No-one warned me that Tim Crouch’s writing masterclass at New Perspectives was going to cause a small earthquake in the East Midlands. I’d not seen any of Tim’s work and had heard that he likes to experiment with theatrical form. Fair enough, I thought. But experimentation is for other people – avant-gardists, revolutionaries, and acclaimed writers like Tim. Me on the other hand? I’ve got enough problems getting a handle on the basics like character and plot.
The first warning sign that the ground was going to be swept from under my feet was when I read Tim’s play, The Author, before the class. In the play, first performed at the Royal Court in 2009, the theatre space is arranged with two banks of seating facing each other – and the action takes place from within the audience as four characters explore the brutalising effects of researching, writing and performing violent and abusive material. Forget the cold, clinical feeling I sometimes get from reading plays, I was completely gripped. The Author was more immersive, intense and stomach-turning than anything I recall reading in a very, very long time.
Cut to the rehearsal space at New Perspectives on a bright but cold Saturday, 8 March. There was Tim and about twenty masterclass participants, mostly established and newbie writers, but a few directors too. Over the course of the day Tim led us on a number of writing exercises and gave us all kinds of practical tips for how to develop our work – such as imposing restrictions on oneself (creating problems to be solved) and imbuing small actions with meaning (a bit of a Holy Grail for me, this one). But not just of practical value, the exercises allowed Tim to explore two powerful and dangerous ideas.
Things started innocently enough. Contrary to the usual line to writers, ‘show don’t tell’, Tim is more interested, he explained, in ‘showing through telling’. He gave us the example of his first play, My Arm, a one man piece which Tim himself performed in, about a boy who puts his arm over his head in protest against the world. Someone had recently said to him that it must have hurt to have his arm up throughout the entire performance. But Tim hadn’t once put his arm over head – it was in the writing. As he emphasised to us, ‘I will not show it to you, but you will see it’. Heady stuff, I think, but how do we achieve this? This is when things started to get hairy.
Tim issued an ‘invitation’ to us to think about form. I may have gulped at this point. This was the first dangerous idea. Tim explained that he sees writing as co-authoring – that the audience has to be engaged in the process. As the writer one should try to do as little as possible, make the audience do the work. Getting the form right will help the audience, and once the writer is clear on the form it will make the writing easier. In a moment of panic I blurted out something along the lines of ‘but surely we need to be able to do the basics before we start messing about with form?’ Tim looked at me with a mixture of kindness and pity. The point, he explained, is that you need the right form for your story – and you need to know why it is the right form. I knew in my heart that he was right.
But getting the audience to do the work? Bloody hell. This was when Tim asked us: ‘Want do you want to do to your audience?’ … a beat… This second idea was a bombshell. As a student I’d been trained that there are few truths and certainties. This has meant that in my writing I have been tentative and diffident – as in, ‘what we know is bogus, but here are some ideas you might find interesting or entertaining’. Now I realised I was being too polite. I thought I’d been keeping it real simply because my characters use choice language that my mum wouldn’t approve of. But the audience? What do I want to do… to my audience?
After the masterclass I went home and ripped up the play I’d been working on. Ever since my head has been buzzing. There has been a seismic shift somewhere and my feelings about playwriting seem different. By inviting us to think about form and the audience Tim has set us an enormous challenge. Do I have the skills to meet this challenge? I don’t know yet. Do I have the courage to go on the attack – to thrust a rusty screwdriver into the guts of my audience? Courtesy of an online book retailer, a volume off Tim’s plays has just arrived in the post.
Rob Turnock, Writer, Emerging Perspectives Company