Edinburgh Fringe Q&A: Tim Crouch

The theatre maker and actor discusses bringing his classic second play, An Oak Tree, back to the Fringe, which first premiered in 2005

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An Oak Tree
Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic
Published 30 Jul 2023

Tell us about your show and what audiences can expect?

What they shouldn't expect is a finely polished, pitch-perfect, immaculately rendered piece of social realism. An Oak Tree tells its story in a different way; in a way that is raw and live and negotiated differently at each performance. I abandoned any expectation of the experience being finely modulated when I decided to put a second actor into the middle of it who has neither seen nor read the play. They step on stage with me at the start with no knowledge of what’s to come. I guide them through. Every word we speak is scripted but otherwise it’s different every time. The actor can do no wrong. They bring themselves and their openness and the play works to accommodate and celebrate their presence. 

An Oak Tree opened in Edinburgh in 2005 and has circled the world a few times. Each time a different actor on stage with me. It’s never felt old or tired or stale as each show is a renewed encounter – both with the second actor and the audience. It tells a story of grief and transformation. It is also very playful, play-full, full of play and the play. It thinks differently and I hope it will give you different thoughts.

Can you talk about some of the creative team involved?

An Oak Tree is held together by the presence of my two closest friends and collaborators, Andy Smith and Karl James. They are credited as co-directors of the show but they are not career theatre directors in any traditional sense. They've been alongside my work since I started writing in 2003. Andy is an academic and performance-maker; Karl works to help people talk to each other. Alongside them is every second actor who’s ever done this play and to whom I owe everything. I couldn’t do the show without them and they have my undying gratitude. They have taught me so much.

This year, An Oak Tree is produced by the inimitable Francesca Moody (Fleabag, Baby Reindeer, Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder, Feeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen, etc). I’m thrilled to be working with this Edinburgh Fringe legend this year and finding new approaches to a play that has been with me for so long.

Where do you draw inspiration from for your work, both in terms of creation and performance?

Inspiration for this particular play came from a work of visual art called An Oak Tree by the artist Michael Craig-Martin. This artwork is a proposition from the artist that he’s turned a glass of water into a fully grown oak tree. It’s gently mind-blowing and provocative and funny and it says as much about theatre as anything I know. In each performance of its namesake we turn something into something else. I’m not doing anything profoundly new – it’s an alchemy that happens in every play – but there is a directness and candour to the process in An Oak Tree that makes it a little different. 

Looking at this production, how would you say it links to previous work personally and thematically?

An Oak Tree was my second play. It undoubtedly links to my first play, My Arm, and it even more undoubtedly links to all the future plays of mine. I sometimes feel like I’m writing the same play over and over again – even though every play of mine is completely different. Themes of representation, control, authority, loss, family and liveness weave their way through all my work. Also, a lightness in production, a simplicity, a directness, a playfulness. 

What do you find special about this work and why do you think there’s still an appetite for it?

I love this question because I'm the playwright and the idea of answering why there would still be an appetite for my work is a nice one. The answer is 'god knows'. My demographic is hardly under-represented in the culture. I suppose I try to look at things differently, I create independently, I push ideas into unconventional shapes, I work with emotion, I tell stories, I try not to discriminate, I try to be embracing of my audiences and my collaborators, I try to be open. I hope my work reflects all this and still has a place in the culture. There is a fetishisation of new voices in our culture. I’m an old voice but I hope I still have new things to say.

Why is this an important story to tell?

It’s not so much the story as how the story is told. A lot of plays are still structured on that old Shakespearean model of scenes and acts and (in more recent approaches to Shakespeare) impersonation. I don’t think that’s how the world works now and i hope my plays are more tuned to a contemporary complexity in form. 

The story of An Oak Tree is about the power of art to deal with loss. It's ancient, found in Greek myth and elsewhere. Stories fundamentally stay the same; it’s the form that registers and reflects the time we live in.

What would you like audiences to take away from seeing this production at the Fringe?

