Saturday, December 19, 2009

"How we are together": an endless conversation with Tim Crouch and a smith

Tim Crouch and a smith in An Oak Tree
Photo: Nina Urban

Look. Listen. There may be more exciting or inspiring theatre makers currently at work in this country than Tim Crouch, but I'm pretty sure you could count them on the fingers of a KitKat and still have something to nibble on the bus ride home. Right from the 'g' of go, with his first show My Arm in 2003, Tim has seemed smarter, more thoughtful, more likeable even, than pretty much anyone around. And he's made it look kind of easy. No ego, no histrionics, no strenuous colour-supplement antics: just a quiet, meticulous clarity and the sort of self-assurance that, if you tune into his wavelength, reminds you exactly how this level of artistic confidence and acuity can be made to look easily achieved: namely, it takes an incredible amount of hard work, modestly undertaken in a generous spirit, but with an extraordinary level of focus and -- in the broadest, most positive sense -- ambition. A determination to do what's right; to do what's difficult, in the knowledge that it makes things so much easier, so much freer, in the longer term.

Doing what's right of course includes taking care of the record. When I reminded Tim, after his most recent play The Author opened at the Royal Court in September, that he'd kindly said I could interview him once the show was up and running, he suggested that co-director and longtime collaborator a smith (Andy to his friends) join us to make the conversation a threeway. Not long after that, Tim replied to a (very positive) review on Andrew Haydon's blog, lodging a reminder that Andy and fellow director Karl James had been extremely important in the shaping and making of the piece -- and of an audience's experience of it. You don't need to remind Tim -- or Andy, whom I somewhat know, or presumably Karl, whom I don't -- that, where theatre is theatre and worthy of that name, solo practice is an impossibility. Even the idea is an affront.

Andy, I first saw in, I think, 2002, at one of Tassos Stevens's brilliant and crucial ROAR nights, this one at the Gate. He did a short piece, fifteen minutes or so, which involved the audience in an act of collective creation which still, every time I recall it, brings a lump to my throat. (Of the good kind.) I've since kind of nicked it, run off with it; I use it as a teaching exercise and even, earlier this year, set it to work as the basis of a best man's speech. (It went really well. Thanks, Andy!) Subsequently Andy came and did a couple of things at CPT and he gave me a copy of his CD and we slightly stayed in touch, though that was a little thwarted a few years back when he relocated to Oslo. His work fascinated me: it was so friendly, so unaffected; and yet I knew he had been through Dartington, knew that Caroline Bergvall was a mutual friend... and so I could never quite get my head round the plainness of its surfaces. Sometimes the work seemed amazingly dimensionalised, voluminous enough to include everybody present in its scope. Sometimes it initially seemed puzzlingly flat, inert almost, as if it were content to remain writing on paper and hadn't the energy to go out and find its place in the world. Always, though, it had a distinct tone, and often, on second glance, that flatness turned out to be the flatness of a mirror: it had ample depth, provided you brought yourself to it to complete it.

Seeing, with An Oak Tree (2005), that Tim and Andy had started to work together, was both an aha! (how intriguing, how unexpected) moment and an of course (how obvious once you think of it). What was already clear from My Arm was that the same misleading descriptor could be applied, equally misleadingly, to both of them: the idea that their work was somehow "deceptively simple". In other words, that what they show you, which seems extremely direct and honest and unadorned in the moment of your encounter with it, actually conceals a hinterland of complicated mechanics and misdirection. But the phrase won't do. There is no deception. Any hint of such would be lethally toxic to their project. There is art, sure, and there is a level of craft, a level of skill. But this is not ars est celare artem exactly. What they give us is simple, and they give it to us unadorned; but it's also complex -- the complexity of our lived experience of social and ethical decision-making, rendered in unblinkingly high fidelity -- and they give it to us straight. As An Oak Tree was followed in 2007 by England, and now, this autumn, by The Author, the freighting of those ethical engagements has come more front and centre in Tim's work. A little dissonance perhaps comes with it: Tim is always there, performing in the work, establishing its tone, and he's such a credible, apparently guileless guide, that the real power of the material (which is always, and almost uniquely among his peers, utterly and inextricably embedded in, and expressed principally through, its formal properties) can kind of sneak up on you. He and his collaborators create a space in which it's possible, actually in the moment of the performance, to really think about pain and grief and the clumsy and often inadvertent ways in which we exercise our power over others; to think about those things for real -- real enough, in other words, to feel it. The first time I saw The Author, I thought I was OK, until somebody asked me, an hour and a half afterwards, what I'd done with my evening, and then suddenly, I couldn't stop crying. A friend of mine keeps fainting in performance of Tim's work and it seems to be as much about the rhythms of his speech -- liturgical, I think somebody says in a review somewhere -- as it is about the occasional irruptions of violence into the surface placidity of his stories.

In The Author, the stakes couldn't be much higher. But it starts as a high-concept novelty, almost a one-liner. You arrive in the theatre and there's no stage: just two banks of seating, facing each other, the two front rows with barely a gangway between them. Actors start to speak from out of our midst: first Adrian, an eager Royal Court regular; then Tim, Tim Crouch, the celebrated playwright. Tim Crouch or "Tim Crouch"? You never see, or hear, the inverted commas; maybe you never know. Actually, come to think of it, between meeting Adrian and Tim there's someone else, someone in the audience who gets up and walks out. "You say something then!", shouts Adrian after her.

Slowly we start to piece together that we're being told all about Tim's previous play, a real [but not, actually, real] Royal Court in-yer-face shocker full of squeal-inducing violence, staged with a high degree of sickening verisimilitude that seems to be a source of pride. We hear from the two actors in that previous piece, Vic and Esther. They talk us through the tough rehearsal process, the demands made on them as actors by Tim's very challenging play. We hear about them watching footage of executions on the web, in the name of research. It leads up to what seems like a pleasing, if disturbing, resolution, where we find out that Vic has been responsible -- though, perhaps, from a place of what we might call diminished responsibility -- for a horrific act of violence, whose victim was our friend and cohort Adrian.

This is not, however, the end of the line. We finally sit in darkness as Tim relates the story of a post-show dinner party, culminating in a shocking and yet banal episode that does not, or may not, unfold altogether stably in our imaginations as we are told about it. In a tired and emotional state, either he has watched an online video of a baby being sexually abused, while Esther's own baby sleeps in a cot next to him; or, at some point, the video has given way to him committing the abusive act himself. Finally, we hear Tim describe to us his own suicide in the aftermath of the discovery of his behaviour. It's an almost impossibly disturbing sequence to sit with, made all the more unbearable because it is unsensational: it feels honest, it speaks of tenderness. It is complicated, but the most difficult, the most challenging register of its complexity is that, at one level at least, it is all so simple. And yet it can't be as wholly honest as it seems, because Tim's here, telling the story. In one sense it may not be true, but it is extraordinarily candid, and because its candour cannot simply reside in Tim (who we know can't be telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, because he isn't dead), the power of the episode devolves, it becomes everyone's responsibility. We are all left holding the baby.

The slipperiness of what's real and what's not, what might be and what can't be, is a fun part of the structure of the show. It never altogether stops being fun, even when the content around it is so grave, so unsparing. The characters have their own names; many of the references are wholly accurate in a real-world context. We are very aware of where we are -- we are constantly reminded that this is the Royal Court, not some nameless semi-fictional theatre. We know the names of three or four of the people in the audience, who have been gently drawn into conversation with Adrian. In the interview that follows, I come across as startled at Tim and Andy's revelations about the extent to which some viewers have struggled to distinguish fact from fiction: but, to tell the truth, both times I saw the play, it never occurred to me that the photos Esther showed us of her baby Finn were not, in fact, photos of her real-life baby. Everyone, I think, will have their own line, beyond which they're no longer quite sure; for some, it may be a grey area as big as the play itself.

What this arises out of, though, is a simple operation, incredibly complex in its ramifications. The play layers a fictional space on top of a real space, but does not obliterate or even obscure it. Once again, it's not deceptive: it's both ... and. The section of the play in which this is at its most flickery -- a section I found more disturbing than the narrated depictions of both the violence and the sexual abuse -- is when the actress Esther "brings back" a young girl called Karen, whom she's found in a shelter for women who've suffered domestic abuse, and interviewed as part of the research process for the (previous, fictive) play. Now the space of the rehearsal room becomes yet another layer, as Esther demonstrates "Karen", who, in a rehearsal exercise, she's had to 'perform', improvising answers to questions from the other actors. We, too, are invited to ask her things about her life; both time that I saw the show, people do this, unquestioningly. (Others, perhaps, do question it, as I saw one woman do; many more sit, silently, perhaps uncomfortable, perhaps not; perhaps reluctant to speak up on either side.) I've seen this kind of exercise carried out in rehearsal rooms; like Tim, I deplore it. But in the moment of our encounter with it as part of the performance of The Author it is exactly as real as it is unreal, and its real and unreal elements become so intricated that one starts to feel almost suffocated by the layers, the codes, the rules and conventions, the social and artistic niceties that are choking the space we share. How do we talk to each other honestly, under so many layers of apparently good, liberal, well-intentioned bullshit? For these few minutes, it doesn't matter what's real and what's fiction: the outcome is the same either way. The questions are all real, and they all matter, right here, right now.

