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Tim Crouch (born 1964) is an experimental theatre maker: an actor, writer and director. His plays include My Arm, An Oak Tree, ENGLAND and The Author. These take various forms, but all reject theatrical conventions, especially realism, and invite the audience to help create the work. Interviewed in 2007, Crouch said, 'Theatre in its purest form is a conceptual artform. It doesn't need sets, costumes and props, but exists inside an audience's head.'
Stephen Bottoms, Professor of Contemporary Theatre & Performance at the University of Manchester, has written that Crouch's plays 'make up one of the most important bodies of English-language playwriting to have emerged so far in the twenty-first century....I can think of no other contemporary playwright who has asked such a compelling set of questions about theatrical form, narrative content and spectatorial engagement.'
2 My Arm,
3 An Oak Tree,
5 The Author,
6 What Happens to the Hope at the End of the Evening,
8 Shopping for Shoes,
9 Fairy, Monster, Ghost,
10 I, Malvolio,
11 I, Cinna (The Poet),
12 Plays for Young Performers,
16 Published plays,
18 External links,
Crouch, originally from Bognor Regis, did a BA in Drama at Bristol University and a postgraduate acting diploma at the Central School of Speech and Drama. While still at Bristol, he co-founded the theatre company, Public Parts, with his wife, the director and writer, Julia Collins. They worked on eight devised productions, which were performed in 'all sorts of venues - from caves in Gloucestershire, to prisons, schools, and major national theatres like the Bristol Old Vic, West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Bush in London'. Public Parts shows included an adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, and The Marvelous Boy, about the poet Thomas Chatterton. As an actor, Crouch also performed in a number of plays for the Franklin Stage Company, New York, and the National Theatre, London, where he was an Education Associate.
Crouch wrote his first play, My Arm, as a reaction to his increasing frustration with contemporary theatre, in particular 'its adherence to notions psychological and figurative realism and its apparent neglect of the audience in its processes.'. He told The Scotsman, 'I gave myself two years to try to make a piece of work, never having written anything before, and over a course of five days in 2002 I wrote My Arm. I wrote it almost without thinking. Looking back on it, I can see I was writing about all the frustrations I had been experiencing.'
My Arm tells the story of a boy who, out of sheer bloody-mindedness, puts his arm in the air and keeps it there for thirty years. In the process, he becomes a celebrated medical specimen and an icon of the New York art scene. In his introduction to the published play, Crouch wrote, 'The boy's action is more meaningful to others than to himself. His arm becomes the ultimate inanimate object onto which others project their own symbols and meanings.'
This theme of projecting meaning is reflected in the staging. Crouch invites audience members to lend personal possessions, such as keys, jewellery, mobile phones and photos, which are then cast as 'actors', shown on a live video feed. Professor Stephen Bottoms describes the effect of this: 'The lack of physical resemblance between the presented objects and the things they are made to represent creates a sense of humorous incongruity, but also allows the audience to bring in personal associations of their own. I recall, in one performance, being strangely moved by seeing a pencil case and a can of body spray bullying the Action Man doll which always stands in as the young 'Tim'. Precisely by not showing us what the bullies 'really' looked like, or having actors 'emote' their aggression, Crouch allowed me to fill in my own responsive associations with the scene described.'
In a similar way, the play also uses old cine films, provided by the film-maker, Chris Dorley-Brown. For example, after the narrator describes the sudden death of his mother at a bus stop, we see film of a woman walking into the sea, watched by a small boy on the shore, with his back to the camera. The effect is powerful, as the audience projects emotions - the child's anxiety at losing his mother - onto the film.
Crouch never once lifts his own arm in the show. But such is the hypnotic power of the storytelling that many theatregoers leave believing that they have heard a true story, and watched a man standing with his arm in the air.
My Arm, co-directed by Crouch, Karl James and Hettie McDonald, opened to universal acclaim at the Traverse Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Festival in 2003. It was later adapted for BBC Radio 3, winning a 2006 Prix Italia for Best Adaptation in the Radio Drama category.
An Oak Tree:
The themes of My Arm, of projection and transformation, were developed in Crouch's second play, An Oak Tree. This takes its name from Michael Craig-Martin's 1973 work An Oak Tree in which the artist asks us to suppose that a glass of water has become a tree. Crouch's play shows us an encounter between a stage hypnotist and a grieving father, Andy, whose daughter has been run over and killed by the hypnotist. The father, who believes that he has transformed a tree into his dead daughter, comes to see the hypnotist hoping that he can provide some answers.
While the hypnotist is played by Crouch, the father is always played by a different actor, male or female, old or young. This second actor, who knows nothing about the play before going on stage, is guided through the performance by Crouch using spoken instructions and pages of script. The play was co-directed by Crouch's long-time collaborators, Karl James, and Andy Smith, the poet and performance artist known as 'a smith', who Crouch originally asked to play the father. Smith suggested, 'Why don't you get a different actor to play the father each time?'.
