Tim Crouch

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Originally written for The Stage.

There is something satisfyingly cyclical about Tim Crouch’s work. The theatre-maker’s first play, My Arm, explored ideas about representation and realism through the unlikely story of a boy who raises his arm above his head and refuses to take it down. Throughout the course of the play, this pointless act becomes a source of global fascination, captivating the contemporary art scene.

Now Crouch’s new play for the Royal Court, Adler & Gibb, uses a narrative about Hollywood movie-making to return to similar preoccupations. In it, an actress preparing to play a famed conceptual artist goes to terrifying lengths to achieve authenticity in her portrayal, asking implicit questions about art, acting and appropriation. It is, Crouch suggests, “a very much bigger and more complex version of My Arm”.

Reflecting on the shows he has made over the last ten years, Crouch describes My Arm as the “mothership” of everything that followed. The play emerged as a result of the frustrations that Crouch had felt over several years as a jobbing actor – frustrations both with the mechanisms of the industry and with what he saw as accepted theatrical form. Writing My Arm in his late 30s was, he recalls, a “last ditch attempt” to rekindle his passion for performance.

After graduating from Bristol University, Crouch began his career as a member of a devising cooperative in the city, which was the start of what he describes as “the most extraordinarily intense and wonderful and fulfilling time”. Struggling to find other work in his late 20s, however, Crouch pursued formal training at Central School of Speech and Drama. It was, he feels, a decision that the industry forced him into.

“You would go for auditions or interviews with the traditional sector and everything you had done, no matter how brilliantly creative it was, didn’t seem to have any currency in those interviews,” he remembers. “I would say that’s still the same now. There is a very marked career path and certain jobs or certain venues or certain directors have more points than other jobs and venues and directors, and so it feels like the deal is you get as many points as you can by working in this place or that place.”

As well as resisting this rigid and competitive culture, My Arm kicked back against the dominant form of psychological realism that had informed Crouch’s training. The play is written as a first person monologue, narrating events from the perspective of the character who fatefully decides to thrust his arm into the air. When Crouch performed the piece, however, his arms remained firmly at his sides, immediately challenging straightforward representation.

“I was interested in a different kind of reality,” Crouch explains. The show was also “a provocation to an audience to get involved more”. At the outset, audience members were asked to contribute personal items to the staging of the play, making explicit the necessity of their presence “to complete the experience”.

But while plays like My Arm might act as vehicles for sometimes complex ideas about theatre and the world, Crouch insists that they are absolutely rooted in story. “If I wanted to just ask questions about theatre and representation, I would become an academic,” he says. “I want to make theatre and I think theatre’s strength is narrative, a shared narrative, the passing of narrative. And so all of the pieces that I’ve made have been first and foremost about the story.”

Crouch describes his second show An Oak Tree, for instance, as “a little dance between form and narrative”, but one in which the narrative itself was vital. This show’s central formal device was the use of a different actor every night to perform the two-hander opposite Crouch without any prior knowledge of the play. Unmoored from their usual reference points, this second performer would flounder in the same way that the character, a man whose daughter has been killed in a car accident, is undone by his grief.

“I would want there to be a dialogue between form and content,” Crouch elaborates, pausing to note with a laugh that he sounds like a professor. “But in a very fleshy, pragmatic way, that’s what it is,” he goes on. “There are formal devices in all my plays that are only there because they deepen the telling of the story.”

In ENGLAND, the transplanting of theatre into a gallery space acted as a metaphor for the heart transplant that is central to the play’s narrative, while The Author engaged with its site in an altogether more controversial way. Commissioned for the Upstairs space at the Royal Court, the play was entirely contained within its audience. Performers sat amongst theatregoers in two banks of seating facing one another, and the events they described took place in audience members’ minds rather than on the stage.

“In The Author we are the audience as well, so their temperature is our temperature,” says Crouch of performing the piece. It was a show that pushed audiences into uncomfortable territory, alluding to the Royal Court’s history of shock and violence during the “in-yer-face” period of the 1990s and questioning the ethics of representation. Its disturbing subject matter and exposing focus on the audience provoked a startling range of reactions.

“At times in that show the audience took us to a really difficult place,” Crouch admits. “I had a physical threat in that show; people swearing, shouting, walking out.” This splitting of opinion, however, was encouraging to Crouch – “I’m excited when people either hate it or love it” – and reaffirmed his interest in active engagement with an audience.