It is as powerful a sequence as I've ever experienced in a theatre: intellectually provocative, emotionally draining, and from any perspective a bloody mess. As a theatre maker, one is terrified; as a regular audience member, I would imagine, no less so. And yet one never stops trusting the safety of the room. It is perhaps exactly this safety that is terrifying. Nothing is going to give way: it is all too well crafted for the fabric or the textures of the piece to tear apart and let us off. To shout, to weep, to leave -- all of these would be reasonable individual responses to any one of a number of moments in the piece (and all, I dare say, have occurred). But they do not break the piece, which is constantly redrawing itself as the perimeter around its audience, with nobody left behind, nobody out on a limb. When, in this interview, Tim and Andy talk about togetherness, they ain't kidding, and it's certainly no harebrained hippy-dippy catchword. I identify very much with what Andy says, towards the end of this conversation, about his reasons for getting into theatre-making. What I want for theatre -- and I see this consistently in Tim and Andy's work -- is a space where we come together to think about something, and by the end of our time in that space, it turns out that what we've thought about together most radically, most searchingly, is precisely what it might mean to come together to think about something. Togetherness underwrites the promise of theatre; much theatre clumsily breaks that promise. With Tim and Andy, it's in safe hands -- and their determination to take risks, to venture out onto the thinnest of ice, is what makes that safety so dependable. As J.H. Prynne has recently reminded us: "Clean hands do no worthwhile work."

It's worth also placing some emphasis, I think, on Tim's reflection here on his experiences as an actor which have proved so formative to his work as a writer and maker. He was in his mid-thirties when he began writing, and though it would be reductive to view all his work since then as a kind of post-traumatic reaction to being mistreated, or treated thoughtlessly, as an actor, it is obvious that his clear-eyed investment in the connections between working practice and rendered production is shaded with an angry knowledge that such connections can be as generative of harm as they are of healthy, holistic practice.

I met Tim and Andy around midday on the day of the last performances of The Author, downstairs in the Royal Court bar, on Saturday 24th October. This is a very long interview: we talked for an hour and a half, and I've edited next to nothing. No apologies for that. Nor does the interview really begin, as such -- and this in itself is indicative. We were already talking, and then I turned the recorder on at some point, and that's the bit of the conversation you can read below, but there was certainly no shift in tone or ratcheting-up of self-consciousness once the mic was hot. It was the easiest of interviews -- I never once consulted the little roadmap I'd made myself in advance: we just followed the conversation where it led. Tim and Andy are unbelievably easy to talk to -- almost comically so, sometimes, with their characteristically encouraging reactions to much of what I said: "Good! Yes!" I'm not quite sure now what we'd already covered, but immediately before the transcript begins, Tim had been talking about the not altogether satisfactory experience of taking England to the Whitechapel Gallery, and about how that piece had, in some quarters, been labelled 'site-specific'...

* * *

TIM: I never really felt that was site specific. It was acknowledging where we are: and I think that’s the sort of trope that we’re getting at, really, is about a theatre that doesn’t acknowledge where we are. And trying to counter that principle, I suppose, in the work, wherever we are. So, every piece of work is site specific, or should be specific to the location of the audience members and the other people who are involved in it.

CG: It’s something that keeps sort of popping up in your work, I think, is this thing about — I was noticing it in England — these kind of constant, actually, instructions to an audience. At a sort of subliminal level, but also explicitly, you’re constantly saying: “Look.” “Here.”

TIM: Yeah. “We’re here. Look, we’re here.” Yeah.

CG: That’s very exciting to me in terms of what I feel I’m looking for, kind of desperate for, in theatre, [which] is a willingness to be able to say what is. ‘What is’ as well as ‘what if’.

TIM: But it’s much easier to get to ‘what if’ if we have established ‘what is’, you know? And I’m always astonished by the distrust that exists, the mistrust that exists, in theatres, that doesn’t believe it can — that we as an audience can — contain both things; that we must hide the ‘what is’ so that we can then allow the ‘what if’ to be free. And actually they coexist perfectly well, at the same moment, in the same space at the same time.

CG: And in fact, without each other, they’re kind of inoperable.

TIM: Yes. And so — those pieces, you know, immersive theatre, which are trying so hard to generate an otherness, an other place — ‘we are not here, we are somewhere else’… And it’s kind of like a huge release for us: we don’t have to work very hard!

CG: [laughs]

TIM: And there’s been a hundred years of hard work done in theatre to uphold this sophistical notion that if we don’t convince the audience they’re not here, they will not go somewhere else.

ANDY: And if the ‘what is’ is missing or lacking, which it sometimes is I think, then it’s really hard to get a sense of affirmation. Does that make sense?

CG: Yeah, yeah.

ANDY: I really feel that. Coming back and seeing the show after being away from it for a couple of weeks, I really felt a huge sense of affirmation, of yes-ness to the ‘what is’ of being in the space. There are lines in the play that have dual connotations, but they are affirmations – the amount of “yes”es that come out of you [Tim] —

TIM: Yeah.

ANDY: The amount of “Look” and “Look at this” and “Here I am” and all of that stuff that begins the play just allows a sense of affirmation that feels really important to me. Because it says yes we’re here, we want to be here and we want to acknowledge the ‘what is’ before we get into the ‘what if’. And I think that if you miss out or if you lessen the ‘what is’ — if my interpretation of what we’re talking about is the same — then that affirmation is not there, and so you’re off on the wrong foot I think. Or, as an audience member, if I can’t find that, I feel thoroughly disappointed because I want to have a reason for being, and a reason for being here.

TIM: There is only one ‘site’ in theatre, and that is the audience. That’s where the play takes place. Do you know what I mean? Forget all the other stuff. Forget the sets and the costumes — or even the physical location. In the post-show discussion, you know, Ruth [Little, Literary Manager at the Royal Court] talked about [how] I say that the play happens inside its audience. You know, that’s where every play should happen.

CG: Well, it does, whether you like it or not. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen because it doesn’t happen in the audience.

TIM: But we forget about that and we put all our focus and all our attention on to where it happens on stage. And we often relegate the transference into the other place, into the site where the piece really should exist.

CG: Yeah, yeah. So it seems like really all of the work of yours [Tim] that I know — and actually all of yours as well Andy that I know — is about reminding an audience of its own authority.

TIM: Its own agency, yes. Its own agency in the manufacture or the creation of the piece. Absolutely with England. Absolutely with An Oak Tree, actually, with the notion of an actor who is not a specialised agent, [but] is active and activated in the moment of performance. Their agency is activated in the moment of performance by the audience as much as by anyone else. You know, the dangers always exist around… — we’ve talked about it in the journey into The Author… It’s been fantastic, actually, to work with three actors who come from very different backgrounds. And, like, the notion of where we are going to be in the play... Who are we going to be in the play? ...So: Adrian [Howells] — beautifully — has kept to a costume. Adrian gets in, shaves, washes his armpits, changes his underpants, and gets into costume. A costume that’s been discussed with the costume supervisor. And then at the end of the show, he disrobes and puts on his Adrian clothes. Vic started along those lines and has slowly… He still wears some costume shoes — …occasionally he doesn’t, but then he does when he needs to. He did one show where he — it was great — he wore his own clothes for the performance and then changed into [his costume] to go home!

CG: [laughs]

TIM: And then Esther wanted to be a little bit more motherly-looking, because her character is a mother and Esther’s not a mother. And we weren’t heavy handed, we didn’t go No no no. Andy and Karl were beautiful about [saying], Whatever makes you comfy. So she went into conversations with the costume supervisor — you know, “I want to wear something that makes me feel a little older, makes me look a little like I might have had a baby.” And then within a week of performance she just started wearing her own stuff.

ANDY: Took a couple of days, I’d say.

TIM: Yeah, less than a week.

ANDY: It was quick, I remember. There was just a conversation where it was, I don’t really need to do that, and I was just, Well, if you don’t feel you need to, then you don’t. And I think it’s been really important to allow everybody to find that. To allow everybody to work… I mean that’s a nice example of many other things that have happened through the process in relation to allowing a diversity of performance and an equality of performance. When you talk about your four different people at the Royal Opera House [in Glass House] I think about that. Because there is one way that we could do this play, which is that we could all meet and we could spend the first couple of days exploring the Tim Crouch house style and how one does that. You know, we could attempt to train people in that way. But that’s not what we’re interested in. It doesn’t even exist.

TIM: Yeah.

ANDY: So the thing to do was to find the best way for each of those four people to arrive at the point that they arrived at. We didn’t know what the point was, necessarily, but we trusted that we might get there. [laughs] Or we trusted that we would keep on exploring it. I don’t think there is a point to get to with this play. There is a continuation, a continuing conversation with those performers. And if that diversity or equality or whatever can be found or is found during the moment, the moments, of the play, then that agency of the audience is potentially allowed to happen.

CG: So it spreads out from…

ANDY: Leads out, spreads out.

CG: So there’s this — I love this — this really exciting continuity between the way you work in collaborating and the experience the audience has.

