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Interview with Tim Crouch

17 June 2015 | Tom Butler

Tim Crouch is the writer of An Oak Tree, a play about loss and suggestion. He also plays one of the two actors in the play. The unique nature being that the actor playing opposite him in every performance is someone different who hasn’t seen or read a word of the play until they’re in it. Those actors have included Frances McDormand, Mike Myers, Alan Cumming, Geoffrey Rush, Toby Jones, F Murray Abraham, Hugh Bonneville, Christopher Eccleston, Laurie Anderson and Alanis Morissette. London Calling caught up with Tim ahead of his run at the National Theatre’s Temporary Theatre.

 

London Calling: I was going to ask how rehearsals are going but I guess it must be pretty tough to do so when you don’t know who you’ll be performing alongside every night!?!

Tim Crouch: That’s a good question. I have two co-directors in this show, two dear friends, Andy Smith and Karl James. I actually wrote this play for Andy, he isn’t an actor and the play I wanted to write for him was this play. I wanted someone who wasn’t an actor, we eventually agreed he wouldn’t be in it but for rehearsals Andy said he would come and be that person. So every time we engaged with the play and how the play happens, Andy would pretend, like with the Men In Black device, that he would forget everything he knew. I guide him through it and he would note me on the clarity of my instructions and the supportive nature of what I can give to them. So we do one week of rehearsal for the National run where Andy will be back in that role.

LC: So how different today is the show for someone who would have seen the show ten years ago when it premiered at Edinburgh Fringe?

TC: I’m probably more open and more confident. When it opened there was an element of rabbit in the headlights, because it has a big streak of formal experimentation. We also hadn’t tested it when it opened, but we’ve now tested it 292 times and every time it’s been different so every time to some degree I’ve learnt a new facet of it or what I can let go of rather than hold onto.

LC: Are you still surprised by the interpretation brought to the play by some of the actors then?

TC: Yes!! No two actors have ever done it the same way. How we do the show is not how it’s ever been or how it will ever be! Whilst it’s all scripted, it’s different because they all respond on a different level emotionally. It’s like a game of football, no two games are the same! Some actors go crazy, some are terrified, some are confident and I tailor my performance accordingly. It was written partly to challenge the idea that we’re going to rehearse this until everyone knows exactly what they’re doing and we’ll do the same thing every night. I was an actor in those situations when I was younger and I didn’t find them very interesting!

LC: You don’t want actors to know the play but if must be getting hard to find them now as it’s been going for ten years!

TC: Yes, but there are 40,000 members of equity or thereabouts. Most of the actors I’ve done the shows with have been abroad. I had a long run in New York and then in LA and taken the show to lots of different countries so there’s still plenty to go.

Though there are students who study this play who tell me they’ve worked on it at school and of course that means they would now be disqualified from performing it in the future. I think the experience is better if you genuinely don’t know anything about it.

LC: How on earth have you gotten some of the actors involved Tim? The list is incredible!

TC: I never did! The play isn’t about the names. It’s about actors, and those people, if you know those names, are all really interesting actors! And they are interested actors, they still want to learn. It was the casting director who put the call out to the agents. I don’t know who is doing the show, I sometime get a list but I don’t meet them until an hour before the show and I hope there’s an immediacy to do it. I like to think that we’re meeting as two human beings, whether they’ve been in a magazine or not. The play elevates us to human beings.

LC: Have you done anything at the National before?

TC: When I was an actor yes. I was in Light Shining In Buckinghamshire in 1997. It was very different to the current production. Back then there were six actors and nothing else. This time Lyndsey Turner has done something enormous to the play and I think it survives it beautifully well.

I also did an extraordinary project with the National which was based at Brixton Prison where I directed and was performing in pieces of Beckett with the prisoners. I started to write in 2003 and since then I haven’t really properly worked for anyone else which is a very nice thing!

LC: As an actor, writer and director then, do you ever get a hunger for just one element of your job?

TC: I’ve just recently started a career as a director, directing a few things at the RSC for young audiences and now I’m directing something at the Unicorn as well which is very exciting for me. I do sometimes think about being an actor one day again and then the joy I might encounter of doing a play that’s been written by somebody else and all I have to do is learn the lines and nothing else, that’s really exciting! So maybe that will happen one day if I run out of ideas!

LC: You took An Oak Tree to Edinburgh ten years ago, will you take something else up there in the future?

TC: An Oak Tree is going back there this year. It was initially in the small space at Traverse, now it’s in the main space at Traverse and I’m doing nine performances. It’s lovely as I’ve done nearly all of my work in Edinburgh at that venue. The first thing I wrote opened at the Traverse Theatre and my first commission was for them again. It’s just an exceptional place!

LC: Can you tell me about your writing process and how you go about writing your plays?

TC: It varies to be honest. Sometimes it’s because I want to tell a story, sometimes it starts with the form. I had a play called The Author at the Royal Court a few years ago that took place in two banks of seating. There was no stage and the actors sat with the audience. I wanted to make a piece that explored that form and it took me a long time to find the story that best expressed that form.

I don’t think I work in the traditional way where characters write your play. I write notes about the avenue I want to explore. As I write sometimes I’m lucky with an idea of a story which will communicate those ideas. I always test the form as much as the content, that’s an obsession of mine. They all explore the themes of my work.

My first play it took me five days to write, An Oak Tree was my second play and took me a hundred times longer! It’s always important to write your own play rather than write for anyone else.

LC: So what’s next for you after the Temporary Theatre run, Tim?

TC: I’m working with a company called Spymonkey who are an extraordinary clowning company. They’ve been around for nearly 20 years and we’re doing a project called The Complete Deaths which is about every on stage death of Shakespeare told in about an hour and a half. We’re taking the world by storm on the 400th anniversary of his death. We start rehearsing in September so that will be keeping me very busy as I’m directing and writing on that.

 

An Oak Tree is on at the NT Temporary Theatre from the 23rd June -11th July. For more information and to book tickets please click here.

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