Tim Crouch: 'Theatre will grow back stronger if we plant a different crop'

‘I always fly the flag of live theatre,” Tim Crouch says with a smile, acknowledging the unlikeliness of his new project. As a writer, director and performer, he often investigates in his work what it means for people to gather together and share an experience. The distance and separation of the digital space is, you would think, anathema to all that. Yet for a limited few dates this month, Crouch will be taking his solo show I, Cinna (the Poet) online.

The piece was originally written for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2012, with Jude Owusu in the role of Cinna – the marginal character who’s killed in a case of mistaken identity in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Crouch performed the show in a revival this February at the Unicorn theatre in London, whose artistic director, Justin Audibert, has now persuaded him to remount it over Zoom.

“There is some technical alchemy which has enabled the breakdown of my resistance to a digital project with Cinna,” explains Crouch, noting that “of all my solo Shakespeares [a project that has included I, Malvolio and I, Caliban] it is the most reactive and interactive, and it lends itself most to the strange give and take of a digital interchange”. In the play, Cinna invites responses from audience members and asks them to write things down – an interaction that easily translates to Zoom. “We have gone some way towards achieving a genuinely interactive online version.”

Interaction and liveness were both non-negotiable for Crouch. Unlike other online projects that, in Crouch’s words, “claim to be live”, this will be a real-time experience for the limited number of audience members joining him for each performance. He explains: “I will be in a room, on my own, and a group of audience members will join me on Zoom and I will work with them and no one else.” He adds that “there is a real feeling that it is not just a filmed recording of a live performance; it is actually happening then and there”.

While this is a “compromised and muted liveness”, Crouch thinks that the online version of the show actually creates greater equality between performer and audience – something that he aims for in all his shows. “The audience have greater authority than they do in the live theatre version,” he says, “because they can just go away, or switch off, or leave and make a cup of tea and come back again, and I won’t notice!”

Tim Crouch performing I, Malvolio at the Sydney festival 2014. Photograph: The Guardian/Anna Kucera

Crouch also suggests that the play resonates with the experience of lockdown. For most of the performance, audience members watch Cinna in the enclosed space of his home as he looks on helplessly at the turmoil outside. “We see a man trapped in a creative block and also trapped in his apartment.”

Crouch remains unconvinced that moving everything online is the answer to theatre’s predicament during the pandemic. “It’s felt like a time to lay theatre fallow,” he says. “I think theatre will grow back stronger if we just plant a different crop for a bit and not try to create genetically modified versions of theatre.” During lockdown, he’s mostly been avoiding the proliferation of online theatre, instead binge-watching The Sopranos.

Crouch is confident that people still have a need to gather together and share experiences in the same physical space. He even suggests that the disruption of the pandemic might be an opportunity. “I feel desperate about people whose livelihoods are jeopardised by this experience, but I’m also energised by the possibilities from this experience,” he says. “I think liveness will return – it will return more consciously.”

He also hopes that the “material structuring” of theatre might be shaken up by this experience, changing organisations and processes for the better. As an example, he talks about a play he’s directing for next year, for which rehearsals will need to take place at a distance and over a long period, as opposed to the usual concentrated four weeks before opening. “If we can blow some air into the compacted nature of how theatre is made, then that’s a good thing,” says Crouch.

“We move forward through crisis,” he adds, remaining optimistic that lessons from the pandemic will have a long-term effect. “It might not be now, it might not even be this time next year, but at some point live theatre will return and I hope we have learned from the experience.”

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