TIM: Yes, absolutely. There’s not a cut off moment where the play begins. There should not be a cut off moment. And if there is then we are I think doing a disservice to the audience. It’s like the Blue Peter moment – “Here’s one I made earlier.” And you go, "Oh, well, what? No, tell me how you made that one, please! I’d be happier if you showed me how you made the shit one." Do you know what I mean? Rather than magically conjuring up a perfect one. And that’s kind of what happens traditionally, where the work is done is rehearsal, a sleight-of-hand takes place, you know, where the decisions and the choices that have been made in rehearsal are then lathed and turned to look like they are spontaneous and natural. You know? They’re not. They are highly crafted, and fixed. So as an audience we don’t have as much of an ownership of them than if they appear and are made in our midst. That’s really key.

ANDY: We might [as well] be looking at an object, or something like an object. It may be that we are looking at something so finely crafted, or attempting to be finely crafted and lathed and turned, that, yeah, there is a separation, there isn’t an agency or engagement. Perhaps that’s something to think about. But the play acknowledges also, I think, very interestingly, the potential of that — what can I call it? ...Unfixedness. Because Adrian says in the first two lines: “This is brilliant, isn’t it? I love this? Didn’t you think that? Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you thought, Oh Jesus. Jesus Christ, maybe.” And that’s kind of saying, that’s allowed as well.

TIM: That’s OK, yeah.

ANDY: That’s OK too. Don’t feel that in this moment we have to now accommodate everything, everyone, and find the common idea, the common ground between one hundred people. We’re going to work on thinking together, being together, looking together, imagining together for the next hour and twenty minutes. But don’t think for a minute that we’re going to try and become a unit in that sense. Don’t think for a minute that we’re going to try and all get everybody on the same page or on the same track. That’s impossible.

TIM: Well, we send someone out, don’t we?

ANDY: We do, yeah.

TIM: We can’t be much clearer than that. It’s OK. We absolutely allow that. You know, this is a show that endorses anyone who chooses to leave, it really does. It’s rather fantastic.

CG: Can I ask in that light about the latitude, if that’s the word, for those kind of audience responses in The Author — not just their accommodation but an engagement with them?

TIM: Yes, good, that’s a very good question, it’s a question that comes up.

CG: I mean it’s on my mind particularly because I felt quite differently about it last night than I did [at the dress rehearsal].

TIM: Well there were some interesting moments that happened last night. …So, questions are asked [by the performers]. You know: “Is it OK if we carry on?” “Do you understand?” “What do you think?”

ANDY: “Can you see all right?”

TIM: “Is it OK if I carry on?” — let’s take that one as an example. If somebody says “No,” —

CG: Mmm.

TIM: — we will carry on. You know? We’re not saying, if you don’t like this we’ll stop. We’re just asking if it’s OK for you. And similarly with “What do you think?” Or similarly with questions to ‘Karen’, in the hotseat moment. We are not going to stop the play and have a debate about that. And some people go, well, hang on a minute. There was a great review in the Sunday Times that said this is phoney, it’s phoney — he’s asking us these questions, and he’s not allowing us to answer them. What a phoney! But that’s so not the point of the piece. Or any piece really. The point is to open spaces for those questions to appear, to crack that space apart, and to lodge those questions; and then to honour the text, to honour the movement of the piece, which is a debate on a different level to the debate that we might have if we stopped the show and just started talking…

CG: Sure, yeah.

TIM: …And the debate that I hope you would have at the end of the show. Do you know what I mean? We don’t hurry you out of the theatre. What we love about this is that often at the end of the show people sit for fifteen or twenty minutes, just sit and chat… And they might get provoked because they have been asked a question and not been allowed to answer that question.

ANDY: Sometimes during performance it’s a fine line to tread, such a fine line. Because sometimes during performance you will see someone respond or ask a question and the thing that we developed, which we called ‘Rules & Tools’, in order to — not cope with, but to work with those moments of liveness, with the response… maybe [those things] don’t happen or maybe happen in a different way than one might expect. So that’s not a very clear way of saying it. But we have talked a lot about analogies…

[David Woods of Ridiculsmus pops up unexpectedly.]

TIM: Sorry, do you know David? We’re just having a little chitchat. A little chinnywag.

DAVID: Well I won’t disturb you.

TIM: Andy’s saying something really important and beautiful.

ANDY: ...I’ve lost it now.

DAVID: I’ve got something very important for you. You know after your show the other day a lot of people were disturbed. And then I got a couple of phone calls the next morning going, Hey, I didn’t think it was shit after all, I thought it was really amazing. — You know, at the time they were so offended and blasted by the ending that they couldn’t say that they liked it.

TIM: Good.

DAVID: And then afterwards they said they could like it. So it’s good.

ANDY: That’s great.

TIM: I think that’s good. And I think that’s happened last night to [an international fesival programmer]. He came last night and said, “I’m really shocked. I’m really shocked and I can’t really talk about it.” And I said, “Well, you don’t need to talk about it now. But yeah, hopefully you’ll have a little sleep, and some distance, some perspective will exist then, will creep in.” Anyway. Good. Thanks, David. 

[Exit David.]

TIM: Sorry, Andy.

ANDY: No, not at all. So what was I talking about? So. There is a fine line, of course, in any process. Analogies get used. And driving analogies seem to have been used quite a lot in this process.

CG: Hmm! Right.

ANDY: And one of the ones that Karl and I talked about the other night was that I feel when those situations happen, and of course sometimes they don’t hit the mark — whatever the mark is, the mark isn’t decided, but — there is a story for us to tell. We have got a story to tell. And there is an end of the journey to get to. And I think often, when I have seen the show, I have seen the driving happen and I have seen that the signposts are quite visible. So, “Decapitated heads, is that all right?”, or “Is this OK if I carry on?”, or “Let’s have a debate about…”

TIM: “…Karen…”

ANDY: “Karen,” or whatever. “…videos of beheadings.” And of course we don’t want to stop and have a debate about [those things] in that moment, but I hope that we are aware — I certainly feel aware as an audience member — that that signpost has been seen, or that that road, that side-road, is there to maybe go down later, to go back to, and go, We’re going to talk about this now. Either two days later or one week later, or right after the show. But during the course of the show, they are just roads that we see but that we don’t elect to turn down: because as theatre-makers we want to get to the end of the play.

TIM: There is huge latitude — it’s a good word, you know — to take those questions and to answer those questions whenever and however you may wish. But the play is going to carry on.

ANDY: The play is going to carry on.

CG: Yeah. Yeah.

TIM: And you can cogitate and ruminate on those questions whilst the play carries on. The play will always be addressing those questions as well. It’s not as though those questions [are ignored]. But this is not a piece of Forum Theatre, you know.

CG: Sure.

TIM: We had the same sort of questions around An Oak Tree, where people have said, Why don’t you ever let the actor just say whatever they want? And it’s kind of like, Well, no, no no no, it’s a play, there’s a form. Our job is to find ourselves within the form, and honour the form for an hour and twenty minutes here, or An Oak Tree an hour and ten minutes there, you know, to honour it. And it has an intelligence and there is a dialectic and there are ideas and there are questions in that form. And as we are theatre-goers, let’s allow the form of the theatre to speak to us for that length of time. And then we are released. To then go, Oh well, how do I put this into place? How do I put this in place for me?

CG: So it seems to me therefore that part of what you’re doing, part of your kind of responsibility or burden even as the author — actually the author — is to shape the agency of the audience in order to make that possible. I suppose the question that I came away with yesterday, and it may not be a useful one even to ventilate, is about the extent to which that kind of insistence on the journey and on making space for those questions to arise but not perhaps to address them responsively in the moment, whether in a way part of this piece’s presentation of authorial anxiety as it were, is [around] the power that goes with that —

TIM: Yeah – or lack of anxiety!

CG: Is there a sense of worrying away at whether theatre can adequately provide a forum (small ‘f’) for a situation that’s more characterised by power sharing, if you like? Where you don’t have that authorial power, except in holding the space open.

TIM: Yes, OK. The worry then — I’m going to sound quite elitist in a way, I don’t mean it — is that you reduce the authority of the art.

CG: Hm.

TIM: That’s a kind of danger for me. If we do see theatre as a debating tool, then there’s something else happening, on a much deeper internal level, in The Author than just provoking some questions around responsibilities of watching. Do you know what I mean? Which is about how you are, how we are, how we are together, what we see in each other. [It’s about] the form of the structure of the piece, [which] can be read on a surface level but on another level I hope is working quite deeply in how uncomfortable we’re feeling, or how released and warm we’re feeling. And those for me are, in a way, the… the prods that are most exciting for me. I’m not trying to shake the audience to suddenly have a revelation around child pornography. I’m not trying to prod them to have a revelation about how the theatre is made. I hope I’m having a little prod to go, You know you’re in this really deep now. We are in this really deep now. It then enables everyone to have their own response rather than the loudest debating voice gets heard, and it becomes Question Time.

ANDY: I agree, yeah.

CG: Yeah. Yeah.

