The man looks at the audience. The man stares. The man talks to the audience with the house lights up. In an hour’s time with this man, you will be changed, and think about theater quite differently than ever before.
I first encountered Tim Crouch’s work when he brought his solo piece My Arm to the Brits Off-Broadway festival at 59 East 59th Street. We shared friends and theater colleagues in common, so I had heard of his work, but had not seen it. My Arm remains one of the most incandescently provocative theater experiences I’ve been a part of in quite a while. Its sharpness, truth and profound investigation of what theater can be—presented in a deceptively simple, slightly off-hand manner—tore right into areas of emotion I’d almost forgotten were possible on the stage. Yet, it did so without a hint of sentimentality or abject coarseness—standard twin affects of a great deal of new British theater writing from the late 1990s to the present. This wasn’t a ‘bed-sit’ play or a social realist treatise disguised as a play: this was a piece of theater about theater and its possibilities (the way that Improbable Theatre’s work is also about the possibilities of space, time and narrative). It was also a piece about the art of fiction itself—how we make stories and receive them.
What differentiates Crouch’s work from other artists exploring similar theatrical investigations is the absolute rigor of his work, and the privilege of playfulness alive in his pieces, which rest as much on the quality of his presence as a performer as the elegant discontinuity of his texts. While his subject matter—the making and un-making of an artist savant and commodity in My Arm, the recording of grief in An Oak Tree—may lead one to think of his work as being indulgent or perhaps even slightly “twee,” it is far from it. There is a lean, sinewy energy to his work. He doesn’t as much play to audience’s expectations as confound and up-end them. However, despite the challenges he gives his audiences, his interest lies chiefly in communicating a story. In this regard, Crouch, who trained as an actor and whose work centers invariably on the nature of acting, is unlike other “po-mo, post-po-mo and post-dramatic” practitioners. Even when the narrative is broken up, interrupted, and dismantled, as it is in An Oak Tree, the story and its (paradoxically) continuous thread remains primary.
In An Oak Tree, Tim Crouch plays a hypnotist and the main interaction is with a father who has lost his child (the father is “played” by a second actor—who is different every night, and who has not seen the text before the performance) in a car accident. The hypnotist claims responsibility in the child’s killing. On first look, the ingredients here are ripe for an episode of Oprah Winfrey or the like: trauma, exposure, guilt, shame, loss. (Nothing against Oprah, because what she does is quite remarkable if you think about it. Her persona is so fixed that she can coax unguarded emotion out of most of her interviewees.)
As the Hypnotist, Crouch plays with how as an audience we have become accustomed to the therapeutic format, and how indeed the Hypnotist (the inducer, provocateur, gatekeeper to the irrational) is both making an act of his subject, and subjected to the actions and memories of the induced moment(s). Both the Hypnotist and the Father are on display. Yet, what is revealed? I asked Crouch in a recent interview about the manner in which the audience is implicated in this piece, and how the audience is, in effect, the site of action:
In every performance there are two audiences—one that is implicated in the story that is being told, and one that is in the theater. I am both with Lear on the heath, and in Row G, Seat 15. In An Oak Tree, I have simply made this duality explicit—and added another level… There is an audience sitting in a room above a pub near the Oxford Road, watching a stage hypnotist’s act which is happening a year in the future. I address this audience and, at some point, this audience leaves the building! The hypnotist’s act is a failure and they go, leaving behind the other audience—the audience who are implicated in Tim Crouch’s play, An Oak Tree—two men connecting through a story of loss. I also address the audience who know they’re in a theater—making reference to the other one, whom they also ‘play’. The shifting of narrative allows me to explore this ontological conundrum! The dynamic of the actor volunteering for An Oak Tree is almost identical to the dynamic of the Father volunteering for the hypnotist’s act (“I saw your poster, I recognized your name. When I saw what you did I thought you could help”). In some senses the death that is being explored in An Oak Tree is the death of that traditional realism in theater, that ‘sleight of hand’... The audience and the play ‘meet’ to seek help from each other, to find a healing for the ‘loss’ they’ve suffered. The other way I bring the audience into this play is through the ‘second actor’. In many senses they are the representative of the audience. They discover the play at the same time as the audience and that discovery is physical, in front of our eyes. I always say to the second actor that they must enjoy their ‘gravitational pull’ in the play. Because of their special relationship with the audience, they are, without having to work for it, the most interesting thing on stage!
