Thursday, November 10, 2005

Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree

Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree is, technically, a play for two actors. But it might be more accurate to describe not as a “two-hander” but as a one-and-a-half-hander. True, Crouch is joined on the stage by another actor each night, but this is not a marriage of equals. For Crouch, who wrote the play, knows the story well. But the other actor has never seen the script, never mind knowing what is going to happen.

There are a few stipulations, however, according to Crouch. “The performer must agree to doing some sight reading and to wearing a pair of headphones for some of the show. They have to be comfortable with a story that involves the death of a child. And most of all they must be open to whatever happens…”

Before the show visits a venue, there is a period of contact in which Crouch and company locate a series of willing performers, a different one for each night. “I usually drop them a line to tell say hello, and I spend an hour with them before the show starts. And I usually buy them a drink afterwards…”

“We have tried it with non-actors,” says Crouch. “Because in principle there is nothing you can do wrong, whatever you do becomes part of the story. But we found that it works better with actors because actors are, in general, more versed in accessing vulnerability… Actors are trained in being open, whereas most people have a kind of defensiveness which is not helpful.”

The conceptual approach used in An Oak Tree (the title was inspired by a piece of 1970s art) bears some relationship to the work of frequent Fringe visitors, Rotozaza, who have brought two shows to Dublin which required them to find unrehearsed local performers.

Not quite by coincidence, Ant Hampton, one of the founders of Rotozaza has also performed in An Oak Tree. “I think what we do is quite different from what they do…I want people to just be themselves, but Ant turned up with a variety of shirts for me to choose which one he should wear for the performance…”

All the same, An Oak Tree might seem to be in danger of suffering something that certainly afflicts Rotozaza shows. Isn’t it more fun for people who have seen a few different versions of the show, like say, those who work on it?

“Yes, sometimes I think my stage manager has the best time of all, because they get to see so many different variations. But the point is it is not just about how different performers create the role -- which would be kind of gimmicky. When we were rehearsing, we agreed that we wouldn’t do the play in this style if it started to become gimmicky. Because, for me the story is always, always the most important thing.”

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