TIM: And I’ve do feel that — I’ve done enough Forum Theatre in my education days to never feel satisfied by it. You know, as an educational tool, perhaps; but as — and I use the word — art, as an art tool, I’ve never felt satisfied by it.

CG: Sure.

TIM: Because we haven’t been allowed to trust the art of it. And maybe that’s the corollary of where the visual art goes Nyeeaah, you are fucking useless, theatre! Because theatre isn’t able to just hold its gaze, really. So, we do hold our gaze in this show. I hold my gaze after the speech at the end in the dark, you know. I never used to. When you saw it first, I couldn’t look at the audience. Now, I have to hold my — I’m with you, I’ve just said this stuff. You can go Bastard!, and lynch me, but I’m going to hold it, because I think something else is happening, much deeper. And it would be a disservice to theatre [laughs], a disservice to the art, if we didn’t trust that in some way and felt that we then had to discuss and debate.

ANDY: And also, if we didn’t — I want to say, if we didn’t operate within it. By which I mean that there is a set of parameters and there is a frame. And of course maybe you want to push the edges of that frame. But I don’t think there is a desire in me to break the frame in this, or to go, Look, it’s totally different, or it’s revolutionary, or it’s allowing the emancipation to take place is a hugely active and vocal and outward way. It’s not about breaking in that way. In the sense that — I just think that… Where am I going to go with this?

TIM: I just want to, I hope, support it by talking about that ‘Karen’ moment, OK? So, last night, two people asked questions of ‘Karen’. So the art of that piece is that Esther goes, “Is it OK, can we stop, Tim?” Because clearly, manifestly, I am abusing someone. There is an act of abuse being perpetrated in the body of the audience. OK? And she articulates it by looking uncomfortable and asking if we can stop. I hold it and hold it and hold it and I go, “Would anyone else like to ask any questions?” And it always astonishes me that people do. One woman last night said, I don’t think we should do this. And then somebody else, after she’d said that, went — I can’t remember what it was, a specific [question], I’ll have it in the show report. You know, questions get asked. And they are not questions that ‘Karen’ will then improvise an answer to. So that seems to be the lovely holding moment between these two things that we’re talking about: one is the latitude of a debate, and one is the rigour of the art form, to push you through into something other than we could normally have on a day-to-day debating level. We’re not doing that. That’s a different thing.

ANDY: Yeah. We could decide to make that, but the frame is different, and I don’t think we are interested in making that.

TIM: Not in a dismissive way…

ANDY: No no no. But I think when people go, Oh I wanted to be able to do that, I hope that there are other places where one might be able to do that. I just don’t think that it’s here, that we’re not interested in that. Perhaps [that’s] something that might be seen as more active. I don’t think it’s more active, it just takes on a different form, if the theatre walls are smashed down, or if the goal is to drag the audience out, you know. That’s not our goal for this thing. Our goal is to try and get to maybe another way of having those debates. And maybe those debates are more enjoyable or are more deep — or not more deep but a different kind of depth, another depth that might happen two days later or around a table afterwards, or…

CG: But I wonder whether this also kind of… It seems to me that that exerts a kind of internal pressure in the piece, that — Well, I suppose, actually it kind of abuts what the play is doing and asking about the idea of simulation. Because in a way it’s a simulation of those kinds of forms of very interactive sort of presentation.

TIM: Yes. A simulation of a conversation. Or a simulation of a Quaker meeting, or whatever. A chance where everyone is free, everyone is equal, and we all get a chance to speak.

CG: Absolutely, yeah. But the thing that the piece I think does very brilliantly is to kind of drill down… There’s this really kind of distasteful stuff around the simulation of the violence, the blood in the piece and so on… This is something I was talking about with Jonny last night: the sense in which what you’re drilling down to is a kind of refusal of… You have that nice exchange with Vic around the idea of the abstraction of violence, and I kind of wonder whether the kind of simulation that you’re trying to avoid is a version of that abstraction. That what you do instead is to put these images directly into our heads — very difficult, challenging, shocking images — directly into our heads in a way that bypasses any of that kind of abstracting, simulating layer. It’s really invasive! It’s really intrusive. I wrote a play earlier this year, called King Pelican, about Edward Lear, and one of the anxieties that he expresses in that — and he expresses it in very sexual terms — is about the abusiveness, the rape-likeness of penetrating the imagination with images without — in his case, I think he worries about consent, which in your case you don’t because you’re very scrupulous about marking out the questions around where our consent is and isn’t in our experience of the piece. Does that sound right?

TIM: Yes, we ask you to consider where your consent lies. There are moments — for example, the little one which is, “I’m sorry, someone else go.” That’s a little throwaway line from me, “I’m sorry, someone else go.” And you see a little [a flustered frisson]. And Vic — there’s a Rule & Tool — then teaches the audience the rule. It’s OK, it’s OK. You’re not going to be put on the spot. Even if I ask the person sitting next to me if decapitated heads are OK, she doesn’t have to say anything, he doesn’t have to say anything. We will look after you. The play will carry on and we will honour this exchange. So consent exists on lots of different levels. ...There is that issue at the very end where we switch the lights off. And you can leave. We’ve had performances where six or seven people have left during that speech.

CG: During the blackout?

TIM: Because the stage management have an infra red monitor. They can see if someone’s going to get up, and they bring the lights up. Someone leaves and they take the lights out again. And it happened three times, three sets of couples left in that speech. Which is… That’s your choice. [Some] people last night just didn’t listen to it, put their fingers in their ears. But we are in a very interesting area I think in that speech, particularly in that speech. And it’s a shame in a way if that speech becomes the overwhelming aftertaste of the play. And it was interesting what David just said, about friends, you know, having an initial resistance and then, [after] a night’s sleep, [they] might go, Oh, I understand where I was in that.

ANDY: But consent and interaction, if we want to call it that, is an interesting one, isn’t it? Because I think it was Jonny [Liron] who said it in the dark last night, when Esther said “Would you like me to sing for you?”, he said: Would it make a difference? —Is that what he said?

CG: Yes.

ANDY: Yeah. He said, Would it make a difference? And of course it happened in the moment of that situation: but that line kind of blossomed in my head over the next twenty minutes, and I thought about it this morning. The notion of, would it make a difference? And in relation to all of those ideas about: Why make art? Why make theatre? What is the purpose, the point, the aim, you know? And in relation to all of those forms of theatre that we’ve been discussing — Boal, or, you know, there are several examples that you could cite of an attempt to liberate the audience, from the Living Theater or someone like that, you know? To try and break out of the room and take to the streets and do those things. That’s not what we’re doing, but it’s an interesting thing in relation to the question of the imagination, for me. And of course there is a grey area of consent and if there is a lack of filter, or if the filters are different, or if there isn’t the—shall we call it—the dressing up around the images that are created… The images aren’t created, physically created; they’re imaginatively created. If theatre’s territory – if one of the territories that it has – is the imagination, then I feel that we’re putting ourselves into it. And that’s a good thing. Of course we then go too far sometimes with it. And we are on that kind of geiger counter of too much / too little / too much / too little... There isn’t a place that we want to get to in order to go, Look we took you to that dark and difficult place. We go that far, but the choice I hope is always there. Of course the choice is made more difficult in the dark. Of course it is. But it used to be much more difficult. There used to be no light whatsoever, and slowly we’ve put the emergency light in, and then slowly we built a little state behind the seating. So there was still a sensation of the room. But it still is very difficult. But I think in terms of the territory of the imagination, I think that’s a place where we’re playing, and that’s a place where we want to be. Because I think that theatre is a place that can really do that.

TIM: Yeah, it’s interesting, because we are problematizing that quite seriously. You know, press night here, a man came up and said to me, Ah, I’m sorry I never saw that first show.

CG: Woah! [laughs]

TIM: It’s like, Oh! OK. OK. And then a member of the Enron cast came up to me, we did a performance yesterday afternoon to film it, and some of Enron came to see it, and I met him on the King’s Road and he said, Um, so when was that other play?

ANDY: A friend of mine came to see it who hasn’t seen any of our other work together, and said afterwards: Man, so it didn’t go so well last time!

CG: [laughs] Wow.

TIM: Really?!

ANDY: A guy that I was at university with.

TIM: You know, and I’m not dead. I’m not dead! 

ANDY: [laughs]

TIM: I haven’t got the police chasing me. I’m not, you know… It’s really very interesting. And I’m excited about the agency of the audience: to have to work that one through for themselves. In the same way that there is the ambiguity in the final speech about whether I did it or whether I watched it being done. Do you know what I mean? This is the place, this is the location of theatre for me, in a way, is: Where are we, every day? Where are we in fiction? Where are we in imagination? Was the act real or was the act watched? Mediated? I mean, all the acts are mediated, obviously.

CG: Absolutely. And I think that’s a really important sort of footnote to what we were talking about earlier, about that concern with kind of saying really clearly and in quite simple terms often ‘what is’, is that oftentimes ‘what is’ is quite ambiguous, and it’s flickering…

TIM: Yes.

ANDY: Yes.

CG: …and it can be both things at once.