I’d like them to change their perceptions of the world completely and utterly for ever and ever. I’d like them to take to the barricades and dismantle the cultural and political hegemony. Failing that, I’d like them or appreciate the infinite shapes thoughts and feelings can inhabit. I’d like them to have had their brains scratched and their hearts caressed. 

Do you tend to take inspiration from events happening in the world around you in terms of your work? Do you think artists have a responsibility to respond to what's happening?

Artists cannot but respond to what’s happening. What’s happening is all we have to go on. But I don’t take my stories from the papers. Theatre is not a form of dramatised journalism. Theatre changes the world but not in obvious ways. In ways that subtly shift our sense of ourselves. And, with that shifted, we can then change the structures of society. 

How do you feel about the current arts landscape in your country and your part in it? Does it excite you and inspire you to keep pushing the boat out?

The arts in the UK are on their knees. Buildings and organisations closing, artists leaving, a government who invites the National Theatre to Downing Street on one hand and then decimates art funding structures with the other. In Avignon Festival last month, I bumped into the French Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak, at 11pm on her way to see a Fringe show. Can you imagine the UK equivalent doing that? Rima has been in the arts throughout her career. Our current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Lucy Frazer, is a barrister and former financial secretary to the treasury with no expressed interest in the arts. Like so many previous incumbents, she's there as a stepping stone to other things. We’ve had 12 Secretaries of State in 10 years. It feels like she’s there to close things down because the government can’t see that culture is what distinguishes us from amoeba.

So, I’m sorry, I’m not feeling very positive. As for my part in it, I plough a cheap and singular furrow and feel completely honoured to be able to do this, to find an audience for it and to still make a living. The current model can’t sustain. £400 ticket prices for West End shows. Art departments in schools and colleges being closed. The lie is being peddled that art is elitist, irrelevant, uneconomic. The most I can do to counter this is to keep making work. 

Why are arts festivals such as the Fringe so important for international exchange?

Sadly, the notion of international exchange in Brexit Britain is a bit of a joke. At Avignon Festival the interflow between countries and cultures was unimpeded by the bureaucratic suicide pact that was Brexit. It’s become increasingly impractical in the UK to bring work from the EU – or to take work to the EU. We must continue to fight back. International festivals are essential to international understanding. And, without that understanding, we fall into our appallingly siloed, nationalistic positions. We have to understand that we are all the same – and art is the most profound way of doing that.

What can the wider arts community do to get more people involved in their specific disciplines?

I love the scale of this question in a short Q&A for the Fringe. Education, education, education. Young people. Education. Young people. If I ran the world, every arts organisation would be mandated to make work exclusively for and by young people for a year. Nothing else. We are marginalising the next generation at our peril. 

Have you got your eye on any other shows that are part of the programme?

My son, Owen Crouch, is involved as a sound designer with two brilliant companies – Breach and Lung. After the Act is a warning from history. And Lung’s new show, Woodhill, looks unmissable. 

My daughter, Nel Crouch, is a genius at outdoor mayhem. Her Midsummer Night’s Dream for The Handlebards plays two nights at the Assembly George Square Gardens. It’s a joy.

What’s next for you and how are you feeling about the future in general?

I love that young people are still in the project, still making, still showing up, still believing in liveness and community and protest and art. I’m still touring, still making theatre, still working on new things. A new piece for young audiences next year. Searching for supporters for a bigger piece. Big pieces are harder to make now. Organisations are playing it safer. But safe theatre will be eventually what loses us our audience because TV does it better.

How can Edinburgh audiences keep up with you beyond the festival?

Sometimes I update my website. My play Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel (Fringe First 2022) is playing Dublin, Manchester, Lancaster, Bucharest, Brighton, Egham, Hong Kong, etc. My play I, Malvolio (Edinburgh 2011) is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, this November and December. An Oak Tree will be out on the road again in 2024. It’s produced by Francesca Moody and she updates her website more than I update mine.