Thursday, 30 July 2015

Oaken Dramaturgy: Tim Crouch

by Tim Crouch

10TH Anniversary Revival - Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Aug 4 – 16  

Performed by Tim Crouch & guest
Co-directed by Karl James & Andy Smith

Man changes tree into daughter.

Two men meet three months after the death of a girl. One is the father of that girl. The other is a stage hypnotist and the person responsible for her death; he was driving the car she stepped out in front of.

In the three months since the accident, the Hypnotist has lost his ability to hypnotise anyone. His act is now a disaster.

In the three months since the accident, the Father has transformed a tree next to where she died into his daughter. She is more physically present in the form of that tree than she ever was when she was alive. It’s like he’s in a play where nothing seems like what it is anymore. It’s like he’s in a play and he doesn’t know the lines. His life is now a disaster.

These two men meet when the Father volunteer’s for the Hypnotist’s act. This is the beginning of An Oak Tree .

The Fringe
What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?

Tim Crouch: For me, there is little distinction between script and production. The text to An Oak Tree is only a blueprint for its production. Written into my plays are, sort of, how i think they should be performed. That’s not to say that other people can’t perform them differently if they want.

The inspiration is a work of art called An Oak Tree by Michael Craig-Martin made in 1973. A glass of water transformed into an oak tree through a provocatively simple process of nomination. I say this thing is something else and, by saying it, it becomes that something else. 

This artwork triggered further ideas about hypnosis and the power of the subconscious to accommodate such a transformation. I then spent a long time developing a story that could contain all these ideas. With the story in place I then explored the best form by which the story would be told - a form that would also respond to the ideas behind the story. Hence the device of the ‘second actor’ - an actor who performs the show with me without knowing the show.

Where does your piece at the fringe fit with your usual work?
An Oak Tree opened at the fringe ten years ago. So the fit is resoundingly strong this year. It’s going home to where it started. I’ve taken almost all of my work to Edinburgh over the last 12 years. The fringe gave my work its first platform. I owe it. I’d like to think that the device of the second actor has something of the spirit of the fringe about it - a freedom and an experimentation. But then sometimes I think that’s not true as I’m not a comedian.

What does The Traverse mean for you as a venue for your work?
The Traverse has been the spiritual home of my work. If I were to say I was associated to any one theatre in the world it would be the Traverse. I opened my first play, My Arm, there in 2003. I was an unknown - but I had written something that had caught people’s interest. The Traverse invited me up there and it was the start of my writing career.

It is a venue for new writing. And it has helped me understand my self as a ‘new writer’.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
I like your distinction between thought and feeling. In the published edition of the play I quote Arthur Koestler: “The distinction between fact and fiction is a late acquisition of rational thought – unknown to the unconscious, and largely ignored by the emotions.”

This points at where I hope my work resides in an audience - as much in their hearts as in their heads. With the heart engaged it’s much easier to take the head on a ride. In An Oak Tree, there is an emotional core to the play that can take an audience by surprise. I hope also that they will see a story told in a way in which they didn’t realise a story could be told. 

There is a newness to the request made both to the audience and to the second actor in the play. The second actor is like the audience’s avatar - they discover the play at the same time as the audience. This is, I hope, an empowering experience for the audience.

Above all, I hope they will see a good story well told.

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
Your definition as 'decisions that define and shape performance' makes it sound like dramaturgy is integral to my work, although the word itself rarely appears in my process. 

I don’t write in a bubble of subconsciousness. I’m not one of those writers who claim not to know what they hope their work means - although i would hope that every audience member would also take their own personal meaning from it. I also not one of those writer who write without giving a thought to how their writing will be staged. I write in response to an idea of ‘performance’ - so dramaturgical concerns are uppermost in my mind. I write with an idea of what the physical stage might mean - in addition to the words. I write with, perhaps, a stronger idea of form than some writers - an idea that form is also content. 

Structuring becomes important not just to the story but how the
story is told. I’m always pushing myself to consider formal as well as narrative possibilities. Is this dramaturgy?

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
I sometimes think I see myself in opposition to a tradition rather than inspired by one. I write in response to the frustrations I felt as a traditional ‘actor’ - frustrations with realism, with the treatment of audiences, with power imbalances within the ‘profession’.

There’s no one practitioner or theorist who I can point to and say: ‘Hey you. I want to make work like you.’ I would acknowledge an influence from Brecht, I suppose. I studied him. I once taught the National Theatre’s INSET day on him! I love his combination of idea and emotion and his social engagement. And there’s Caryl Churchill. Okay, I’d like to make work like Cary Churchill. Her precision and lyricism and intelligence. Her refusal to settle back.