TIM: Well that was the prompt for the whole piece, in a way, the narrative for the whole piece, was the notion of child abuse being an act of watching. You know? You can be prosecuted and imprisoned for watching. And that’s very exciting for me, you know, I’d kind of like to extend those thoughts of responsibility out into other things as well. And I’m intrigued in this play that we spend more time, you know, discussing a beheading than we do a child being abused — but [the beheading is] OK, that’s all right, society deems it to be OK to download images of that stuff, of that nature, to make projects of images of that nature. But images of the other nature, the child abuse nature, that’s an illegal act, an illegal act that is as good as doing it…

ANDY: And the legal language around [child pornography] is always a conviction for making images. That’s the word that is used.

CG: Yeah.

ANDY: Making images.

TIM: So, placing that side by side with where we are as a theatre audience, you know…? And then placing that side by side by side with the notion of simulation, of realism, of wanting to make the act look as real as possible — and where the hell are we now in respect of that? You know? Because we are still there. I don’t think this is an outdated show, you know, as an actor.

CG: No, no, no.

TIM: We are still… You look at work and there is still that drive to make the work look real. And that worries me as an artist. As an actor, when I was working as an actor, I was subject to that pressure. I had that ‘Karen’ experience of being sent out to interview someone and come back and felt profoundly uncomfortable about it. ...They’re rehearsing The Priory here, and we know a young actor who’s in the show, who as research for that play has got a Grinder account and is doing Facebook sex, because his character is someone who’s addicted to those kind of activities. And they’ve given him a different name, they’ve given him a SIM card for a phone that he can’t be traced on. So he’s being pushed into those activities, in an attempt to make his character authentic, his performance more authentic.

ANDY: An attempt to understand.

TIM: And I’m kind of going… Alarm bells ring when I hear those sort of things. Because where are we? Are we so reduced in our theatre-making that we can’t trust an audience without having to make it look like it really is. I think I’m in a group of people round this table who have moved a little bit away from that.

ANDY: Yep.

TIM: It’s very important, and very disturbing to me that that’s happening. We had an assistant director come and sit in on our week in May, and her job here has been to find people. To find, you know, prostitutes or drug addicts. To get them to come in to meet the company, to talk to the actors. …It’s a really difficult one, there are no answers to it, but I would like to challenge those things. And it’s odd because Jeremy Herrin is directing The Priory and he’s seen this show, and this show seems to be pretty unequivocal in its condemnation of those practices. Those practices are still carrying on. 

ANDY: But the attempt is not to stop those practices, is it? …Well, yeah, I dunno.

TIM: No… Well, I don’t know. With every piece of work, there is…

ANDY: There is an attempt…

TIM: There is the thesis of the theme, there is the thesis of the form.

CG: Absolutely, yeah.

TIM: And the thesis of the form is equally powerful to the thesis of the content, obviously. …[But] we’ll always have those people who’ll go, I never saw that first show, I wish I’d seen that first show, it sounded really good, it sounds great that show…

ANDY: …I’d rather have seen that show…

TIM: Yeah, maybe!

CG: But that’s fascinating because I wonder where that experience for them stops, in terms of how far through they’re able to follow the notion of what you’re talking about having been real, and kind of not run into a question about that.

TIM: Yeah. No, it’s a danger. It’s a worry in a way. And it’s a pleasure that the ambiguity exists. But, yeah, you have to not worry about that. When those things happen, that’s fine.

CG: I mean, you can’t shape that.

TIM: No. Predominantly, I will do a little straw test at the end of many shows, if I have friends who’ve seen it, I’ll say, OK, did I do it or did I watch it?

CG: Right.

TIM: And some nights, everyone round the table will go, You did it. You did it to Finn, to Esther’s child. Some nights they go, Well, no, no, you watched it, you were watching it on the computer. And some nights it’s fifty-fifty. And that’s a very exciting result for me. You know? Because it’s allowing you to go where the suggestions take you, and for those people who saw the other show as a real thing —

ANDY: They’re also taken somewhere, yeah.

TIM: That’s good, because the play does suggest it’s a real thing, in as much as it suggests that I’m in a floatation tank and that’s a real thing, or I’m dead and that’s a real thing, you know.

CG: [laughs] Wow. That’s tricky.

TIM: Blimey, yeah, it is. Good. I mean, it’s lovely on one level that it’s so complex, and it’s also lovely on one level that it’s so simple. And that’s the goal always, I think. The same goal with England, the same goal with An Oak Tree, same goal with My Arm as well. There’s a narrative that is honoured, that’s probably the most important thing. And then we reduce, I reduce anything that is not supportive of the narrative, really.

CG: And that comes through very clearly, particularly on a second viewing last night. It came through very clearly that there’s really nothing there that isn’t at work.

TIM: Yeah, yeah.

CG: You know, there’s no decoration there, it’s all at work.

TIM: Because a decoration is an indulgence. To a degree it’s an indulgence of the artist’s art, you know, the artist’s craft — let’s use that word, let’s distinguish the craft from the art. And so rather like, you know, not being able to look at the audience in the eyes at the end of that horrible speech at the end, that’s an indulgence of the actor’s craft, because that’s me going, I’m emotionally implicated now. And as an actor I should be less emotionally implicated than you as an audience. Do you know what I mean? And as soon as I start getting caught up in all that stuff, in all that ‘acting’ stuff, then I think it diminishes the agency of the audience. Because they feel like, Oh, well, someone’s dealing with this. And they don’t need me to deal with it for them. And you can see that in every theatre up and down the country: Oh, the actors are going to deal with this for me. ...So our job — and in England as well — is not to create a performance that is in some way creating a shield or, you know, a defence to the material.

Hannah Ringham and Tim Crouch in England
Photo: Karl James

CG: So, we talked a little bit before I started taping about the sort of connections of, really, all of the pieces at one point or another to the world of visual art, and I’m interested in whether that’s about accessing a model that’s about being able to open those spaces up for contemplation that then doesn’t in an hour and a half have to have closed them down again.

TIM: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely where it comes from. I was in New York in January 2008 and saw an exhibition of work at the New Museum on the Bowery by an artist called Thomas Hirschhorn.

CG: Oh yeah.

TIM: That was the most… That’s where I saw a photograph of someone whose head had been run over by a tank. And it looked like someone had stepped on a carton of drink. And it was a huge montage, there were huge montages of the most grotesque imagery. And it had a profound effect, and not a healthy effect necessarily. There was a notion of titillation going on, I felt, you know, of pornographic violence going on. I didn’t see where the serious idea was. Do you know what I mean? Yeah, you can say this piece is serious because it concerns death. And that’s not the sine qua non of a serious piece, you know? Do you know what I mean? There are other ways around it. ...But the visual art thing, yes, the open-ended nature of that is a very important one for me. And you have it here, where we don’t come back on and give you a bow.

CG: Sure. Absolutely. Yeah.

TIM: I’ve never for a second… I had a big discussion with a friend of mine, who said: You have to come back. You have to honour the contract you’ve established, so we can thank you and release you.

CG: But that’s not the contract you’ve established!

TIM: No, no, it isn’t like that at all. Which is lovely, you know?

CG: But in a way that’s interesting. You were talking about the process that the actors went through in working with you early on, and I’m sure this includes both of you as well, that in arriving at their approaches and the places where they were able to come into the relationship that felt best for them with the piece, that a lot of that feels like it’s about letting go of things —

ANDY: Yeah.

CG: Rather than about finding things. It’s about letting go of the stuff that you came in with that actually you don’t need any more.

TIM: Yeah.

CG: And I kind of wonder whether, again, there’s something that particularly The Author I think is guiding us through in terms of asking us to let go of stuff that we brought in.

TIM: As an audience? Yes. And as an actor, on a much more discussed level, in rehearsal, about letting things go. Around ideas of character and identification of otherness. There’s no need, you know? Adrian has been interesting. Lovely, you know. I wrote that part for Adrian Howells. [I’d say to him:] Just, listen — It’s you! It’s OK, it’s just you! And then the piece will transform you without you having to transform you. It’ll just work like that, and we will be responsible for that transformation, not you. Don’t worry. Relax. Let it go. Let’s have a chat and a gossip before the show, let’s not give it a moment’s thought, you know? Let’s sit ourselves down. Oh look, the usher has taken her seat, his seat, the play has begun. [laughs] And I love the way the play begins, because he’s different every time, but he reaches out to people, starts to connect to people, then eventually the audience settle down, and this one voice that has been a little bit higher suddenly comes into focus. And there’s no other special aesthetic moment, you know, there’s no other transformatory moment than that. Just the voice becomes a little louder, and we then as an audience give that voice an authority now, an art authority.

CG: I really like that thing that you do, and I think you say it in An Oak Tree as well, to the person you’re working with. You say, “Don’t worry, I’ll do all the work.” Which kind of reminds me of why I always try to insist on using the word actor rather than performer, because I think for me the job of acting is about acting on behalf of others.

ANDY: To act, yeah.

CG: In relation to this idea of agency that you’re talking about. I think the most radical thing in The Author for me is the kind of irresistible, solicitous care that it takes of an audience, a kind of care that won’t be refused.

TIM: Yeah.

ANDY: Won’t be refused by us, or by — ?

