From the days of the Greek amphitheatre, playwrights have sought to connect with audiences by evoking empathy and offering meditations on the human condition. Shakespearean theatre sought to let the spectator in on the psychological wants and needs of the characters. Brechtian characters broke the fourth wall, in a different way than Shakespearean characters, to expose the mechanism of manipulation that is the theatre. Today, with theatre no-longer the primary method of promoting social discourse, playwrights must continue to redefine theatrical form and the relationship between the spectator and the performance. Tim Crouch’s 2003 play, My Arm, attempts to bring theatre to its purest conceptual form by utilizing select established methods and newer playwriting techniques; He ‘disturbs and challenges the passive theatrical experience (Williams, 2014) ’, asking the audience to generate their own meaning, while simultaneously questioning the mechanism of theatre, the semiotics of theatrical language and asking ‘What is art?’.
Though My Arm was Crouch’s first play, he has since been no stranger to writing (and performing in) works that challenge theatrical form and the audience’s experience. In talking about his 2005 piece, An Oak Tree, Crouch cites Emile Cou é as an inspiration: “Everyone of our thoughts, good or bad, becomes concrete, materialises, and becomes in short a reality (Coué quoted in Crouch 2005).” A. Smith, who co-directed the piece, writes:
“when we make and watch and talk about theatre we can have all sorts of conversations about the phenomena of it: about the live qualities of theatre, how it happens right in front of you, how we can move through space and time in different ways. We can talk about the reality of the theatre, about the truth of it, and how as well as being very real and here and now there might not be anything real at all here.” (Smith 2005)
The fallacy of traditional theatrical form, what we intend for the audience to believe as truth, and requiring the audience to actively participate in the performance is exactly what Crouch is tackling in My Arm.
The play is a linear, journey play that rejects the idea that the actor needs to be matrixed for the audience to make sense of the piece. This is setup before the scripted performance begins when the audience is asked to offer up objects. The objects, though described as “no way representational”, stand in for the absent characters in the piece, as the performer voices each character. A doll from the show’s prop inventory represents the anchor character which on face value is the performer. The text suggests that “there is a measured, haphazard quality to how these objects are given aesthetic significance by the events with which they become involved.” As the story develops, each object (or device) is animated by the performer via an overhead live camera that is shown through an on-stage television. The performer role-plays events between himself, using the doll, and the absent characters, the objects. By distancing himself with two layers of masks (the objects and the television), the psychological is deemphasized allowing each member of the audience to have a “different image of what is happening in the narrative and where the character is emotionally (Crouch quoted in Ilter).” He is careful not to allow emotion to get into his speech. Crouch’s words regarding his work with actors in his play The Author can be applied further to understand this device, “What I am trying to explore with the actors here is: just be you, it is just you, and any transformation that happens will not be because of anything you do or wear, but because of what the audience will do to you (Quoted in Ilter 2011).” Through these metonymic and dematrixing techniques, Crouch does not telegraph a message, rather he requires the spectator to read further into the semiotics of the language used on stage.
With the distance created by the form, where does the spectator draw meaning?
Crouch, like Brecht, sets out to expose the mechanism that is the theatre, alienating audiences and asking them to refrain from emotionally investing themselves in the characters, but rather the message. This starts with the space itself:
“The simpler the set-up for My Arm, the more effective the play
becomes. All the complicated stuff should happen inside the
audience’s head. Stage artifice should be avoided in order to
heighten the fundamental artifice of the script. Cables should not
be taped down except where necessary for safety reasons, theatre
walls should be left undraped and exposed. my arm comes with its
own contained sense of aesthetic…
…at each venue a screen needs to be constructed or provided to
take video projection. The dimensions of this screen will be such to
accommodate the largest image produced by the projector in the
given space… It needs to be white. The ideal is the sense of a large
blank canvas, onto which, during the show, three sequences of film
are projected.” (“Technical Sheet – My Arm – Shows – Tim Crouch
Crouch, as the performer, addresses the spectator directly in a space that does not attempt to hide its purpose. The technical aspects of the production (the television, the projection screen, the desk with a camera trained on it, a placard with the quote) and the walls of the building are readily exposed for the spectator to see what is happening. The performer takes scripted water breaks, making sure to break any expectation or thought that he is the character, but rather a performer.
With Crouch’s unwavering, presentational performance, the story is told by masked, emotionless characters who are themselves subject to another layer of indirect presentation through the mediation of the camera. The doll and objects are captured by the camera and displayed on a television on the opposite side of the room. The spectator either sees the metadrama first hand being created by the performer to be projected, and therefore exposing the method, or their eyes are drawn to the television where the metadrama plays out. This convention is broken twice: First, when the performer foregrounds the doll by holding it in front of himself instead of for the camera. This represents a marker where everything begins to change for the character, his mindless act starts to become fruitful. Second, at the end of the piece when the performer matrixes himself by places his head down in front of the camera, where it appears on the television and places himself closer to the drama being played out on screen.