An Oak Tree also centers on grief and its nature, which is elusive and quite personal. There are attempts throughout the piece to reconstruct not only the events of the child’s death but also the self (the Father, the Hypnotist) on that day and since that day. The piece is an interrogation: a laboratory to examine how it is we transform grief in our lives and live with it. In making a play, time and image are necessarily arrested. As writers, the Janus-faced dilemma presents itself: how to touch on the faculties of memory and the preservation of meaning (individual and in culture) through the live arts. If part of realism’s intentions are photographic (capture of the real) it also indicates historical and political resolution. Fully achieved realism documents, transcribes and also edits to make a picture that has the appearance of completion (in its flow, obsession with real time, and characteristic “overheard” dialogue—like “real” conversation). A realistic work of art is as manufactured as one that is not so. But what is of interest is the concept of completion and apparent simplicity because it enforces the authority of the work and its contents. Although realism as a narrative form initially began as a revolutionary concept, it has become over time (as with so many once-revolutionary forms) merely, and unfortunately so, status quo. To question realism’s authority has been the long-standing project of both the avant-garde and artists working in between the bleeding borders of realism (surrealism, expressionism, hyper-realism, etc.) Yet, it is “the real” that continues to be held up as the standard. Yet, what is meant by the real?
Would we to put “real life” truly on the stage, it would be undoubtedly exasperating: random, boring, excitable, inconsequential, tragic, banal, repetitious, ritualistic, nonlinear and linear, fragmented, confusing, outrageous, extreme, and sublime. Many artists through and across time have wrestled with how to represent—truly—the Real, and what is meant by the Real. Truth equated with a sense of genuine-ness or authenticity is the Real’s twin, but how as artists, firstly, do we approach the Real, and then embrace and transcend it? In our interview, Crouch related the following about the Real, the photographic and diving into loss in An Oak Tree:
It’s hard to write about loss of this monumental proportion (the death of a child) in any way other than through the poetic, or through the abstract. I have children, and believe that, if one were to die, I, like the Father in An Oak Tree, would also lose faith in “previous representations.” He can’t look at photographs, because “photographs just look like other photographs.” After the accident, he starts to see the world in abstract blocks of color (“Purple. Our pulses raced in purple. We phoned the piano teacher in brown… White. Dawn’s knees gave way in white.”) Rather than trusting material representations of his daughter (“a hair on a bar of soap, some flowers taped to a lamp post.”) he begins to see her in “absences” (“between lines, inside circles…the spaces beneath chairs.”) There are direct references to conceptual artists in the play—artists who have turned that “de-materiality” into a powerful presence in the mind of the audience. I quote directly in the play from a Bruce Nauman piece from the seventies, where his works were just descriptions of his works, and nothing else. (“These are instructions for a mental exercise, etc.”) Grief, loss and art intermingled. I also make it very clear that the Father is not an artist—a teacher of “maths or geography”—because I want the audience to know that his response to the tree next to where his daughter died is not a conscious art impulse, but more a subconscious connecting with the human impulse to create in response to a loss. Also, I suppose, there is an idea around the fact that if I suffered such loss, that I would possibly feel like I’m in a play but I don’t know the words, I don’t know the moves. And so this idea is embodied in reality in the presence of the second actor. The second actor who doesn’t know what’s happening from moment to moment, playing a character who doesn’t know what’s happening from moment to moment. The form speaks to the content. And, for me, the form takes precedence. Stories sort of stay the same throughout time; it’s the forms that talk about where we are at the moment.
Working with the fields of sound, space and shape, Crouch in his theater invites us to reflect (as mirror) and disrupt (breaking down the qualities of subjectivity) culturally agreed-upon perceptions of the Real. The stuff of a play is there, ready to be acted on, as well as to be enacted. Although he uses elements of the traditionally photographic construction of text and scene through its arrest and play with time—his work is never simply an unchanging trace of the past, but rather a very living, changeable, present action that is part of social and political memory. Through the act of rupture, and therefore the humble acceptance of what can be wounded (in the positive sense as well as the negative, depending on your worldview) Crouch’s work opens itself up to the viewer and disrupts the plane of normative existence, which systematically encourages the authority of what can be readily copied and mass-produced.
An Oak Tree opens October 27 2006 at the Barrow Street Theater for an open run.
It is produced by Martin Platt and David Elliot from the Perry Street Theater in Exile.
Caridad Svich is a playwright-lyricist-translator-editor and founder of theater alliance NoPassport. Her play Instructions for Breathing premieres this spring at Passage Theater in NJ under Daniella Topol's direction.