An Oak Tree opened at the Traverse Theatre, in the 2005 Edinburgh Festival, where it had a sell-out run and won a Herald Angel award. International tours followed, including a three-month run at the Barrow Theatre in New York, where it won a special citation OBIE award. To date, over 250 actors have appeared as the father in the play, including Mike Myers, Christopher Eccleston, Frances McDormand, F Murray Abraham, James Wilby, Laurie Anderson, Toby Jones and Mark Ravenhill. In 2005, Crouch described his own experience of performing with a different actor each time: 'Every single father has been as different as every person is different....Maybe some have acted too much and some have not acted at all. At times, they've each done exactly what I thought I didn't want them to do. But, in so doing, they are each and every one a revelation. They have done the play in their own way. It will never be exactly how I want it - and thank God for that.'
Lyn Gardner reviewed a performance in which the father was played by Sophie Okonedo: 'Watching her, never for a moment do you forget that she is a woman, and Crouch cannily ensures with his stream of stage directions that you never can forget that she is an actor. Nonetheless, as the evening wears on, neither do you doubt that she is a middle-aged man. She looks the same, but she is different.'
In Crouch's next play, ENGLAND, he performed with Hannah Ringham, co-founder of the London Shunt theatre collective. Like My Arm, ENGLAND deals with the world of contemporary art, and was written to be staged in white-walled art galleries. As guides, Crouch and Ringham welcome the audience into the gallery, leading them around the exhibition. In the first half, they share a duologue in which they play a character of undisclosed gender, whose boyfriend is a wealthy art dealer and who is in desperate need of a heart transplant. The play uses ambient sound, designed by Dan Jones, to convey the rhythm of the failing heart. In the second half, the character travels to an unnamed Middle Eastern country to thank the widow of the heart donor with a gift of a valuable painting. The widow, who believes that her husband has been murdered for his heart, is not grateful.
Crouch describes the play as 'the story of one thing placed inside another: a heart inside another person's body, a culture inside another country's culture, theatre inside a gallery, a character inside an actor, a play inside its audience'.Lyn Gardner saw it as 'an endlessly thoughtful piece which artfully challenges a globalised world where everything is for sale, and questions the value we put on art and on human life.' In August 2007, the play opened at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, where it won a Total Theatre award, a Fringe First and a Herald Archangel. Since then, ENGLAND has been performed in galleries across the UK and USA and also visited Oslo, Lisbon, Quebec, Madrid, Dublin, Wiesbaden, Melbourne, Singapore, Vancouver, Hong Kong and Budapest.
Crouch's fourth adult play, The Author, was commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre, London, and first performed there in 2009. In the 1990s, the Court had become known for what the critic Aleks Sierz has named In-yer-face theatre, featuring depictions of extreme violence. This made it the perfect setting for an examination of the effects of creating and watching representations of violence. Crouch explained his intentions in an article: 'The Author is a play about what it is to be a spectator and about our responsibilities as spectators. It explores the connection between what we see and what we do. I feel strongly that we have lost a thread of responsibility for what we choose to look at.'
In the play, Crouch plays 'Tim Crouch' an in-yer-face playwright who has written an abusive play, which has a destructive effect on everyone involved in it, from the author to the actors and audience. Crouch removed the stage, placing the audience on two banks of seats facing each other, where they watch each other watching the play. Four actors were placed among the audience, telling the story of the abusive play. The original cast had Vic Llewllyn and Esther Smith as the actors, and Adrian Howells as the audience member. When The Author transferred to the Traverse for the Edinburgh Festival, Adrian Howells' role was taken by Chris Goode.
The Author divided critics and audiences, and in Edinburgh there were many walk-outs. The play itself invited this reaction, including a staged walk-out early on in the action.
What Happens to the Hope at the End of the Evening:
In 2013, the London Almeida Theatre commissioned What Happens to the Hope at the End of the Evening, written and performed by Crouch and Andy Smith (a smith) and directed by Karl James. The play tells the story of an uncomfortable Saturday night reunion between two friends who have grown apart. Their opposition is reflected in their contrasting performance styles. While smith sits at a lectern, reading the script, acknowledging the presence of the audience, Crouch attempts to create a realistic play, with a fourth wall, even bringing his own set on stage.
Describing the play to Exeunt magazine, Crouch said, 'Andy sits at the side of the stage and introduces himself and ostensibly he tells his own story. 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....My character is active - politically active, sexually active, physically active. Andy's character in this play is inactive or reflective.'.
Simon Holton reviewed the play for A Younger Theatre: 'One of the central concerns of the piece is absence and presence, the space of the theatre and the simple act of being together in that space -- what it means, and what it can do. The message of hope rings out loud and clear without ever being preachy or dogmatic. Wonderful, original, powerful theatre.'.
