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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Putting Hope on the Stage: Tim Crouch & a smith

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“An engagement with a group of people sitting in a room together is an innately hopeful act,” argues Tim Crouch, leaning forward slightly in his chair. This statement is something of a starting point for what happens to the hope at the end of the evening, the new show that Crouch has co-written with his friend and long-time collaborator Andy Smith (who goes by the working name of a smith). When I ask about the impetus behind the work, the pair suggest that the title has been lingering in the background of their plays for a long time; Crouch mentions the character of Adrian in The Author and his comment that “there’s always hope, isn’t there?” Even in the work’s bleakest moments, hope is an integral part of its metabolism.

“I think that’s why we go into the theatre,” says Crouch, as Smith nods in agreement. “I think the fact that we are making art is a hopeful thing.” When I speak to the pair in the Almeida Theatre’s rehearsal space, there is definitely a taste of optimism in the air. Despite having only a week of rehearsal time before opening the Almeida Festival – a tight timescale that they find both terrifying and exciting – the mood in the room is distinctly positive. That same afternoon they are inviting the Almeida staff in for a full run-through, speaking eagerly about the opportunity to try the work out in front of an audience – an opportunity that is perhaps even more important for the development of this piece than for their previous work.

While Crouch and Smith have worked together repeatedly over the past few years, on productions including The Author and An Oak Tree, this new show marks something of a departure for them both. As well as co-writing the piece, they will be sharing the same stage for the first time, something that Crouch tells me has been “in the air” for some time: “I have long harboured the idea of working on stage with Andy”. The pair are the only performers in the piece and each occupy their own distinct space on the stage, in a show that Crouch describes as being “about two old friends and the complexity of an evening they spend together”.

After our chat over lunch, Crouch and Smith are joined by director and regular collaborator Karl James for the afternoon’s work and the three men quickly settle into a comfortable rhythm. There’s both ease and teasing in the trio’s rehearsal shorthand – the marks of friendship and long collaboration. Crouch explains that all three “inhabit the same concerns about an audience and a connection with an audience activating the work”, as well as sharing “an identification with some of the challenges that exist in theatre”. The shift in this new piece, however, has cast their collaboration in a new light.

“There’s familiarity – we’ve developed a shared language – but it feels like the language has been reinvigorated slightly by a change in the dynamic,” says Smith. He also discusses how the joint writing process has “illuminated” both his and Crouch’s separate artistic processes, revealing retrospectively the different ways in which they work. At the same time, Crouch is keen to stress that what happens to the hope at the end of the evening extends the concerns that have populated their previous collaborations, existing “on a continuum of conversation” with past work.

It is fitting, given the joint history of these collaborators and their shared fascination with the form of the theatrical event, that what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is an exploration of theatre seen through an exploration of friendship. Unlike many theatrical devices that function as mere vehicles or mouthpieces, here the two central themes are inextricable from one another. As Smith puts it, “the story of the friendship is mirrored in its form”, while the structure of live performance finds expression through the relationship between two old friends; both involve meeting together in a space and negotiating that space separately and together at the same time.

“Andy sits at the side of the stage and introduces himself and ostensibly he tells his own story,” Crouch explains the structure of the piece. “And playing opposite that is a fictionalised, identifiable other character, who kind of inhabits the other sort of form, the other sort of world. He’s a character who attempts to make sense of the world by being physically present in it rather than sitting at the side of it and watching it – by being physically present in a world that he is working very hard to generate on this stage. The push and the pull is between those two worlds.”

As well as this tension between two different understandings of theatre – one open and acknowledging of its audience, one frantically attempting to construct a form of realist representation – the piece explores another opposition, between movement and stasis. “Two channels of consideration in this play are around action and inaction,” says Crouch. “So my character is active – politically active, sexually active, physically active. Andy’s character in this play is inactive or reflective.” While the strain between these two positions powers the play, it is important for Crouch and Smith that “we don’t at any point resolve that”.

There is also another kind of action or inaction that this show implicitly, gently interrogates: that of the audience. Countering the discourse that would position theatre audiences as passive receivers, Smith firmly says, “I do consider going to the theatre and sitting in the stalls to be an action”. His reasoning recalls that of Jacques Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator, a text quoted at the front of Crouch’s collected plays. “There is space left for the audience,” Smith continues, “space for them to occupy mentally, physically. I talk about the space of the theatre and what we do here and what we can do here.” Although, as Crouch is quick to add, “that discourse is problematised as well”.

“The less we do, the more they do,” Crouch puts it simply. Similarly to The Author, this is “a piece that exists as much in the audience’s heads as it exists here”, asking its spectators to be active despite not leaving their seats. But both Crouch and Smith are careful with the language they use about audiences, balancing their hope in the space of the theatre with a healthy dose of scepticism. “It’s not a kind of love-in,” Crouch stresses. “We also want to understand that there is difficulty when people come together; there is difficulty when someone tries to organise community.”

