Chances are good that at some point along your educational journey, someone made you read Arthur Miller’s 1953 Salem witch trials play “The Crucible.” For Renee Rabenold, that foundational academic milestone occurred when she was a senior theater major at Point Park University.
These days, Rabenold teaches improv classes at Point Park and Arcade Comedy Theater. In 2018, she and writer-comedian Sean Collier teamed up to form Vigilance Theater Group, which specializes in putting on experimental theater productions all over Western Pennsylvania.
Their latest project: a reimagined and immersive version of “The Crucible” directed by Rabenold and staged at North Park’s Parish Hill Barn in McCandless. Shows will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and April 14-16, with tickets available for $40 via vigilancetheater.com.
“I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, I wish there were more women in this,’” Rabenold said of her original experience with “The Crucible.” “I remember not feeling connected to the male characters. Now that I’ve had so much improv training and my theater career trajectory has changed so much, I see that more as an opportunity than a hindrance.”
Set in 1692 Salem, Mass., “The Crucible” follows the chaos that ensues after a group of young women are caught performing an act that many believe prove that they’ve been practicing witchcraft. It’s traditionally told in four parts and counts cheating farmer John Proctor as its protagonist and scheming witchcraft accuser Abigail Williams as its villain.
Rabenold was initially hesitant about the prospect of Vigilance adapting “The Crucible.” Eventually, she realized its witchy subject matter was a perfect way to kick off Vigilance’s “season of fire,” which includes more events throughout the year and an immersive production of “Wolf in the Woods” in 2024.
Taking on “The Crucible” was also Rabenold’s opportunity to create the “more women-centric” interpretation of the play that she had always wanted to see.
“I’m never someone who has a favorite or who is drawn to something,” she said. “When something crops up, I’m like, ‘I’ll do it and make it mine.’”
Helping her bring that vision to life is a sprawling cast that includes 2015 Carnegie Mellon University graduate Jackie Mishol as Abigail. Mishol is a career actor who moved back to Pittsburgh from Boston six months ago and is teaching classic acting technique at the Pittsburgh CLO Academy of Musical Theater.
Although she just turned 30, Mishol said that she often finds herself playing characters who are 14 to 17 years old.
“We see the best and the worst of the human experience in a teenage girl,” she said. “Abigail is one of the most iconic ones.”
Mishol had been waiting for a spin on “The Crucible” dedicated to “turning the focus on the women” who drive that story. Her take on Abigail is less antagonistic and more focused on making theatergoers view her as “a little girl finding her voice.” That’s in lockstep with Rabenold’s belief that the women in “The Crucible” have been “cornered to accuse other women” of witchcraft due to fear stemming from their lack of agency over their own lives.
“She has so much in there to unpack,” Mishol said. “It has been a role that has been done for decades and treated in a very similar way. … Abigail gets really vilified. She’s so dynamic, complex and powerful.”
When it comes to directing immersive theater, Rabenold said she prefers taking advantage of “spaces as they are” as opposed to retrofitting them for folks’ expectations of what theater should look like. This “Crucible” will alternate acts between indoor and outdoor settings with audience interaction and “bonus character stuff” between scenes. Rabenold said that the outside space is all covered, so weather shouldn’t be a concern.
Both Rabenold and Mishol stressed how relevant “The Crucible” remains today as women continue to face threats to their own autonomy seemingly on a daily basis. Rabenold loved getting to explore the gray areas inherent to all this show’s characters and crafting a unique theater piece that will hopefully “satisfy extroverts and introverts alike.”
Despite its continued use in academia, Mishol wanted to make sure everyone knows that Vigilance’s latest is “not your high school ‘Crucible.’”
“We’re in an extraordinary time to be doing ‘The Crucible,’” she said. “For decades, men have written history and owned the theater. It’s really women’s time. What happens if we hear women’s voices?”