Crouch and smith took the play to Edinburgh, where it ran at the Drill Hall Studio for the Forest Fringe, from 18-24 August 2013. Joyce McMillan reviewed the play in The Scotsman: 'As the friend - in a terrific performance from Crouch - rages and sulks and drinks and becomes increasingly, aggressively nervous of the gang of local kids hanging around outside, it gradually becomes apparent - in this brilliant piece of collaborative writing by two master makers - that the dysfunction is not all on one side.
Andy, in his chair, constantly avoids his friend's gaze, preferring to address the audience about the theoretical value of theatre in bringing people together. He has succumbed to what sounds like a suffocating domesticity with his Norwegian wife and little daughter, constantly asking his friend to remove his shoes (we all remove our shoes) and not to smoke in the house. There's something vital about male middle age here, something about north and south, something about the smugness of contentment, and the activist value of honest misery. And something about theatre, too, if only because at the end of 70 minutes, the two are still there, still talking, still in the same space, as they might not have been if Tim and Andy hadn't decided to make a show about them.'
One of the recurring features of Crouch's work is the creation of uneasy moments for the audience. At one point in My Arm, the narrator, describing his earliest memory of an exercise in will power, says, 'For that moment, we have to go to the great silence of 1973.' Crouch follows this by holding a 'silence far longer than is bearable'. Similarly, at one point in An Oak Tree, Crouch leaves the second actor alone on stage for an uncomfortable length of time. Unease is taken to extremes in The Author, where audience members are given the freedom to walk out. In 2005, Crouch told the Herald Scotland, 'Unease is not an emotion I get often in the theatre and I like it. I'd rather have that visceral response to something than just sit through a piece of theatre that's been made by people who are making theatre.'
Shopping for Shoes:
Alongside his adult theatre, Crouch has written several plays for young audiences. In 2003, The Education Department of the National Theatre commissioned Shopping for Shoes. The play is a romantic comedy exploring the power of the logo and how hard it is to resist. Siobhan McCluskey, a politically aware 13-year old vegetarian, has a crush on fellow pupil, Shaun Holmes, who only cares about his Nike Air Jordans. They are brought together following a chance encounter with some dog dirt and a trip to a bowling alley. Crouch performs the piece using a platform tilted towards the audience, on which he places pairs of shoes representing the characters. 'The shoes are never animated like conventional puppets, but each is given time, space and sometimes sound to assert itself.' So Siobhan's dad, Keith, is represented by 'Terrible sandals and jaunty whistling.'Shopping For Shoes was first performed at St Ursula's School, Greenwich, on 18 June 2003. It then toured schools across the UK, winning the 2007 Arts Council Brian Way Award.
Fairy, Monster, Ghost:
For Brighton Festival, Crouch has written three monologues: I, Caliban (2003), I, Peaseblossom (2004) and I, Banquo (2005), later performed together as the Fairy, Monster, Ghost] trilogy. The plays introduce Shakespeare's plays to young audiences by retelling the stories from the viewpoints of minor characters.
In I, Caliban, Crouch is the monster from The Tempest, left alone on the island after all the characters have departed, with one last bottle of wine, and still missing his mum. Caliban introduces himself to the audience: 'You're thinking, what an ugly man...Well, YOU'D BE UGLY IF YOU HAD A LIFE LIKE MINE.' In I, Peaseblossom, he is the innocent child fairy from A Midsummer Night's Dream, a character who only gets one line in Shakespeare's play. I, Banquo is a darker play, for teenagers, narrated by the murdered best friend of Macbeth. Crouch appears on stage 'accompanied by a heavy-metal-guitar-playing 13 year old Fleance, a severed head and 32 litres of blood'
Crouch's fourth Shakespeare adaptation, I, Malvolio, was also written for teenagers, a co-commission by Brighton Festival and Singapore Arts Festival, where it was shown in 2010. It went on to have a huge success with adult audiences at the Traverse in the 2011 Edinburgh Festival. Like Crouch's previous play,The Author, I, Malvolio is a play about what it is to be a spectator and about our responsibilities as spectators. In a performance close to standup comedy, Crouch appears as the pompous, theatre-despising, puritan steward from Twelfth Night, following his humiliation at the end of that play. Wearing stained long-johns and crumpled yellow stockings, he berates the audience: 'Look at you. Sitting there with your bellies full of pop and pickled herring. Laughing at me. Go on. Laugh at the funny man. Laugh. Make the funny man cry.' His response to the audience's laughter is a recurring cry of 'You find that kind of thing funny?'
Joyce McMillan, reviewing I, Malvolio in the Scotsman, wrote, 'There's never anything less than fully adult about this searing deconstruction of the conflict between Malvolio and - well, who? Not only the other characters, it seems, but us, the audience of relentless good-time boys and girls, laughing at Malvolio's humiliation, mocking the brief hope of love he enjoys.'
