So that you and I are on the same footing, I will tell you everything I know about The Author, a play opening at the Kirk Douglas on Feb. 17 as part of Center Theatre Group’s DouglasPlus series.
The show is performed by four actors, one of whom is the British playwright Tim Crouch, who created The Author. The audience is seated on the stage, in two banks of raked, bleacher-style seats, each bank facing the other with no room in between. The actors are seated within the audience, and there is no other visual or stage imagery.
The Author is about a play written by a playwright named Tim Crouch, as well asÂ two actors who perform in the play and an audience member who watches it. CTG has been careful to make clear that often at The Author, spectators choose to quit the performance. A warning on the CTG websiteÂ states (all caps included): “”¦patrons that leave the theatre during the performance, for any reason, will NOT BE ALLOWED TO RE-ENTER.” Signs to the same effect will be placed in the lobby.
Crouch’s technique for creating theater was on display last year at the Odyssey Theatre, where heÂ performed his show an oak tree. It had an award-winning premiere at the EdinburghÂ Festival Fringe in 2005, went on to a sold-out run at London’s Soho Theater and garnered a Special Citation Obie during its 2006 run at New York’s Barrow Street Theater.
There are only two performers in an oak tree: Tim Crouch, playing a hypnotist with slippery morals and a troubled past, and a second actor brought fresh into the play every night. The second actor is given an hour or so alone to get loosely familiar with the script but performs mostly by a combination of cold reading and responding to lines that areÂ fedÂ by Crouch via headphones.
“There is a character suffering grief in that story and that character, from moment to moment in their life, does not know what is happening,” Crouch explains, speaking by phone from his home in Brighton where the south coast of England melts into the sea. “The device of a second actor only happened once I had written the story, and an understanding developed that the story would be better told if there was someone in the middle of it who didn’t know, from moment to moment, what was happening.”
This concern with form, with finding a structure for a work that is analogous to its content, arose out of Crouch’s years as a professional actor, making a living on stages throughout Britain. “I had just gotten fed up with being stuck in carefully rendered, psychologically realized acts of pretense,” says Crouch. That frustration led to the writing of My Arm, Crouch’s first play, in 2003.
The Author is his fourth play in what, if Crouch were a visual artist, might be referred to as a series or, at the very least, a period. He has developed a methodology of speaking to audiences by bringing them with him in more than the usual theatrical marketing sense of the word. “Theater does all that hand holding, you know, takes care of its audience, explains things to its audience. You wouldn’t get that from an intelligent visual artist. They make the audience have to work out their own relationship with the work. I think where the play succeeds,” Crouch says, seemingly restating one of his well-worn but no less powerful central notions, “is by addressing the intelligence of the audience in navigating their way through that.”
Just as a painting gives only part of the information, leaving viewers to provide the rest, so Crouch’s workÂ forces audiences to uphold their end of the spectator-spectacle bargain. This is precisely the interaction The Author aims to explore.
“We have become slightly comatose as audiences, in reneging our responsibility — or just not acknowledging our responsibility — placing it all on the role of the director, the actors, the writer, and not seeing ourselves as being actively engaged in that relationship, which you are,” Crouch explains. “The theater is made for you, films are made for you. You go and see them, you are therefore responsible for the type of films made, you are responsible for the type of theater made; ultimately you are the author of it. We have become lax in recognizing that equation.”
Crouch subsides for a moment and I ask if any particular experiences led him to addressing that concern through the specific forms of The Author. His answer comes as close as he ever will to revealing the subject matter of the play, which in turn reveals, to some degree, why the signs in the lobby and internet warnings are necessary and why some audience members who have paid to be there suddenly find the show no longer worth their money.
“There are issues in the world that have been very close to me. In the UK there was a famous case of a very well-known actor who was eventually sent to prison for having looked at images that were illegal to look at; he claimed it was to research a role he was performing,” Crouch says. “A teacher of our children was sent to prison, as well, for committing similar acts of watching, of looking. I feel very strongly that is correctly judged a criminal act. I’m talking about the culpability of the eye, really, and if we choose to look at it, we are in some way responsible for it.”
It bears repeating, at this point, that beyond the raked seats, the audience and the actors, The Author has no other visual imagery, only spoken text. It is also worth mentioning the extraordinary, idiosyncratic care that Crouch and his team build into the experience of their productions. That team — a tight trio since 2004 — includes close collaborators Karl James and a smith (no, that’s not a typo — the name is “a smith”).
A woman in my audience at an oak tree last year had a coughing fit; Crouch paused his co-performer and called to an usher to bring in a bottle of water. He ministered to the woman, told us all not to be embarrassed, and continued once she was settled. Many reviewers of The Author have commented on being given chocolates throughout the show by the actors.
Despite these overtures, the performance still engulfs some viewers who leave mid-show. Crouch explains, “We are as gracious and caring as we can be for their decision. The play stops, we stop speaking, the usher helps the person out. The usher sits back down again and off we go. The act of leaving is an extremely important act in this piece. I don’t want people to leave.” Crouch continues: “I don’t want people to leave, but I want them to leave after they’ve stayed to the end, if that makes sense. But we are saying to the audience, it’s okay to leave. One of the themes of the play is, “˜It’s okay to do something about this.’”
Responsibility, whether as audience or actor, is what The Author does not merely explore but urges. It is also the reason Crouch is not just in The Author but why his character ““ the playwright of the play about the thing that is so difficult ““ is named Tim Crouch. “It’s not about making the audience comfortable; it’s about responsibility, for me. It’s about my responsibility, which is why I’m still in the plays I write. I have seen enough plays [works Crouch will elsewhere describe as “a theater of brutality”] that I had a lot of problems with and the authors of those plays had been many miles away at the time I saw them. I feel authors need to nail their colors to the mast.”
If Crouch has gone so very far out of his way to keep himself present at “the white heat in the middle” — keeping his casts tiny, touring frequently, breaking the rhythm of his performances to allow the genuine reactions of his audiences — what is the tipping point that has left a trail ofÂ dissatisfied customers on three continents?
“It seems the thing people find most disturbing is the fact we talk directly to them. And that is just, for some people, unbearable. And that’s a real shame. That’s how far we’ve come in theater; that’s how far we’ve come badly in theater where we do not want to be directly addressed.”
Crouch does not pause ““ he rarely pauses ““ though there is a catch, a repositioning as he sounds years of memories for a way to explain. “We don’t pick on you; you don’t have to be a part, but we will talk directly to you, as gently and as lightly as we possibly can and for some people that’s just not on.”
Crouch’s work, in the end, is not completely like a painting. He stays with the work in which he positions himself as a person, possibly sitting next to a person like yourself, knees touching. Nightly, he re-navigates a world which has allowed us to detach ourselves from what we see and makes every effort to have us navigate that realization with him. He and his fellow actors come to us as part of a world about a play, and we come to them from a world which that play is a part of: “We have no special place; we are just with you.”
The Author, presented by Center Theatre Group for DouglasPlus, opens Feb. 17; plays Wed.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 4 and 8 pm; Sun., 6:30 pm; through Feb. 27. Tickets: $25. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City (free parking at City Hall, Culver Blvd. and Duquesne Ave.); 213.628.2772 or centertheatregroup.org.