The last time I saw Tim Crouch in Dublin was at the 2010 Dublin Theatre Festival, where he was performing in his 2009 play The Author, a deeply disturbing exposure of the banality of evil. Crouch, who regularly manipulates ideas of authenticity in both the performance and the text of his work, was "using my own name and wearing my own clothes and performing as myself, but everything I said was fictional and scripted". The effect was disturbing, provocative and deeply effective in communicating the idea that "abusers look like me, talk like me, that they are regular people just like me, the kind of people you might not even notice".
Crouch explains all this, uncannily, in the green room of the Ark, the children's cultural centre in Dublin, where he is overseeing the get-in of Jeramee, Hartleby and Oooglemore, by Gary Owen, a surrealistic show for a three-plus audience that uses just the three words in the play's title to bring its young audience on a seaside adventure with three lively, clownish companions. Crouch is directing the show, which premiered at the Unicorn Theatre in London last year, after developing it with Owen and the actors over two and a half years.
“It was the most simple script,” he says of his first encounter with the play, “and it is based on the idea that how you say a word is as important as what the word is, which is what we start to learn when we begin to acquire language and communication skills [as children]. So you can say ‘Jeramee’ and mean ‘I want to kill you’ or ‘I want to be your friend’ or ‘Hold on a moment, I have something to show you.’ But the thing about something so simple is that it can contain universes, and that is what we have found as we have performed it: every different level of audience, from 18 months to adults, constructs their own interpretation of it based on their own understanding of the world.”
Crouch is perhaps better known in Ireland for his work for and with adult audiences. He has been a regular at Dublin Theatre Festival for a decade and worked for a year with Pan Pan, the experimental theatre company, on its prestigious mentorship programme. He first visited Ireland in 2004 with his debut play, The Arm, an experiment with ideas of art and representation that he says he "wrote almost by accident, not realising it was going to be the start of a new life as a writer".
"I had written The Arm for myself," he says, "just because there were ideas that I wanted to explore. I didn't have a notion of myself as a writer at that stage. I was just a depressed actor, looking for something else to do." Shortly after its premiere, in 2003, two organisations that he had working relationships with as a director, Brighton Festival and the National Theatre, in London, commissioned him to create new work. "It just happened, by synchronicity, that they were commissions for young audiences. And I found that, if someone gives you authority, which they never do when you're an actor, you begin to trust yourself. So that's sort of how I became a writer and how I began to write for young audiences."
His work for children’s theatre developed side by side with a growing repertoire for adults, in which he has explored complex themes of violence, cultural identity and child abuse in his frank, intimate style. Even his darkest work, he says, has found a corollary in his work for young audiences. “It is not a conscious thing, but I have realised that every play that I have written for adults has an equivalent for a younger audience. I’m hesitant to call it a shadow, because that indicates that it’s in some kind of a secondary position to my work for adults, and there is no division like that in my head. But let’s say there is a theme or idea that I want to explore; I shouldn’t shift those considerations just because I am writing for young people. Those themes are my obsession, my inspiration, so to drop those themes just because I am writing for young people would feel phoney. It would be disingenuous to myself as an artist.
In The Author there is no distinction between me and the character I presented. It was up to the audience to distinguish between what is true and what is not
"Also, young people are interested in the same things we are. You just might not be able to present them with those ideas in the same way. So, for example, in The Author there is no distinction between me and the character I presented; it was up to the audience to distinguish between what is true and what is not. At the same time I was writing I, Malvolio" – a monologue based on the much-abused minor character in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night – "which is also about the same thing: the pleasure we get from cruelty. But it's for a young audience, so I make it superclear that, even as I am making them laugh at me and then attacking them for doing it, I am playing. There is a contract there that we are using play to explore a darker world, but all the signposting will be very clear: we will go to difficult places, but I will twinkle at you as I am doing it."
I, Malvolio, which Crouch will perform around Ireland in April and May, has been one of his biggest successes. It came about as part of a commission from the National Theatre to write a series of plays inspired by Shakespeare. "The idea was to unlock the narrative of particular Shakespeare plays for a young audience. They don't really exist in a status relationship to it – they are not versions of the play; they are not meant to replace the plays – but I do understand that three hours of Shakespeare is a big ask for a young audience, and this offers them another way into the work."
All of the pieces, which engage with Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night, "tell the stories of the plays they come from, but more important for me than that was exploring the idea of character as we know it, which was really invented by Shakespeare. His ideas have had a fundamental influence in our understanding of narrative and the way in which we understand ourselves as human beings." That, Crouch says, is why theatre is such an important medium and why it is fundamental that young people get to experience a complexity of subject matter and representational form in the sheltered playing space of an auditorium.
I try not to spoon-feed the audience. I try to encourage them to separate form from reality
“There is a type of theatre that feeds off the backs of things that are already familiar – books or TV shows,” he says. “It delivers what you expect, and large sums of money change hands. And I understand why that sort of formula works. But I try to come from a more inquisitive position. In all my work, whether that’s for adults or children, I try not to spoon-feed the audience. I try to encourage them to separate form from reality. It can be challenging, but they become coauthors of the experience: we will find meaning together.”
Ascribing that level of trust to the audience is vital and empowering, particularly for children. “The joy of working with young audiences is the openness you meet, and you need to meet that with an openness in your own work. Theatre is really a sort of practice-based research: you never know what it is until you are there in front of an audience. And children should be allowed to make sense of that sort of randomness too.”