“The audience is absolutely fundamental to my thinking,” he says. “They provoke and they incubate the form – they hatch the form”. Crouch is also keen to stress that “immaculate attention” was paid to the audience’s experience during the making of The Author; it was never about provoking for provocation’s sake. “But what you can never do as a theatre-maker is second guess what an audience is bringing to the theatre,” he adds. “By and large I try to keep things open, so it’s all interpretable.”

So central were the audience to The Author that people even began to mistake the title of the show. “A lot of people go ‘I saw your play The Audience’, and I go OK, right,” Crouch laughs. “I really like it when people forget or confuse what it was called, because it could easily be called The Audience. I suppose one of the suggestions in that play is that the audience is the author.”

Although The Author went on to tour elsewhere, it was always set at the Royal Court, intimately responding to the site of its commission and creating a fascinating “slippage between the location and the theatre”, as Crouch puts it. Adler & Gibb, which brings Crouch back to the Court, is less specifically grounded in the theatre’s history and location. While it is “absolutely written for a theatre”, the show speaks to ideas that are common to all theatre spaces: performance, representation, the blurring of truth and fiction.

When I speak to Crouch at the Royal Court, he is nearing the end of the first week of rehearsals. During the morning I spend with them, the cast are playfully exploring the relationships between their characters and with the audience, prodding at realist conventions while grappling with the challenges that Crouch’s script presents. One of these challenges is the onstage presence of two eight-year-old children, who are not characters in the play but remain present throughout.

“I’m excited about their formlessness,” Crouch tries to explain the thinking behind this surprising choice. He adds, in resistance to the instrumentalising of art as a form of education, that “art should be about unknowing something rather than knowing something”. Unlike their adult counterparts, Crouch argues that children are happy with “unknowing” and do not need realistic representation as a spur to their imaginations; “a child doesn’t need to exert anything to transform something into something else”.

It is in Adler & Gibb that Crouch’s recurring interrogation of realism reaches its zenith. At the same time as questioning realist representation in theatre, the new play is deeply interested in the medium of film, which Crouch describes as “the high tide mark of realism”. Recalling Hollywood actors’ lauded transformations into real people – think Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher or Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles – Adler & Gibb examines the “strange exertions towards reality” that cinema encourages and celebrates.

“It’s a political idea for me,” says Crouch, “in terms of that idea of acquisition; acquiring reality, trying to buy or own reality. And realism to some degree being an attempt to fix something and to own something, which I have a question about.”

Crouch also has a question about the idea of individual genius that this tendency enshrines. Although it happens on a bigger scale in Hollywood – as depicted in Adler & Gibb – Crouch sees it infecting the theatre industry as well, pointing to the recent example of Birdland at the Royal Court and the central attraction of leading actor Andrew Scott.

“It’s an amazing performance by Andrew Scott – what the fuck does that mean? To make a piece of work where we come away and go ‘that’s an amazing performance’ is kind of ignoring the fact that it’s only an amazing performance if it’s serving the piece of work that it’s in. The piece of work is the thing that we should be there for, because that’s the art form.”

Crouch goes on to suggest that “it’s like having a beautiful diamond on a rather dull canvas, and you just go ‘that’s an amazing diamond’, when actually the artist wants you to think about the whole canvas.” Instead, he says, individual theatre-makers “shouldn’t be thought of as geniuses, because it gets in the way of what the work is trying to do”.

For this reason, Crouch is keen to emphasise the close collaboration that has characterised his career as a theatre-maker. “I wouldn’t want anyone to come in going ‘I’m going to see a Tim Crouch show’,” he says. Although his name most frequently gets attached to the work, he is adamant that his shows are the product of collaborative processes, shaped by the input of the rest of the creative team.

“I’m lucky in that I have two very close allies and collaborators and sounding boards in Karl James and Andy Smith and that we have been talking about the work for a long time now,” Crouch tells me, referring to his co-directors. As an actor himself, with bitter experience of all the frustrations that can involve, he also takes care to welcome the thoughts of performers.

“Why would you ignore the presence of the people in their room and their intelligences?” Crouch asks, incredulous at creative processes that do not encourage collaboration in the rehearsal room. “I’m trying to some small degree to challenge some of the practices that I have problems with, or I had problems with when I was an actor,” he adds, returning once again to the impetus of his work. For Crouch, it is vital to stretch the conventions of the industry, encouraging ways of working that nurture creativity.