I’m testing things not only in my writing, but also in my performance work. Much of my work is written for the idea i have of myself as a performer - the things i want to distance myself from, the things I want to explore. I am unusual in that respect, I suppose. Neither Brecht nor Caryl Churchill acted in their own plays! Even my play Adler in Gibb (in which I didn’t perform) was conceived with an idea of performance that I have been developing in my work. Decisions about how a piece should be performed are nearly always very conscious.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
Ideas for work start from different places. Sometimes a narrative that lands in my lap and needs to be told. Sometimes an identification of something i want to explore - an idea, a form, a configuration. This then either takes purchase in me or slips away. If it stays then I start writing notes. 

Notes gradually turn into voices or snatches of moments or stories or people. At some time around then I talk to my two collaborators, Andy Smith and Karl James, and a conversation starts. Not necessarily a physical conversation with us all in the room - but a space opens for us to all think about the thing I’m thinking about. I keep on writing. 

This can take a long time. I use the word ‘interrogate' - I sit and stare something down, pursue it, let it pursue me. As the thing gets clearer in my head the conversations with Karl and Andy become more focused. Maybe we’ll spend a day together - or even a week. I take them the products of those conversations and continue with the writing.

Gradually a script emerges. What I write determines how we work to put it on. Each project is different. No fixed process. The writing leads the way and the writing is different every time.

What do you feel the role of the critic is?
They are necessary to construct a language about the work - but they are not final arbiters. They are one subjective voice. If i’m going to accept the good ones, I’m also going to accept the bad ones - on an equal footing. By which I mean, try and keep them all at arms length. I tried to persuade Soho Theatre to put up a one star review of Oak Tree outside the building alongside all the good ones. But they declined. we need to be more robust about critics. I rate certain writers about theatre - but even then sometimes I profoundly disagree with a viewpoint they’ve expressed about a show I’ve also seen. 

It’s all subjective. Some critics write from such a reactionary position towards theatre. But some theatre makers make reactionary theatre. Some critics are twats. But some theatre makers are twats. As Adrian Howells would have said - it’s all allowed. Although I know Adrian was profoundly and negatively affected by critical responses to his work.

The deal is to try and disassociate the ego from the work - so we’re able to engage with the ideas. But that’s a hard deal.

Writer changes person into character 

The Hypnotist is played by Tim Crouch . 

The Father is played by a different actor at each performance – male or female, any adult age. An actor who walks out on stage having neither seen nor read a word of the play they’re in until they’re in it. 

An Oak Tree weaves themes of control, human suggestibility, art and loss through a vivid and absurdly comic narrative that swoops between a tree by a road and the stage of a pub. 

It is a bold experiment in theatre form, but an experiment housed within a powerful and accessible story. The device of the second actor supports that story but also provides a startling image of someone discovering their own meaning from moment to moment. 

An Oak Tree contains that breathless balance of accessible narrative, complex idea, deep theatricality and rich humour that characterises Tim Crouch’s work. 

An Oak Tree was Tim Crouch’s second play for adult audiences after his successful debut, My Arm (2003). It premiered at The Traverse Theatre in August 2005. 

• On this, its tenth anniversary, it returns to the theatre where it all started with an updated script and production. 

• It arrives at the Traverse straight from a run at the National Theatre in London. 

• This will be Tim Crouch’s sixth visit to The Traverse in the last twelve years. Previous productions include The Author, ENGLAND and I, Malvolio

• This is the first time Tim’s work has been seen on the stage of Traverse One. 

• The play’s title makes reference to an art-work of the same name by artist Michael Craig-Martin. This work is a glass of water sitting on a shelf. Beside it is a scripted exchange in which the artist explains how, through an effortless process of intention, he has changed a glass of water into a full grown oak tree. 

• The play has toured nationally and internationally in the last decade, including runs at Barrow Street Theater, New York, the Odyssey Theater, LA, and Soho Theatre, London. 

• In 2007 it was awarded a Special Citation Obie for its run in New York. 

• When it arrives in Edinburgh, it will have played over 300 times with over 300 different actors. 

• Actors who have performed An Oak Tree with Tim include Frances McDormand, Mike Myers, Alan Cumming, Geoffrey Rush, Toby Jones, F Murray Abraham, Hugh Bonneville, Christopher Eccleston, Laurie Anderson and Alanis Morissette. 

• Tim is currently writing and directing for the Unicorn Theatre and adapting/directing Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths for Spring 2016. His Royal Court commissioned play, Adler and Gibb (2014) will be remounted in 2016. 

* Tim Crouch: Plays One , comprising My Arm, An Oak Tree, England and The Author is published by Oberon Books. Oberon is publishing an updated single volume of An Oak Tree to mark its tenth anniversary. 

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