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Tavi Gevinson on 'The Crucible,' Hell, and Learning to Love Losing Control

"It’s sort of like being a werewolf: even on our days off, it’s like my body knows, this is the time of night where I get a sinking feeling in my chest."

by Emerson Rosenthal
Jun 20 2016, 3:50pm

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The shadow of a noose thrice hung heavy over Salem: in 1696, when four young women put over 200 civilians in prison, resulting in the deaths of 19; in 1954, as playwright Arthur Miller pored over case logs in the Salem Library; and again in 2016, as Saoirse Ronan, Tavi Gevinson, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut, and Elizabeth Teeter today reprise the roles of Abigail Williams, Mary Warren, Susanna Walcott, and Betty Parriss in Belgian director Ivo van Howe's stark, modern reprisal of The Crucible, on Broadway through July 17. For audiences to all three stages one truth holds the rope tightest: none who witnesses remains innocent.  

Last October, before the show began, American actress Tavi Gevinson told Vanity Fair, "If you were to go back through stuff that I wrote when I was way younger, there are so many seeds of eventually portraying a hysterical teenage witch. I just feel like this has been brewing inside of me for a long time," Today, the Rookie magazine founder speaks of the role in a markedly darker, more venerable way. This Crucible is deeply human, lethal, and, least of all, cathartic. Cast members Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo (John and Elizabeth Proctor), Ciaran Hinds (Deputy Governor Danforth), Bill Camp (Reverend John Hale), Jason Butler Harner (Reverend Parris), and Ronan lend each character the kind of nuance that pins do in different parts of the same—van Howe's—voodoo doll. 

And then, of course, there's Tavi. She was born to play Mary Warren. But it isn't Fairuza Balk fandom that cast her lot. Thirteen weeks into the unforgettable, four-time Tony-nominated revival of The Crucible, Gevinson spoke to The Creators Project about historic hysterias, Ivo van Howe's direction, and why, sometimes, the greatest sense of control comes from embracing chaos.

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The Creators Project: The last time you were discussing The Crucible was actually with Winona, back before the show began. Back then, you mentioned that you were running lines with a friend—can you tell me a bit more about your preparation?

Tavi Gevinson: I have a really obsessive personality and feel a lot safer if I’ve basically done everything I possibly can up until, you know, the moment we’re on stage and it’s just about being in the scene. So I did a lot of reading of stuff that was related not just to Salem, the blacklist, or McCarthyism, but other instances of witch hunts throughout history, like the wave of allegations toward daycare teachers in the 1980s, which of course were largely planted in kids’ minds by attorneys and parents. This two-part article and book by Lawrence Wright, Remembering Satan, is about one family in particular where basically the kids accused their parents of satanic ritual abuse because it was kind of like "the new craze." It became a really popular conspiracy once international communism collapsed, and the parents couldn’t understand how their kids could have possibly made up such awful stories, so they figured they must’ve been true; the descriptions in his article of the parents as they’re recalling what happened, which never really happened, are fascinating, like the mother’s head bobbing up and down. I thought a lot about those scenes in The Crucible where Mary suddenly turns around with this story of having been threatened by the devil.

Readings like that were also helpful for getting a picture of a tightly wound community coming completely undone. Salem was like the original repressed, David Lynch-y American suburb. Ivo was so adamant that people in Salem weren’t just holding grudges against each other out of pride or ego, even when it seems like they’re just arguing about real estate. The Putnams are thought of as so diabolical, but they’re also trying to understand why they’ve lost seven children. It reminded me of times in high school when I’d learn that a teacher or student I really disliked had experienced something incredibly tragic and unfair, and then you have to make room in your brain to hold the complexity of your dislike for this person with the understanding that they’re dealing with something completely beyond your own sheltered experience of the world.

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

I also did a lot of thinking about Mary within the context of the [Proctor] family. She’s their servant, but she’s a little bit like their daughter. In rehearsal, Ivo kept saying she is a child, but in the way children can sometimes know better than adults, or have a stronger moral conscience. I had my own references, like Fanny and Alexander, or [laughs] Lisa Simpson, that helped me collage together a starting point. To keep myself alert, over time, I’ve also thought of people like Theo from The Goldfinch, Bobo from We Are The Best, and Scout Finch. I don’t even know how much of it ended up coming into play, but it makes me feel really excited about what I am working on.

A lot of us [in the cast] were reading The Witches, by Stacy Schiff, which came out last year. It’s about what happened in Salem. My dad is an English teacher, and he’s been teaching The Crucible for 20 years. He was teaching it to his students when we started rehearsing. He had found a lot of reflections Arthur Miller wrote on the play over the years, which were really fascinating as well.