“It’s about doing the best thing for the work, and the best thing for the work is to create an open space and to allow contributions to the open space,” he says. “Why would that be such a radical idea?”

Photo: Richard H Smith

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Mirrors, Hope and Transformation

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What can theatre do?

This isn’t necessarily the central question asked by Circle Mirror Transformation, Annie Baker’s delicate and precisely naturalistic portrait of five broken individuals, but it is the question that I found myself asking as I left the Rose Lipman Building on Thursday evening. Following a steady stream of superlatives on Twitter, I went in with unrealistically high expectations, all underscored with another, slightly resigned expectation of being disappointed. And while I wasn’t disappointed as such, I didn’t find it the most extraordinary, transformative theatrical experience of recent months either. But this heavy burden of expectation, together with the scenario in which Baker’s play places itself, left me thinking about what theatre can do, what it might do and what we hopes we hold for it.

Circle Mirror Transformation is, in a sense, a piece of theatre about theatre, but ‘meta’ is a word that seems completely removed from its vocabulary. No Noises Off-style send-up or self-reflexive meditation on its own medium, Baker’s play is instead about the kind of theatre that remains largely invisible. The whole thing takes place over the six weeks of an adult drama class, in a large, windowless room in a community centre in Vermont – not unlike the large, windowless room in which we find ourselves in the Rose Lipman Building. Each of the scenes, punctuated by sharp blackouts, consists of either the kind of exercise that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a drama class in their life, or the slices of conversation that happen in the room around each session.

The class is run by hippyish Marty (Imelda Staunton at her quietly expressive best) and attended by her husband James (Danny Webb), recent divorcee Schultz (a brilliantly awkward Toby Jones), once actress and now aspiring acupressure therapist Theresa (Fenella Woolgar) and enigmatic teenager Lauren (Shannon Tarbet). We see fleeting snatches of each of their lives over the course of the six weekly classes, learning enough to feel acquainted with these characters while never being furnished with the full details. Baker’s minimal writing dances deftly around the edges of life, never leaving us in any doubt of the wholeness at its centre – a wholeness that is solidified by the gorgeously nuanced performances of the cast, who execute something of an acting masterclass over the uninterrupted two hours.

The word that most naturally springs to mind when reflecting on Circle Mirror Transformation is “gentle”. This might be applied to James Macdonald’s direction, which handles Baker’s text with kid gloves, trusting it with a slow-burning pace and long, expansive silences. It certainly applies to the interactions between the five characters, which are sometimes awkward, often tender and frequently funny, in the light sort of way that you might expect from a Sunday evening TV comedy drama (that’s not meant as a dig, I should add, but – a couple of uproarious moments aside – it’s not side-clutching, tears-rolling-down-your-cheeks stuff, and I don’t think it’s meant to be). There are a couple of real kicks to the gut in there, but when these arrive they are all the more startling thanks to the calm from which they emerge. This is the placid lake of life as lived from day to day, disrupted by just the occasional ripple.

And within this seemingly uneventful structure, moments of stunning precision and incisive emotional truth emerge. There’s Tarbet’s fascinating stillness and the meaning she can somehow effortlessly invest into silences; the subtle yet devastating poignancy of a fleeting look on Staunton’s face following a kiss between Marty and James, transforming an apparently light moment into one loaded with unspoken turmoil; the simultaneously funny and sad complexity of Woolgar’s Theresa, a woman whose damaging decisions are portrayed with unwavering compassion, wrapped around the yawning loneliness that drives her actions; the painful awkwardness of Jones’ bruised but tender Schultz and the latent frustration of Webb as James. As they progress, Marty’s classes are more therapy than they are theatre, conveying the power of drama without romanticised exaggeration or sentimentality. The six-week experience changes each of its participants, yes, but they still come out at the other end as complicated, flawed and slightly broken people.

In this unapologetic concern with people – people in all their ridiculous, messy, beautiful complexity – Circle Mirror Transformation feels somehow both universal and particular, massive and miniature. It is also, however, somewhat problematic. To merely dismiss the play as inward-looking feels a bit simplistic, as the individuals within it exist very clearly within a world beyond the four walls of the community centre and the supposed banality of their lives reveals odd moments of profundity, but its quiet containment does present a certain view of what it is that theatre does. Drama might transform the lives of the characters, for better or worse, but in this room we are just presented with another set of mirrors. This is life seemingly reflected, held up to us without judgement, refusing to prioritise the big events of life over the seemingly insignificant minutiae. Which is interesting, and makes a certain statement of its own about how our culture assigns value, but it can also feel somehow resigned to the shape of the world. This is how things are.