For all these concerns about the theatrical event, however, Crouch and Smith are adamant that this is not just a show for people who regularly attend and think about theatre. “There’s so much language around theatre,” Crouch reflects. “We play with that language about theatre, but I don’t think this language is just for people who are thinking about theatre; I would be disappointed if it was.” Smith adds, “it is a discourse on theatre, but I hope it’s entertaining, I hope it’s a distraction, I hope it’s a good evening out”.

Alongside all these competing ideas – ideas that the piece “problematises and challenges and gets dirty with” – the work is also in dialogue with the particular festival context in which it finds itself, both at the Almeida Festival and in the Forest Fringe programme in Edinburgh next month. As a show about both the space of the theatre and what we do when we leave that space, what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is a perfect festival primer.

“What happens to you at the end of the show?” Crouch echoes the title of the piece. “At a festival, you’re going to go and see something else. It feels like there’s a very clear statement of intent or of questioning in this piece, and that is a really nice thing to have in relation to your theatregoing. To have something to reflect on, to refer back to, or to apply to other things.”

Photo: Mae-Li Evans.

Monkey Bars, a Not Quite Review

“That is my world,” one of the performers in Chris Goode and Company’s new show gently tells us, candid but shy. She is talking about singing, her favourite hobby. One day, she continues, she just opened her mouth and discovered that this was something she was good at; “I had a voice”.

It is a poignant and strangely loaded moment in this gorgeously thoughtful slice of theatre, a gentle hour and fifteen minutes that begs us to look again at children and their view of the world. The performer in question is a middle-aged woman, dressed professionally in a crisp black suit, but her words are those of one of the 72 eight to ten year olds interviewed by Goode’s collaborator Karl James to create this delicate verbatim performance. Her one tentative admission is a reminder, like the show as a whole, that children are too often robbed of a voice, denied the opportunity to speak up.

The playing of child characters by adults is, of course, nothing new. Perhaps taking very seriously the warning never to work with children or animals, many productions feature adults who double up as kids, all too often indulging in snotty caricatures. The adults in Monkey Bars, however, are not playing children. They may be speaking the words of primary school kids, but they are demonstrably, emphatically adults. They dress as adults, they speak as adults and Goode’s production places them in conspicuously adult situations, sipping wine or getting ready for work.

Yet, for all this emphasis on adult activity, there are distinct traces of childhood about Naomi Dawson’s design. The set, with its grass-like floor, is mainly composed of large white plastic blocks that are illuminated from within, a cross between building blocks and night lights. While we usually see the performers in deliberately adult set-ups, they also occasionally sit protectively round-shouldered as they eat from lunch boxes, suddenly collapsing back into kids in the playground. The onstage props include, contrastingly, wine glasses and a bubble machine.

This mingling of the mature and the childish hints at the dizzying cocktail of these qualities in all of us, no matter how “grown-up” we may appear. It often seems as though growing up is really a process of gradually realising that we are all making it up as we go along, perpetually waiting for the moment when it all slots into place. Figured in this way, James’ young interviewees are not all that different to their adult performers or audiences.

But one significant point of difference is their lack of power to make themselves heard. As in the scenario I opened with, the frustration of not being listened to is a recurring theme and a major concern of the piece. One of the most heart-tugging monologues comes courtesy of a girl who feels “all alone in the world” when others don’t listen to her, while another child’s broken arm goes unnoticed by adults who ignore his insistence that he is in pain. The desire for superpowers becomes a motif that intermittently resurfaces, implying a fierce longing to change things without knowing how to make an impact.

Forced to listen as we are by the show that Goode has pieced together from these interviews, it is startling just how much these children have to say. While there are, unsurprisingly, some hilarious moments which verge on Children Say the Funniest Things territory, on the whole the piece reveals just how perceptive these young individuals are. Asked about their ambitions, one child wonders whether he will be a tramp or a banker, satirically remarking that they are essentially the same thing. Another two boys berate their generation in the manner of grumpy old men, tutting at girls who try to grow up too fast. Perhaps most affecting are the repeated protestations against war: “I think people should stop now – game over, you know?”

But this is more than just a vehicle for the opinions of children. As a piece of theatre, Monkey Bars is appealingly self-aware. Neatly side-stepping the issues faced by much verbatim theatre and avoiding the need for lengthy programme notes, Chris Goode and Company simply confront their process head-on. One of the first recordings we hear is that of James explaining the concept of the show to the children he is interviewing, an explanation that also conveniently clarifies the process for the audience. The actor representing James at this point adds, with a playful grin, “we’ll see if the audience finds that interesting”.

There is no doubt about whether the end result is interesting – it’s nothing short of fascinating – but as to the purposes of this piece of theatre and its success on those terms, I’m a little more tentative with my praise. Had the show zeroed in on one aspect of childhood and interrogated that individual angle using this intriguing process, it might come across as more of a complete piece, if not perhaps as meaty. Instead, by speaking to these children about such a wide range of subjects, from families to politics, Chris Goode and Company have created a view of the world that is potentially infinite and open-ended. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – I like theatre with question marks – but it makes the piece’s process of selection and editing somewhat problematic.