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Did you ever check out the original case files that Arthur Miller spent a couple days looking over in Salem? 

Oh yeah. In our show, all of the props for Mary Warren’s deposition are copies of the actual documents. 

Backstage, there are like 200 xeroxed copies, in this kind of Old English, saying what people did for the real Mary Warren. Her parents had died when she was really little, and once the hysteria started, it seems like it was her outlet for understanding how her parents died. She was accusing people of killing her parents using witchcraft. I think this play is about people living in the unknown, and really needing answers, and going against better judgment, logic, or relationships to find an explanation. 

So, this sounds like a pretty radical departure from October, where Vanity Fair said that you said you were “born to play a hysterical teenage witch.” Has this gravity been something you’ve had to gain over time, versus just understanding witch hunts in the context of the obviously gendered “hysteria?”

Oh, I was just excited about the teen witch aspect. There are pictures on my blog from high school, dressed up in the woods, with titles like “Why do you come, yellow bird?"—a line from the show. But yeah, you can’t portray someone truthfully if you’re just like, “This is edgy!” And I can do as much reading as I want, but at the end of the day, I’m not going up there and delivering a paper for an English class. It really comes down to having sympathy for what these people were going through, and I did have to do some work to really understand the gravity of even just the dialogue in the show. Like, when we say “Hell” now, in 2016, we don’t actually mean Hell. Or at least, I don’t. 

But these people are actually talking about Hell—same with God, you know? My dad had the same problem with his students struggling to grasp the seriousness of those words that just seem like expressions. We’re in New York, and we have these New York audiences, but many parts of the country are still Puritan in a way. And they're small in a way that Salem is, and that New York is not. I had to understand it all outside of my own obsession with, oh, crazy teenage girls, or whatever. 

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

To what degree did Ivo van Howe guide this transformation?

We had to be memorized on day one, so we could be on our feet right away. I really liked that, because we were thinking about the meaning of the text in conjunction with our physicality. When Proctor, for example, says I’m coming to court with him, and I say, “I cannot! I cannot!” the script is literally just “Mary Warren keeps saying 'I cannot' ‘til the end of time.” Ivo felt that at that moment, it’s no longer Mary. At some point, it turns from Mary Warren protesting, to me just being an extension of [Proctor’s] brain, and being the part of him that is doubting his own ability to actually go to court and make the truth known. It was really interesting working with someone who thinks in images that way, and who would see the two of us on stage and would go, “Oh, you’re not just protesting—you’re actually a part of him, and you’re going to crawl over and attach yourself to his back while you say the rest of your line.” I’m sure most audience members’ minds don’t go to that place, and it works, too, if Mary is really just protesting. But by coming from a less literal place, we could find a way to make this moment visually different from all the other violent or argumentative ones in the show.

In some scenes, we went line by line, and then there were other parts, like the courtroom scene, where I was not given a whole lot of direction. Ivo’s very trusting and would often come to a standstill in the text and go, “Well, what do you think? Follow your instincts—just do it.” He really sees the value in that.

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Given the primary source materials—which the audience doesn’t even see—it sounds like a totally immersive experience. Now, the characters spend a lot of time offstage. What are you up to then?

Between scenes, I’m just hydrating and drinking honey and using a little steamer, and it’s a shame because I have to save my voice, but there are so many great people in the cast and I wanna socialize.

But this is a really weird show, because you hear so much about characters who you never see, like other people in the town. You also have characters like Mary, who goes through a lot of changes offstage. It’s kind of hard to reconcile a lot of the switching she does. A lot of it takes place during other people’s lines, which is why I really try to listen to the conversation among the adults at the end of the first act—I think that’s when she realized she was only imagining that people wanted to kill her. But she never gets to explicitly say that. So she’s synthesizing that information, but I don’t want to overplay it or distract from the other actors like, “And now Mary’s in the corner having an epiphany.”

It showcases an incredible range for you, as well as for all of the actors. Is it something you ever have trouble getting out of, in terms of the headspace you inhabit as Mary? 

Oh yeah. It’s really not pleasurable, in the most obvious way, to be in that courtroom. It’s sort of like being a werewolf: even on our days off, it’s like my body knows, this is the time of night where I get a sinking feeling in my chest. Just hearing the music, which plays under a lot of the scene, it’s like, oh my god. It’s this total paralysis; just wanting to be understood, and total desperation, and I do not really find it pleasant to come home after the show.