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I’m thinking this in part because of two other pieces of theatre I’ve seen in the last month, both fantastic and fascinating collaborations between Tim Crouch and Andy Smith. As they explained with enviable eloquence when I spoke to them recently, their work always has at its heart an interrogation of theatre as an art form in one way or another. In both of the shows in question – Commonwealth (available online as part of the Royal Court’s Surprise Theatre – go watch) and what happens to the hope at the end of the evening – this interrogation is the motor that drives the piece.

Each of these shows is characterised by a shared rhetoric of hope around theatre as a medium; as Crouch puts it, “An engagement with a group of people sitting in a room together is an innately hopeful act”. Commonwealth, written by Smith and performed in this instance by Crouch, is a monologue that meditates directly on the hope that we might bring into a theatre space, telling a story about a theatre a bit like this one and an audience a bit like this audience. What initially seems a little straightforward and repetitive gradually becomes an invitation to deep and probing thought, calling into question the ways in which we respond to our frustrations about the world and positing the theatre as a space where perhaps we can begin to change that. It’s about what we hope to get from the theatre and what the theatre might be able to offer us.

In what happens to the hope at the end of the evening, the ideas explored in Commonwealth are put through the wringer using an opposition between two different approaches to theatre and to the world. It tells the story of one evening in which two old friends meet after a long time apart, at the same time using this as a structure to explore the theatrical event. Smith, to all appearances, plays himself, while his friend is not a version of Crouch but a fictionalised character. Smith reads from a script and directly acknowledges and addresses the audience; Crouch’s character desperately constructs a kind of stage realism, dragging on props to support his fictional world. Smith is controlled and thoughtful; Crouch is impulsive and bent on action.

The piece is rare in achieving an almost perfect balance between narrative and ideas. Its story of a friendship, one in which an almost unbridgeable distance has forced itself between the two friends, is at times deeply moving in its own right. As a vehicle for the show’s meaty ideas, meanwhile, this device is inextricably married to the content it carries; it is all about hope, about connection and separation, about gathering people together in a space. There’s great optimism for the potentially radical quality of a gathering like this, supported by carefully selected snippets of theory, but at the same time doubt is cast on theatre’s potential, while the lack of resolution between the show’s two opposing elements concludes the whole thing on an uncertain note. It’s difficult without apologising for its complexity, but at the same time the ideas being wrestled with are presented relatively simply and accessibly. (I’m reminded of something brilliant that Kieran Hurley said to me recently in an interview: “simplicity and complexity are often two sides of the same coin”)

What is striking about both Commonwealth and what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is their ambition for the space of the theatre and what it might achieve, even as they problematise their hopes for the theatrical event. Like Chris Goode’s The Forest and the Field, this is theatre that helps you think about theatre, that leaves you with a set of questions to mould around the next thing that you go out and see. Which is perhaps why Circle Mirror Transformation, despite its much-celebrated brilliance, left me wanting something more, and perhaps why I typed out that opening question. What can theatre do? I don’t really know, but I think it’s important to keep asking.

One final, positive thing about the relationship between these different pieces. My enthused fascination with the intelligence of recent programming at the Royal Court is probably getting boring by now, but it’s worth noting that Circle Mirror Transformation (part of Royal Court’s Theatre Local initiative) and Commonwealth are positioned alongside and in dialogue with one another, even if they don’t share a building. While it might seem (at least to me) as though there is something slightly lacking in Baker’s play, simply by existing in the same programme as Commonwealth it’s already taking part in a wider discussion.

These two shows also sit within a programme that includes Collaboration, a process which itself prodded at what theatre does and how it does it (and which, as Andrew Haydon points out, might well have been the ideal process to explore an idea like Baker’s), and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Harta joyous and inclusive instance of theatrical transformation. Add Mark Ravenhill’s Cakes and Finance to that list and you have a theatre that suddenly seems to be thinking a hell of a lot about what it is and what it does. It’s asking that same question – what can theatre do? – and providing a whole range of answers, all implicitly entering conversation with one another. And it feels exciting.