This touches upon one of my issues with verbatim theatre as a form, which is something I’ve been mulling over for a while and assessing more thoroughly since seeing London Road earlier this month. It is, as a method of theatremaking, overtly “truthful”. By which I mean, because the words are purely those of the subjects, it is their truth – verbal stumbles and all – as unmediated as possible without placing them on the stage before us. It might not be a profound, universal truth, but it is truthful to the experience of those interviewees.

At the same time, however, it screams its artificiality. By being so conspicuously “real”, so hammered home with “erm”s and stammers, it simultaneously advertises the fact that these genuine, un-airbrushed words have been uprooted from their source and dumped on a stage, a transplant which implicates its process. In Monkey Bars, this process attracts even more attention to itself through the additional layer of meaning and representation created by the use of adults to speak the words of children.

So, as a result of this odd, dislocating blend of truth and artificiality, I always feel very aware of the hand of the editor. (That might also be something to do with being a writer) In this particular case, therefore, the tiny part of my brain not enraptured by the show was nagging away at me, asking what the guiding intention was behind these particular choices.

Has the material been selected in such a way as to expose how children swallow and regurgitate the opinions and values of their adult counterparts? Has the guttingly profound been favoured over the silly or mundane? Of course, this is a conversation I would need to have with Chris Goode (and one that I’d be more than happy to engage in if broached), but I couldn’t help wondering: why these stories?

Not that such doubts and questions are substantially damaging to the experience of watching the beautiful, surprisingly urgent piece of theatre that Chris Goode and Company have created. Where Monkey Bars functions perhaps most effectively is as a warning, a reminder and a bleak unveiling of the lies we have come to blindly accept with age. We can smile at childish fears and anxieties, but essentially these are smiles of complacent denial. The world is a scary place; we have simply taught ourselves not to notice.

The (not quite) End

– this is where the review proper (if it can even be considered “proper”) concludes, but there are also a few other, messier, more experimental thoughts that I felt compelled to put into words …

One of the moments in the show that most tickled me was the recording in which a girl who writes stories is asked about her writing, rendered in a scene arranged much like a television interview. It made me quietly giggle because it reminded me so much of myself as a child, always dreaming up other worlds and fiercely scribbling away, deadly serious about whatever tale I was currently spinning. Inspired by this, I found myself thinking about the child I once was, with the below result.

A letter to my younger self:

Hi there. Just me. So … this feels a bit weird. Why am I writing to you? Well, it’s a critical experiment. That probably doesn’t make much sense to you now, but it will one day. Which, I know, is one of the annoying things that adults say when they don’t feel like explaining something, but this time it’s true. Maybe I’ll explain it some time, but right now I have a couple of other things that I want to say.

I want to say that I remember that it’s hard, even though sometimes I forget and think that it used to be easy. People will tell you that it only gets harder, and that might be true, but it’s also pretty hard right now. It’s especially hard right now because people don’t always listen, but that will get better, if only by a little bit.

I also want to say that it’s good that you’ve learnt to pretend. Pretending is important. Not just because watching people pretending will one day be among your favourite things to do, but because the pretending never ends, not really. That’s the big secret. We all still feel like kids playing at being grown-up, hoping that no one will catch us out in the act of make believe.

And one day a man called Chris Goode and some of his friends will, through some pretending that isn’t quite pretending, make you realise that it’s not just you who feels that way. And it will be comforting but also a little bit heartbreaking, though you won’t be quite sure why. You’ll try writing about it anyway though, because that’s what you do.

Well … that’s all I wanted to say, really. I know that writing letters is boring and not as much fun as writing stories, but perhaps occasionally you can write back to me and remind me what it’s like to be a kid? I’d like to be reminded of that. Now you probably want to ask me what it feels like to be an adult, which seems like a fair exchange. But the answer is, I just don’t know.

Oddly, to depart on a complete tangent, writing the above reminded me vividly of Gob Squad’s Before Your Very Eyes, a piece of theatre that I think I short-changed slightly on first assessment and that has insistently stayed with me over the intervening weeks. In that show, the child performers address recordings of their younger selves, sadly, ashamedly and sometimes wistfully regarding the people that they used to be.

One of the most heartbreaking moments is one boy’s protestation that “this is not me”. In thinking back to the person I used to be, prompted by Monkey Bars to remember what it was to be a child, I was struck by how I both am and am not that wildly imaginative young person, so much like the little girl in the show who speaks earnestly about her stories. This is not a particularly original thought, but perhaps we are all a long series of different people, simultaneously embodying a number of past versions of ourselves and the person we are in the present moment. The child in us never quite goes away; it just takes an experience like Monkey Bars to be reminded of that.

The reviewed performance was at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Monkey Bars will continue to tour around the country throughout the autumn – full tour dates here.