CG: …As an audience I don’t think we know how to refuse the care that you’re taking of us, and it becomes a little bit embarrassing, to be cared for in that way…

TIM: Yes! OK, good. Well, how great! Yes.

CG: I suppose what I’m saying is, I really love that what feels like an important part of that journey is that the kind of surface level questions of, “Are you OK?”, “Can you see?”, “Do I carry on?”, all of that kind of care, start to sound hollow…

TIM: Oh, yeah.

CG: But actually, underneath that is a very real care that’s coming through as a part of that movement.

TIM: It doesn’t always… You know, it is different for different people. And we’ve talked about this, about this play, about where you are in your emotional health, is the phrase, and how healthy you are. We are acknowledging that in an audience of 95, there will be some people in a vulnerable place, there’ll be people who’ve had experience of the themes of the piece, there’ll be people who’ve had no experience at all, who are not vulnerable at all, who get annoyed by being asked if they’re OK because of course they’re fucking OK. We’ve had shows where people have come out and gone, Yeah, loved it. You know, no emotional damage committed at all.

ANDY: Might also just be to do with where you are in your day, or where you are in the last half an hour of your life, you know, the stubbed toe or… I’ve had a rubbish day at work, I’ve had a brilliant day at work… And I think allowing that into the theatre… And I think also in terms of performers, there are shifts which are to do with who is in [the audience], who do you know, who do you not know, where you are, have you had a good day, have you done two shows today, have you had a weekend off…, you know. And those are also our human meetings. Yeah, and of course if you only see the show once, then you maybe don’t experience that consciously. But certainly for me it’s been very interesting to see that happening, and to understand that happening, and to allow — well, it’s interesting because for me, we had the post-show discussion the other night, there was a big conversation about… A member of the public who came to see it, somebody that we know came to see it, and had quite a very strange reaction to it, and [then] came to see it again and felt much more… ‘held’ was the word that he used. Felt more held. The contributing factors to that are many, but I think one of the contributing factors to that is that we had begun to understand — or, that particular evening, you [the four actors] ‘held’ well.

TIM: Yeah.

ANDY: That’s a human thing, it’s not a repeatable action. It’s in an immediate moment and in an activity that’s taking place between a group of people.

CG: And that of course is where the really consequential responsiveness is.

TIM: Yeah.

ANDY: Absolutely.

CG: It’s not in superficially being able to, or making space to, improvise a smart response to something. It’s about that micro-level.

TIM: But that’s why it’s different every night, the show. We always give a little critique of the audience. Particularly in England. You know, in England we are right in [there with] you, and what you give to us will determine what we give to you. End of story, in a way. And that’s great. That’s kind of how it should be, isn’t it? But often the audience don’t feel that they have an agency in that respect. They have no responsibility to us, or to the event that is being generated. And they do! They have a huge responsibility to the event that is being generated. I think we’re trying to make work that acknowledges that their responsibility is a really important one.

CG: There’s a really fascinating phrase that you use, I’m not sure that I can exactly remember it, but in the introduction to the published version of My Arm

TIM: Long time ago…!

CG: You look very alarmed! …Yeah, you tell that little anecdote about someone who was slightly sort of miffed that you hadn’t taken enough care of them…

TIM: Yes.

CG: …and you use this really interesting phrase about needing to leave the audience alone sometimes.

ANDY: Yes.

TIM: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right.

CG: Leaving the audience by itself.

TIM: We do. I mean, in England there are huge spaces. In My Arm there’s The Great Silence of 1973, that can be five minutes long. And here we are doing that, and it’s very interesting for us, because we are watching. We see the audience, we see that process. And sometimes we see people angry, sometimes we see people asleep, sometimes we see people being very uncomfortable, and... Because there is a desire from those people for us to look after them. And that’s not our game. And it’s kind of hard. You know? It’s going against a sort of pattern that we’ve all, as the four actors, [established, which] is to do what people want us to do. Like the woman who asked a question of ‘Karen’ last night. You know, even though it was clear, if you think about it, what a terrible thing — but also, we are programmed to do what we think the space requires of us. And the space requires of us to ask a question of this woman now so let me rack my brains and think of a question... Oh fuck, I’ve just committed an act of abuse. [laughs] Do you know what I mean? Oh, it’s happened like that. That’s how quickly and easily it can happen.

CG: And I think this is a brilliant example of the way in which taking care of the audience might sometimes feel, in the moment of it, to them, like a kind of…

TIM: Neglect.

CG: A neglect or an aggression or a kind of violence. But actually it will also then quite quickly reveal itself as a kind of gift. Or a sort of kindness.

TIM: Yeah. Should you choose to take it.

ANDY: Yeah yeah yeah.

TIM: And some people will not take it, and go. Fantastic! The grandees of the Royal Court, you see them occasionally in the theatre upstairs, their camel coats and their chequered shirts — they’re Chelsea types, and they’re just there with a look of absolute bemusement. Because they haven’t let go. They haven’t started to listen. ...Yeah, it’s interesting about the reviews that we’ve had. I thought that we’d have some really bad reviews for this show, because it is a show that requires you to be present, and traditionally reviewers hover above the experience, and if you hover above this experience — as it should be with any play — you will get a lesser experience.

ANDY: But I think also what the play allows — and I think this relates to what you talk about, about what you bring — there was a discussion around the press night and how we wanted to deal with the press. Did we want to reserve them particular seats? Did we want them sitting in particular places? And I said in the discussion with the marketing department, we have to just let the press be the press. We don’t have to pretend that the press are anyone else. We don’t have to want to create or to try to manufacture a situation where they are allowed to do that, to float above…

TIM: …to take a different position.

ANDY: So, we must just let them walk into the theatre and sit where they want to sit and be what they want to be. And what they happen to be are people who are reviewing the show. In the same way that somebody else might be a person who is a student of theatre coming to see the show because their tutor has told them to; or a Friend of the Royal Court who comes to see everything in the Upstairs. You know, everybody comes to the theatre with their own thing. I thought that was very interesting that there was a question around: do we pretend, do we purely imagine what the press will do? No, they just come and they sit down and they’ll be who they are. 

TIM: But the structures of theatre are not set out for that. Because usually in the Court here there are designated spaces for press, and certain reviewers like to sit in certain places. And I love, when we’re sitting in there, the audience are coming in and you watch them go, Well, how, where do I locate myself here? My God! What —? And people will often avoid the front row because they think that’s where the action’s going to be!

CG: I know, I know. I was really amused at myself yesterday because I customarily like to sit in the front couple of rows, and both times I’ve seen it I’ve done that, and I know that nothing’s happening in front of me! But there’s still this kind of feeling of, yeah, I’m closer to the action…

TIM: [laughs] Well that’s lovely because…

CG: But that changes the way that I sit, the way that I listen… 

ANDY: Yeah yeah yeah.

CG: And it occurs to me that, I mean you use the word ‘presence’ — the piece requiring a presence of the audience. And I think another way of talking about that is about a kind of fidelity of attentiveness, and how many different ways there are of paying attention to a piece.

TIM: Yes.

CG: It was really interesting comparing last night, which felt very intense to me — partly because I was with Jonny, who was having a very intense series of reactions to it — as opposed to what happened to me at the dress rehearsal, where the person who I came with left after ten minutes, and I spent the rest of the time watching industry people, people from BAC or whatever, who were — [laughs] — you know, very engaged, but paying attention in a way that was about trying to read the game of the piece.

TIM: Yes. Yes, yes.

CG: You could kind of tell that what they were doing was finding a pleasure in figuring out how the piece was doing what it was doing. And that felt very different from, you know, the people I was sort of sitting opposite last night, who were distressed by quite a lot of the stuff that was happening and were talking about leaving but then didn’t. So, again, you know, it seems to me, it’s about the way that the piece tells you that it’s holding open a space for you, to pay attention in whatever way you can or you will, depending on what you’re bringing in with you. But it does require your attention, and it can’t do anything —

TIM: Without it.

CG: — without it. And that to me is so radical, and it’s so much more interesting than almost all of the discourse around interactivity at the moment…

ANDY: Right.

CG: I think we really devalue attentiveness —

TIM: Yes. Yes.

CG: — as a partcipatory act.

TIM: Yes, good.

ANDY: Really good! 

CG: We see it too much as a passive, as a receptive kind of act. But it is a kind of participation. And I think this piece perhaps above all is powered by that. It’s not just indicating it…

TIM: Well, yeah, I would say that England is, similarly —the second act of England, where you become personified as a character, you become embodied as an audience as a character. Where you are addressed individually. You know, Hannah [Ringham] and I look at individual people. I might look at eight people in the whole duration of act two. Hannah might be talking to somebody completely across from me — that’s the same character. And again, with England, we find that, you know, if people aren’t with us there, they won’t have a fucking clue, in a way. Or they won’t feel as much as I think they are able to feel in that relationship, of their own importance — on one level, in just the fiction of the narrative. You know, you are here. We are in the same space. You are acting with me. You are saying things to us; we are responding to the things you are saying.