Meaning is also drawn from the inconsistency of truth begging the spectator to question what is real and what is fabricated. This plays out most readily in the three uses of digitized 8mm film projected on the oversized screen behind the performer. In the first instance, the performer says “I’m going to hold my breath until I die” and a video called “RUN” is played depicting a boy running across a field. When the film completes, the doll is revealed through the camera on the television with the performer saying, “This is me. I’m ten years old. I’m big-boned (1).” The spectator can readily assume the film of the boy running in the field is the same ten year old boy being shown to them on the television, and thus the same man standing before them. In the second instance, the performer reveals that “On December 24, 1982, outside a bus stop in Ryde, my mother fell down dead” and a film sequence called “SWIM” is played where a woman is walking out to sea watched by a young boy (12). While we have only seen his mother in the form of a random object by this point, the logical connection could be made that maybe this is actually what “Mother” looks like. You also have to ask if maybe mother didn’t fall down dead at a bus stop, but walked out to sea and never returned. In the final instance, he takes a deep breath in, echoing the beginning of the play, and the same “RUN” film sequence plays again (20). These uses of film imagery that seems to be un-syncronized with the story attempt to manipulate the spectator psychologically, but blatantly avoid the truth.
More readily apparent in questioning the truth in the piece is that the performer is standing before the spectator and his arm has never been raised above his head. “There was nothing to be done. I was an internal shambles and would probably drop down dead at any moment. At the most I had a couple of years. I had rotted. I had composted from the fingers down,” the performer says (19). If the performer, was the boy and all mediated forms of the boy, his hand would have to be in the air.
If everything visual on stage is a formal fallacy, we still have not gotten to the heart of the matter. There is one element that we haven’t discussed that is both visual and textual. At about the midpoint of the piece, the performer reveals that his friend Simon operates by the rubric, “Art is anything you can get away with (11).” (The quote is actually that of Marshall McLuhan, the author of The Medium Is The Massage, whose theories about media resonate profoundly with this piece, especially that each medium, of which there are multiple in this performance, produces a different effect on the psyche.) He writes this quote down on a placard and it is displayed for the rest of the performance. It is never mediated by a camera or projected on either of the screens. It stands in solidarity and that is a statement in itself, possibly the most truthful statement played on the stage. Crouch says on the topic, “Simon is the artist that would get away with anything; if he says that it is art and convinces someone that it is art, that’s what he will do. It is one notion of conceptual art; thus, by saying that something is something, the transformation is created – it is got away with (Ilter).” This plays out in My Arm as object after object is given a name, a purpose, and the audience is asked to believe in its transformation. It is not, however, the opportunistic artist that Crouch sides with, it is the figurative artist that takes their time looking at the world and finding the correct composition to expose it for what it really is. This is the most important transformation that Crouch is looking for in the theatre.
The idea of transformation echoes through Crouch’s practice, “I am transformed, but I am transformed just by a tiny shift in axis of perception. I still look like me, I still speak like me, I wear my clothes. The transformation of me into fictional me, when it happens, happens through the audience’s recalibration of who I am, not through anything I have done – and this is achieved through narrative. (Ilter)” A boy of just ten years old “didn’t give it much thought,” but raises his hand above his head for his entire life and elides “the dualistic conceits of conception and perception.” In this one act, an act that would set him down the path of becoming an iconic medical specimen and a subject of admiration of the art community, but he doesn’t become something meaningful until he is truly studied by the figurative artist. A transformation from a “[representation] of nothingness” to a person of stature.
By leveling the playing field between the spectator and himself, Crouch strips the stage to its bare bones and illuminates the mechanism of the theatre. He brings to light the immense power of art to transform humans into meaningless psychological representations, while providing a solution to the problem at hand. Drawing on Brechtian and new playwriting techniques, he creates a piece of work that interrogates the validity of work being presented today and asks the audience to step up to the plate and become a part of the conversation.
“Technical Sheet – My Arm – Shows – Tim Crouch Theatre”. Timcrouchtheatre.Co.Uk, 2019,
http://www.timcrouchtheatre.co.uk/shows-2/my-arm/tech-sheet. Accessed 20 Mar 2019.
Crouch, Tim. “An Oak Tree, Traverse, Edinburgh”. The Guardian, 2005,
Crouch, Tim. My Arm. (News From Nowhere), 2005, Accessed 25 Mar 2019.
Ilter, Seda. “‘A Process Of Transformation’: Tim Crouch On My Arm”. Contemporary Theatre
Review, vol 21, no. 4, 2011, pp. 394-404. Informa UK Limited,
Smith, A. Introduction From ‘An Oak Tree’. Oberon Books, 2005, p. A NOTE FROM a smith.
Williams, Holly. “Adler & Gibb: Is This The Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?”. The Independent,
s-the-real-life-is-this-just-fantasy-9499901.html. Accessed 25 Mar 2019.
Header photo “A Ghost Light on an empty stage in a darkened theater, following the tradition of leaving a lamp lit on an empty stage. Taken at the WildWood Arts Center, Little Rock, Arkansas.” by Wllwood Jon
Kevin Michael Reed is a theatre maker from New York City living in Dublin and London. His production credits have included producer, director, playwright, dramaturg and designer. He is Artistic Director of Squire Lane Theatrical UK, a theatre production company specialising in developing new works for the stage. He holds a BFA in Photography from the Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY), a MA in Playwriting from City, University of London, and a MFA in Theatre Directing from The Lir, National Academy of Dramatic Art, Trinity College Dublin.