, Ned Bennett and Philip Ridley specialist David Mercatali."

“I plan to stay as long as Sam did, so I shall be 88 when I retire”

It's not in Miller's nature to frighten the horses, but won't he alienate an ageing local audience? (I often like going to Thursday matinees for the simple pleasure of being the youngest person in the house.) "I hope not. That's another myth, actually. Older people are as important a constituent at the Orange Tree as they are at the National. And they are surprisingly game for anything."

But he is instigating a fantastic new cheap ticket policy of £10 for the under-30s on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and for all performances of Alistair McDowell's urban thriller Pomona in November. And he is bringing in architectural hot shots Haworth Tompkins – who re-designed the Royal Court and the Young Vic – to suggest a make-over for the foyer areas – and paint the theatre interior a soft dark grey (it's a sort of beige magnolia at the moment).

Oh, and the seats are going to be numbered for the first time, so the new hip crowd can book online. How is he going to afford all this? "Two really big things happen on 1 July. I formally take over from Sam. And Arts Council England announces its decisions for all portfolio clients for the next three years. So, earlier this year, when I was appointed, I put in as bold a bid as I could. The Arts Council is keen – and I approve – for everyone not to take anything for granted."

The current annual ACE grant is £360,000 in a turnover figure of £1.4m (made up from ACE, box office, sponsors and local council). Miller's challenge to ACE, delivered upfront when he took the stage to address the press and his peers, was: "Back me, and I will deliver!"

The room erupted in cheers and applause. Miller's confidence comes from a wide-ranging career in new theatre writing at the Bush (where he was an associate artist); running The History Boys on tour for the NT – where he also collaborated with Trevor Nunn on the edgy Loft season in the Lyttelton; and an on-going, productive association with Daniel Evans at the Sheffield Crucible, where he has directed plays by Brian Friel, D H Lawrence and Michael Frayn (his notably fine revival of Democracy came to the Old Vic) as well as John Simm's Hamlet.

No wonder, then, that he beat 80 other applicants (whittled down to 12 extremely plausible ones, according to Orange Tree chairman Caroline Smith, herself no mean director in the past) to the job. And he's not planning a short-term stay. "I decided I wanted to be a theatre director when I was 16, which is, I suppose, slightly unhealthy. And I've never run a theatre before. But I plan to stay as long as Sam did, so I shall be 88 when I retire…"

There was a communal sense in the downstairs dive that Miller's was a just and forward-looking appointment. First-rate actors, directors and writers, past and present – Mustapha Matura, Tanika Gupta, Christopher Naylor, Geoffrey Beevors, Caroline Langrishe, Carolyn Backhouse, Nicholas Wright, Clive Francis, Stephanie Turner, Christopher Morahan, Hugh Ross – all declared solidarity in their presence. And the transition promises to be smooth and painless, with administrator Gillian Thorpe – who's stuck by Walters through thick and thin over 32 years – staying on until the board appoints a new executive director.