I, Cinna (The Poet):
As part of the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned Crouch to write and direct a companion piece to Gregory Doran's production of Julius Caesar. The result was I, Cinna (The Poet), with Jude Owusu as Cinna, the poet killed by the mob after being mistaken for a conspirator in Shakespeare's play. In Crouch's play, Cinna asks his young audience to 'consider the relationship between words and actions, art and politics, self and society. During the performance he asks us to write alongside him: a small poem on a big theme.'
Plays for Young Performers:
As well as writing for youth audiences, Crouch writes plays to be performed by young actors. In 2006, he was commissioned by the Playhouse (a scheme run by Plymouth Theatre Royal, York Theatre Royal and Polka Theatre) to write a play to be performed by primary school children. Kaspar the Wild, inspired by Kaspar Hauser, is a story about the mystery wild boy, found wandering wearing scruffy clothes and trainers, who joins Year Six classmates in a sleepy village school. The play, performed by children in chorus, is written in verse: 'What do we do with a boy so deprived/ Who refuses to learn or to grow or to thrive?/ WHAT DO WE DO?/ We send him to school, that's what we do.'
One girl performer, interviewed for the trailer for a 2011 production in Plymouth, said, 'The play is cool because the narrators say things like 'What do you think?' And most plays they tell you what to think. Plus it rhymes, which is really cool.'
John, Antonio and Nancy is a 2010 play for three young teen actors, commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre as part of Rough Cuts. The play was directed by Maria Aberg and performed by Couch's son, Joey, Ella Campbell and Kieran Mulligan. It premiered at Theatre Local, Elephant & Castle, and also played the Nightingale Theatre, Brighton, as part of the 2011 Brighton Festival. The performers, wearing red, blue and yellow ties, play John Brown, Antonio Clegg, and Nancy Cameron, the children of the three party leaders in the 2010 UK election. In the play, Crouch deconstructs the language used in the televised debates by placing quotations from the leaders in the mouths of their children. So Gordon Brown's 'Only last week, I met a widow in Portsmouth' becomes, in the mouth of his son, 'Only last week, my father met a widow in Portsmouth'. The cumulative effect of the statements is comic, 'highlighting the absurdity of 'media friendly' language'.
As an experimental theatremaker, Crouch enjoys collaborating with other companies and art forms. May is a 2011 collaboration between Crouch and the Probe dance company, performed by the dancers Antonia Gove and Ben Duke with music by Scott Smith. Crouch provided text about May, a beautiful girl who self-harms, and Gregory, her shy boyfriend. Jake Orr reviewed the piece: 'The overall effect is of a tenderness that meets and crashes into chaos. Crouch's dialogue is unhinged by the characters' inability to express themselves, which then gets explored through dance.'
In 2012, Crouch was invited by the Dutch theatre company Kassys to collaborate, along with the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma] and Nicole Beutler in Cadavre Exquis, a project inspired by the Surrealist parlour game, Exquisite Corpse. A Cadavre Exquis is a poem (or a drawing) written by several poets, without knowing what the others have written. 'The first writer writes a line of poetry on a piece of paper. Then he folds the paper in such a way that only the last word is visible. The second writer continues.' The rules set out for the theatre project were that 'Each director makes a part that is maximum 15 minutes. As a starting point each director only sees the last 60 seconds of the previous part. Each director brings in one performer.'. Crouch, who brought Hannah Ringham, from ENGLAND, as his performer, wrote, 'Cadavre Exquis magnifies the process of the here and now. It throws us into the arms of a response, which feels like the most productive way to work. The project also elevates its audience by not being in full control of itself. By quartering the traditional unity of intent, the theatre makers become as associative as the audience.'
Crouch's plays have been translated into many other languages, and there have been productions of them in Italy, France, Portugal, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, Brazil, Canada, Australia, the USA and South Korea. The plays are set texts in schools and drama colleges, and a new generation of 'Crouchian' experimental theatremakers is emerging. Little Bulb and Made in China are two companies who have cited Crouch as an influence. Chris Goode and A Smith, who have both worked with Crouch, and Michael Pinchbeck also explore similar areas of metatheatre.
Crouch also works as on occasional director for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In Stratford, he has directed productions of The Taming of the Shrew, in 2011, King Lear and his own play I, Cinna (the Poet), both in 2012.
My Arm (including I, Caliban and Shopping for Shoes), Faber & Faber, 2003,
An Oak Tree, Oberon Books, 2005,
ENGLAND, Oberon Books, 2007,
The Author, Oberon Books, 2009,
I, Shakespeare, Oberon Books, 2011,
Tim Crouch Plays One, Oberon Books, 2011
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license