ANDY: And everything that has gone before that, everything that happens in the first half, leads you to be able to be attentive, or, I hope, helps you to be attentive in that moment. I think there are always, in every one of the plays that we’ve worked on, zones at the beginning —that lead you in to how to be with it, and how to read it, and ask you… Of course, there isn’t a way that you can make anyone be attentive, but it asks you to be attentive, and if you are attentive then you will come with us. There’s a capacity for that to happen.

TIM: In a strange way, during the Taxi music that we play at the end of Adrian’s [first speech], when they come back from that, the quality of attention is extraordinary. It’s partly because we’ve let them be in themselves again, and folding in on themselves. And I love that. You know, some people sit the whole time, the whole five and a half minutes, going… Er… — What?! And then you see them slowly melt, and maybe have a chat with the person sitting [next to them], maybe they’ve come on their own, and they find themselves becoming friends — becoming friends! And then when we’ve allowed that, and the play, the art, has allowed that, has licensed that, fucking hell!, if the play can license that, then it feels like we can also license anything, in a way. So when we come out of that music and everyone settles down and I start to describe this journey, the character’s journey, it’s like you could hear a pin drop at times… And I think that’s partly because we’ve let them go. We’ve let them go. We’re not going to artificially hold you.

ANDY: No. And that’s begun to happen even earlier now. [Adrian says:] “What are we supposed to do, I wonder?” Moments where the air just gets kind of sucked out of the room, and everything calms, and everybody goes, Right then, so… and becomes more attentive, and then Adrian goes, “Well, what are we supposed to do?” So those things happen with everyone. All of the characters bring themselves to that place where there is an attentiveness encouraged. Encouraged attentiveness — yeah and of course there is a choice to be attentive or not attentive, but… And I think that’s great to hear. Because with the conversations around interactivity that are happening, which I now, having lived abroad for three years, have more of a distance on — there aren’t those conversations happening in the place where I live — I kind of sometimes get frustrated. I get frustrated about the — how to say this? About the idea that I can’t be attentive. I have to go and see one of those shows because I’m not able to be attentive. Do you understand what I mean?

CG: Yeah yeah.

ANDY: I’m not able to be attentive. And then when I have experienced that thing, I kind of… Yeah — it’s what I bring! — what I bring to those shows is often that kind of, Woah, I’m having trouble with this because I want to be met but I don’t feel that I’m being met at all, and I don’t feel that I’m allowed to be attentive. Everything’s just flying in my face, or is happening all around me, or… You know, attentiveness: what does attentiveness require? It requires trust, and it requires belief, and it requires an engagement. And an idea that as a maker, that can happen. People will come in and they will [pay attention]. It’s about not underestimating an audience.

CG: Mm, absolutely.

ANDY: That’s what it’s about. It’s about thinking, I know people can do this. It’s not hard! Yeah.

Tim Crouch and Vic Llewellyn in The Author
photo: Stephen Cummiskey

CG: Yeah. Can I ask a little bit about process? I was really interested in the comment that you [Tim] left on Andrew [Haydon]’s blog —

TIM: Oh yes.

ANDY: That was very nice.

CG: I mean, very much wanting to foreground the collaborative nature of what you do, rather than it being a single-authored way of working. I suppose I’m interested in teasing out the ethical dimensions of that, but I wonder if we can do that just by talking a little bit about how the process actually works, and at what point people come in to it. I mean I think I remember reading, from the introduction maybe, that you were talking to Andy and Karl about this piece before it was a script, for example.

TIM: Yes, yes.

CG: Is there a script when the rehearsal process begins?

TIM: Yeah, oh, my goodness. OK. So, very simple… A commission from the Royal Court in September 2007. After having seen England, the Royal Court go, Yes, write something then if you want. Ruth Little, a wonderful wonderful woman, saying: Do whatever you want. Whatever you want. Already I have in my mind an idea of a piece that takes place inside its audience, you know, visually, symbolically, physically. And so I go, Great. I start to write some notes. You know, the idea of commissioning, I always talk about this: I need to commission myself. You know, who gives a shit about who’s commissioning who? It’s neither here nor there. It’s about whether you can find your own commission, and if you can’t then you might as well not bother, really. ...So, had some ideas, had some ideas… Well I think I had already written two women talking about one of them having watched a beheading. And I’d written the final speech, in a way. I’d written a dinner party speech which turns into an act of unbearable behaviour. Just as an exercise in naming something, you know. And also because I had this notion of that action, that act of seeing being legally deemed an act of doing. ...Then we met in December 2007. We had a couple of days, where I had some bits of paper. I remember Andy or Karl going, Bloody hell, mate, be careful when you’re writing this on the train, because, um, you don’t want anyone… Just be careful! Just be careful!

ANDY: Don’t leave your laptop on the train!

TIM: I was going OK, OK! We just talked about ideas. Two days, me Karl and Andy, in the room up here, talking about ideas. Beautiful. Beautiful ideas. Thinking about where we’d been, and thinking about where we wanted to go. Me talking about the notion of the form of the structure, the architectural structure. And then kept writing. Then Andy and I met in Glasgow at the beginning of April, we sat and… I’d already sent you something? What had I sent you then?

ANDY: Yeah, it was an incomplete script that wasn’t finished, it was a draft, but there were a lot of notes at the end about how it was without ending. The speech was there. But there was a lot of notes at the end about ideas of ending. And also I think we worked more over those couple of days on the stuff inside. We talked about processes, and the stuff inside, the potential of things inside the story. Yeah, and we did An Oak Tree while we were there, and we had a nice time, just talking.

TIM: We had a lovely time chatting. And I had committed myself to finish a draft by the end of April, because I was going to Singapore and going off touring.

ANDY: That’s right. That’s right.

TIM: So at the end of April I did. I sent it to you [Andy], to Karl, and to people here, Ruth Little... And then went to Singapore, and got a text a few days later from Ruth saying, It’s great. I was like, Oooh, yippee. Hooray. Lovely. She wrote a fantastic text. You were there in Singapore.

ANDY: We were in Singapore together, yeah. It was great.

TIM: And then, how has it changed since then? …Yes, there was another character in that draft. There was an elderly woman at the end of the play, who, after the horrendousness of the speech, got up and said “I’d like to say something.” She talked about the death of her husband. She talked about a copy of the Reader’s Digest she’d read, where she’d heard about forms of storytelling…

ANDY: That the ancient Greeks used to stand behind the audience and tell the story.

TIM: The audience would face an empty space or a wall and they would stand… it’s Irish, maybe? I don’t know.

ANDY: She talked about hope.

TIM: Yeah, hope was her big word.

ANDY: Something that gave her hope. And then she said, “Pleased to meet you, Adrian. I’m going to go because I’ve got —“, um…

TIM: “Got to get the 10.19 from Victoria.”

ANDY: “I’m going to go, but pleased to meet you.” Which is interesting, that that line remains.

TIM: And then she also said, “I saw The 39 Steps last week, I thought it was really good.”

ANDY: And Adrian says, “I saw that, you’ll love it.” Oh, no, she said, “I’m going to see it…”

TIM: “…next week,” and Adrian says, “I’ve seen that, you’ll love that.”

ANDY: [laughs] So she was there, and she was… kind of in discussion I think she became… There is a thing that we’ve talked a lot about in this process, about maybe we’re just talking about an idea rather than something that we want to physically do. And so let’s look at what’s contained in the idea, and what might be interesting, and what we want to take from it. And I think she was an idea, and she was great, and then there was all sorts of practical things about…

TIM: Mmm, I couldn’t stomach giving an experience to an actress who had to sit through an hour and ten minutes and then have a [speech]… That’s an abuse, for me. You know, let’s all be in the play together!

ANDY: So slowly she…

TIM: Her job became absorbed into Adrian. So then we had a week last December, 2008. A week: you, me and Karl. And I got The Emancipated Spectator, we read some of that, you know… But we just talked about it. We discovered some vocabulary about it. You came up with this fantastic phrase, the ‘untethering’ of an audience — we unthether the audience and then…

ANDY: We re-tether them somewhere a bit different.

TIM: We re-tether them somewhere else. We look after them. Tethering is a very beautiful, caring word, it’s a great word. And that was in December. We also… By that time, I’d written for Adrian and Vic, so by that time I’d spoken to Adrian and he was up for it.

ANDY: I’d met Vic.

TIM: You’d met Vic. And we all went Yes to Vic. And then we also, whilst I was away for six weeks, January February, Karl and Andy, mostly Karl, organized a casting session for Esther, we got Esther. And then we had a week in May… But again, very little has changed from then to now in terms of the text.

ANDY: But that’s an accurate decsription of the process. Tim had an idea, we talked, he wrote; we met and talked, he wrote; we met and talked, he wrote. And that was kind of… We then gathered people, and talked more with them. As he mentioned before, you know, the introduction of the audience into that cast, so to speak, you know, they’re the kind of final group of people who get invited into that for an hour and twenty minutes. But that’s what it’s felt like, it’s about slowly gathering and involving. It’s not been about Tim going, Here’s my thing, and me and Karl going, OK we’ll help you do that thing and then we’ll gather these people and we’ll do that [gestures] — for the purposes of the recording, a hierarchical pyramid form [laughs]. It’s not about that at all. But there is a definite leadership, in terms of, it’s writer-led — which I think is a really great thing. And also it’s… Somebody came to see it the other night and said to me afterwards that, You’ve really kind of developed and devised those lines with people, haven’t you?, you’ve really kind of found out how to make them sound really natural. And how we’ve done that is through work, through hard work with a script, and we haven’t tried to alter or change the properties of the text. And somebody else said something very similar, they said they’re always amazed when they see Tim’s shows that he must have been able to get the text to the publisher three weeks or four weeks before it opens, because it just sounds like it’s continued to be devised…

TIM: Like it’s just been made.