It’s hard, too, because I can’t socialize. There’s so much screaming, so I’m usually on vocal rest. You can’t go out after the show, you can’t see friends. You love doing it, but somehow it makes you feel bad. 

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

I’m trying to only take in things that make me really happy. I've only been listening to Justin Bieber [laughs] and watching standup. But realizing it was taking this toll on me and needing to find a way to resist that has actually, I think, improved the performance. In the courtroom, Mary is left with nothing to do but turn against Proctor. I honestly believe that she isn’t making a conscious choice. She’s just driven to her wits’ end, and there’s nothing else she can physically do other than believe that he is evil, that she is a victim, and that this awful thing has happened to her. I used to play that part like it's her explosion after being so repressed. It was really ugly and demonic and I screamed a lot. But I also needed to adjust it for my voice. So then I realized: she's already exploded, because she's crying for the girls to stop acting bewitched and for the men to stop questioning her. When she delivers her accusation, it should actually be with an air of enlightenment, calm, finally being in control. That's more interesting I think because you wonder if she's had it in her all along, the ability to suddenly detach and turn on him, or if she really is being controlled by some other force. (I'm always pleased when people at the stage door who just saw the show are like, "The devil really got her! She wasn't faking it!") 

I’m absolutely fascinated by this sort of transference, between actor and character. A lot of people are very private about these things, but since you’ve been performing in The Crucible, have you been able to write?

I write a lot. It’s a way of kind of letting each show disappear, like if I noticed something on stage that worked or didn’t work, or if I end up having some other thought over the course of the show that I want to hold onto. It’s easier to make the next show feel fresh, and not think too much about what I did before, if I write it down. At least then I know it exists somewhere.

You really can’t capture or recreate in writing what happened in theater, and that's why I love it so much, but my little attempts bring me comfort. Then, the next day, instead of going, “Oh, that thing worked last night, I’m gonna try that again,” which never really works, because then it’s not organic anymore, I can just kind of go, “I wonder what’ll happen tonight? I’m gonna completely turn my brain off and do this show like I’m an athlete, and then when it’s over, I’ll see if I can retrieve anything from my memory."

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Most of the time, I don’t. Most of the time, I can’t. You don’t wanna be doing it as if you’ll be writing about it later—that’ll take you out of it. But it’s a really great lesson in learning how to let things go and not be too hard on yourself, not be too precious about what you’re putting out there. I find it's a really wonderful way to live. 

It’s weird, like, learning to control how you deal with the fact that you ultimately have no control. Doing theater is learning that perfection is impossible, and that you can never get any moment back. It’s a nightly reminder. Most of the time, I do feel pretty powerless. Again, you can’t watch it back, and you can’t watch yourself, so you can’t really judge yourself. You can’t edit, and you can’t fix anything once it’s out there. 

Writing about it makes me wish my brain were calibrated differently, and I didn’t need to record everything. But I’ve obviously been doing it from a very young age. Taking down some version of what happened, even though it can’t be the real thing… I guess it brings me some illusion of the sense of control, and that’s quite comforting.

Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Do you have advice for either young actors, or readers, approaching The Crucible

When I was in high school and we read The Crucible, I didn’t feel strongly about it one way or another, and now, of course, rereading it, and auditioning for it, and working on it, I love it. I see all of the layers at work. I think it’s just an incredible work of writing, even before you put it on the stage. Maybe that was harder for me to see when I was younger because it didn’t find me at the right time. Also, it was in the context of being in school, and being required to read it, and the language, too, is a little inaccessible at first. But if you’re able to see the human part of it, which what Ivo is so good at, instead of feeling intimidated by the history, or the prestige, or the language, then you’ll be able to access something in it.

Last question: Future roles? Dream roles? Plans after July? [The Crucible closes July 17.]

I’m going on vacation the day after we close. I’m doing another play, but I don’t know if I can talk about it yet, but I’m really excited, and I’m excited to do something that won’t involve as much screaming and crying—which, I have to say, just as a disclaimer for this whole thing: There is nothing in the world that I would rather be doing. But I think it’s more interesting for the reader if, instead of just going, “I’m so grateful, I’m so grateful,” you’re transparent about what it’s actually like to live in such a nihilistic story every night for six months in a row. Like I said, it’s not like the most immediate form of gratification. It makes me wish, on many nights, that I was doing a comedy. But it’s rewarding in this other way, one I really, really can’t emphasize enough. 

Arthur Miller's The Crucible on Broadway is at the Walter Kerr Theater through July 17. Click here for tickets and more information.  

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