ANDY: And so there is a territory that I think we occupy, a lot to do with where we’ve come from in terms of our work as makers, which is an interesting thing for me, because there is a quality that sometimes people perceive as being something that has been very collaborative in its creation. And I mean it has been absolutely collaborative in its creation.

TIM: Yep!

ANDY: But it so happens that it is writer led, that it is a written play, as we talked about before, the structure and performance of a play. They are plays, they do have a single writer. And our job in that process is to support, to inquire, to play…

TIM: Interrogate, is a good word. To interrogate. Yes.

ANDY: Is a great word. …To push.

TIM: But then a lot of the rehearsal has been just conversation.


TIM: Just conversation. We haven’t done improvisational exercises or physical warm-ups.

CHRIS: No, sure.

ANDY: We’re not visionary. I said to someone the other day, I don’t think we’re visionary directors. They seemed a bit offended by that, but what I meant was that we don’t come in and say, Yes, I’ve read the play and it needs to be set in the 1940s. Or it needs to be… You know, we don’t impose a vision on the work. The vision is created together, if there is a vision, and we help that, I hope. I think that that’s what we do. We help Tim. Karl often just says it like that. “I help Tim put on his plays.” That’s what we do.

TIM: [laughs]

ANDY: But that’s the job of a director, in a sense, in this sense. And that’s really good. There was also another comment that somebody made about England once where they said — we were in Oslo, do you remember? — they didn’t even realise that you had a director.

TIM: I know, well, that’s a worry isn’t it? In a way. For me it’s a worry. That’s why I wrote that thing on Andrew’s blog. It’s kind of like…

ANDY: It’s a worry, but it’s also, taken one way, it’s a huge compliment. In that the thing is there, and there isn’t a kind of consciousness perhaps of decision, or direction in that sense. So, yeah, it was lovely what you wrote on Andrew’s blog, in relation to, yeah, that we are there before the thing is… well, not before, but we are there in the very very early stages.

TIM: Same process in England, same process with An Oak Tree. You know, [with] England, “I’ve got these ideas…”, “…Right”… We had a very emotional time in a pub in Barnes —

ANDY: [laughs] We did!

TIM: — talking about ideas of art, because Andy’s partner had been going through a very difficult time. 

ANDY: And about religion! My father is a priest. [laughs]

TIM: And, yeah, we got very engaged in those things. And I went off and wrote, you know. And things slowly find their logic.

ANDY: And still continue to find their logic. You know, it’s great to sit and have conversations like this, because the vocabulary around it is very difficult to find sometimes, or you begin to then go, Right, OK, here we are on the last day of the show… Ah, I’m starting to begin to think how I can talk about it and what I understand of it. And that’s not a sad thing, that’s a great thing. But what Andrew wrote about the ongoing conversation is really important to me, because that feels for me like what it is. From there, from My Arm, to this, to us sitting talking, to tonight and the performance that happens tonight, and the collaboration with each other and in this instance with other people… Here in the building, as well, that was an odd thing for me, walking into a… an institution, shall we call it? And being in a theatre and having questions asked of me as a director and not knowing the answer to those things. Into auditioning a person, where I’d never done auditions before…

TIM: Neither had I. Karl had, because he comes from a background… And, yeah, that was interesting, in May, the May week, you had production meetings — we had a bit of a wobble then! Because I was an actor…

CG: Yeah.

TIM: And I walked through by the side and I watched a group of people talking about the show, the technical stuff, Karl and Andy, and for the first time ever I wasn’t in [the meeting]. I wasn’t in it!

ANDY: Yeah. There was a day where, yeah, you went off for lunch or something, and came back and said, Where were you? And I had had meetings all lunchtime with people who had said, Oh, I need to talk to you about this… So for me, there’s two choices that you can take there — or there’s probably many, but there was two choices that I found the most clear, was that I could pretend that I knew what I was doing, or I could just say, I don’t know. And I would always take that option. And I would always go, Well, let’s talk about it then. And so that filtered… Very quickly I think I came to that conclusion about being in a building such as this, which is also a symbolic building as well as an actual building. And then once you start to find the actual building rather than the thing that you presume, or the symbolic thing, then you actually just go, Yeah, well it’s just a load of people who are there to help and work on the play. And I hope that we’ve brought them in too. And I know from the conversations that I’ve had with everybody that it feels like we have, and that’s great. That doesn’t always happen, I don’t think. Both here and in other places.

TIM: But we have worked so hard… So, Andy, Karl and I met in Oslo for two days in June this year where all we talked about was how we bring ourselves into the building. What we did, we invited Dominic [Cooke, artistic director] and the Executive Director to supper. We made some decisions which I don’t think anybody else has ever done, in a way. You know, it’s like, well, we’re coming in, we’re guests at this place, let’s be human about this, let’s be generous about this, let’s enjoy this, let’s move things on a little bit in terms of human interaction, in the process of making theatre. And it had to be because of the nature of the play, you know. You can’t…

ANDY: I mean we talked about everything, from when you [as an audience] walk in and get your ticket right up to the moment that you might come down here and have a drink. So it’s important to consider all aspects and everyone involved in that, because of the sense of togetherness. And that’s one of the… It’s great to hear you talk about that kind of taking care and us discussing that idea of taking care, and us being together. Because that’s one of the reasons that I got into making theatre, you know, that was a big thing for me, that was a big discovery about somewhere where you could be… Yeah, community is a word we’ve used a lot.

TIM: Yeah.

ANDY: Togetherness is a word we’ve used a lot. To be with people in that way, and to work together, to work towards something together, it’s been really important to find that. But also to manage that, to work with that. And I know that I’ve been in experiences that I’m involved with where I haven’t felt that. And I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t feel that. And I go, Well, we have to really work hard at it.

CG: Well, that’s the thing, yeah, it doesn’t happen automatically, does it?

TIM: No. No!

CG: It’s part of the — again, it’s part of the craft, I think. But it’s also part of the, if I may say so, the intelligence of the work, is that it realises its porousness, and its boundarilessness.

TIM: Right. Yeah. Lovely.

ANDY: Great.

CG: And that if you’re going to make a piece — I mean, you’ve referenced this a number of times — if you’re going to make a piece that’s asking questions about abuse, about kind of ethical questions, about agency, about power, then…

TIM: You have to take it really deeply into yourself.

CG: Absolutely, it has to go all the way through the process, it has to go all the way through the culture that you create around the piece. And that’s what I…

TIM: I’ve been profoundly abused as an actor in processes of theatre. You know, this liberal art form! …has fucked me up the arse a few times, you know? And it’s rotten. To think that we can write a liberal play or present a liberal play or a play that’s ethically questioning the right things but actually the process of its making was tyrannical!

ANDY: And we talked a lot about, you know, about being uncertain, and how it’s OK to be uncertain. We talked a lot about thinking twice, you know. About thinking twice about going to see the theatre, going to participate in the theatre. But also, by extension, it kind of just makes me think: I went to do another job in between the beginning of the run and now [coming] back here to see the end of the run, and I really started to think twice about making theatre, because of all of the things that were in place that I couldn’t or I didn’t have time to or maybe even didn’t have the energy to work on. You know, I was back in another theatre, all of those structures were way beyond my scope, and the tech rehearsal was a nightmare because you always come in on the last day and you look at what’s there and you go, We’ll do this this this and this… That’s something we’ve really tried to not do. Matt Drury who designed the lighting [for The Author] was with us from very early on, in discussions, in ideas, in thoughts. With us just going, What do we do here? He came up with a beautiful thing where he said, You know, there’s been a lot of things that I’ve had to get over with this piece. One of them was, you know, often when you go in to light a show, you know what the costumes are like, and you know what the colours are… And every night [with this show] there are a hundred different costumes, and how do I do that then? Well, I get over the fact that I have to do it, and then I do it. And that’s very exciting to me, to create a circumstance where we can all discuss that stuff, and we can be with that stuff together.

The Author

1 comment:

Andrew Utter said...

Fascinating piece, thank you.

From your description of the writing, it sounds as if it has some affinities with Wallace Shawn's work. Shawn's work always seems to wrestle with the fact that engaging with others, even in conversation, requires a kind of leap of faith as the trustworthiness of the those you engage with, but by virtue of taking that leap of faith, you leave yourself open to being (insidiously) implicated in aspects of your interlocutor that weren't visible to begin with (or you never would have made the leap to begin with). Conversation, engagement, always entails vulnerability, but precisely because of that vulnerability, it's possible to be taken advantage of, exploited. I think the German writer Thomas Bernhard is very interested in this as well.