Watched an oddball but extremely affecting British miniseries on Britbox tonight called Don’t Forget the Driver starring Toby Jones (in two roles) and co-written by Jones and Tim Crouch. The plot concerns a bus driver in Bognor Regis who discovers, having taken his bus to Dunkirk (apparently you can ferry a bus across to France from the south coast of England) discovers an illegal alien has been smuggled into the country in his storage compartment. He further discovers that some bad guys in Bognor intend to keep her prisoner and traffick her. He seizes the opportunity to help her escape, and her presence in his life complicates every other aspect of his life. It’s part drama, part farce, sometimes suspenseful, sometimes outrageous. Jones makes big acting choices but they always seem to be grounded. He is matched beautifully with Claire Rushbrook, who I suppose I should have remembered from Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies. She has a quality that reminds me of the great Susan Lancashire.
Tim Crouch’s name struck me as familiar. And then I remembered I’d seen his play An Oak Tree at the Barrow Street Theater. Reading up on Crouch, he seems to be a guy who likes to explore provocative patches of the theater. Certainly “Don’t Forget the Driver” is not your usual TV fare, but it held me for six 30-minute episodes.
I looked in my files and found that I wrote a fair amount about An Oak Tree in an article in 2007. Here is what I wrote:
“When Someone Gives You the Character” – Jeffrey Sweet
Del Close, Chicago’s legendary and eccentric improvisational director-guru, had a habit of dropping brilliance the way others pull their pockets inside out to expel crumbs. I spent a fair amount of time with him, and so picked up my share of these. One particular crumb has been rattling around in my mind a lot because of shows I’ve seen recently:
Character is not only what you, the actor, bring to the stage. It is also conferred upon you by the actors with whom you play.
In other words, the character you play isn’t only conveyed by what you do, it is also conveyed by how other actors playing characters treat you.
Case in point: I recently stopped by Second City to see Disposable Nation, the new revue playing on their second stage. As is true with all Second City shows, it was developed improvisationally by the company and it views contemporary American life and politics from a sardonic perspective. This edition of the show features a good deal of interaction between the cast and audience.
In one sketch, the cast lines up downstage playing various participants in a wedding. The twist: the groom– call him Charlie – is a man selected from the audience. Further twist: it is a gay wedding. The revue’s performers step forward in turn and – building on information gleaned from a few short interchanges with the agreeable if slightly stunned participant (who, the night I saw it, was attending with his wife of three months) – speak warmly of the impending ceremony from their characters’ perspectives. One is a coworker who talks about the day Charlie came out of the closet. Another is the sister of the man Charlie was to marry. Another, the other groom.
Of course, the bit wouldn’t work if 1) the man in the audience weren’t good-natured enough to play along and 2) if the audience weren’t in on the joke that he’s being conferred an identity that is distinct from his real one. We simultaneously appreciate the jokes based on the situation of the wedding and the humor derived from the cast imposing a surprising role on a fellow audience member.
In another scene, one of the actors, playing a grade-school football coach, wades into the audience and invests various guys in the house with identities as hapless young teammates. He challenges first this man and that man for excuses for a woefully-played game. And the guys in the audience have to produce. They have to come up with reasons why they have fumbled this pass or failed to block that tackle. The comedy is generated by watching the performer integrate these responses into the scene he is playing.
In the Second City examples I cite, non-actors are put into the situation of having to play roles projected onto them. In An Oak Tree, British actor-writer named Tim Crouch is currently doing something similar with professional players. (As I write this, he’s playing it to acclaim in London.) Every night Crouch invites a new actor onto the stage to play with him. The actor arrives innocent of particulars of the event in which he is about to participate. He is not allowed to see the script, and Crouch is happier if he hasn’t read any of the reviews and so cannot anticipate the course of the show.
The evening has a dramatic premise: Crouch plays a traveling hypnotist traumatized by an auto accident in which he was the driver and in which a young girl has died. The hypnotist calls for a volunteer subject for his act and is startled to discover that the volunteer is the father of the girl. The father is not there for revenge, however, but to try to acquire some kind of understanding so that he can make peace with the loss of his child. The gimmick of hypnosis gives both Crouch and the guest actor license to speak in various voices and roles.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that I think this is a world-shaking play. But then I don’t think that its primary purpose is to be a play. Rather it is a nightly theatrical experiment in front of an audience. Crouch is fitted out with a microphone and the guest actor wears an earpiece so that Crouch may whisper instructions into the actor’s ear without the audience being privy. Sometimes, Crouch hands the actor a script so that he may cold-read a scene that of course Crouch has memorized. And sometimes Crouch issues instructions within the audience’s earshot.
The actors who performed with him last fall in New York included such varied and talented folk as Mike Myers, Richard Kind, Stephen Lang, F. Murray Abraham, Denis O’Hare and (gender-bendingly) Joan Allen, Alison Fraser and Judith Ivey. Some actors find the experience exhilarating, like driving at 70 through a fog at night with high beams on. They have to instantly incorporate and assimilate the bits of information Crouch provides them in order to create something like a consistent character. (They also have to trust completely that Crouch will not allow them to drive straight into a wall.) When asked by an actor how he could justify a piece of direction she had given him, director Elaine May once famously replied, “An actor’s job is to justify.” Performing in An Oak Tree, actors face an hour-long challenge to justify constantly.
There are some actors who find the experience disagreeable. One of my friends (whose name I’m not at liberty to disclose) e-mailed me later that he left the stage with a “slightly sour feeling.” He asked me my response to the piece. This (lightly edited) is some of what I e-mailed in reply:
“There were at least three levels going on at the same time, the ‘real’ you and Crouch, the so-called you and Crouch scripted by him (in which you gave each other compliments and reassurances he had written, so we knew that you weren’t the author of those compliments and reassurances and so didn’t necessarily believe them), and the dramatic action of the hypnotist and the father. There were constant collisions between these three levels, which were intriguing and unsettling, and, even though aspects were palpably artificial and manipulative, chunks still proved to be moving. (And yes, it is not too hard to be moving invoking the grief of a parent who has lost a child.) To some degree, I think the evening was about confronting the possibility of being moved by something we know is artificial and a bit bogus. Crouch wasn’t hiding the fact that it was manipulative. Part of what went on in the audience is that we were on your side and couldn’t help but be a little wary of the aspects of what he was doing that smelled of snake-oil salesmanship. But then I think he intended this.
“And then there was the contrast between his highly-prepared, somewhat hammy and melodramatic performance and your more spontaneous, naturalistic instincts, which I think he also intended.
“I would guess that you are not alone among the actors who have played it not feeling fulfilled by it. But then some actors love to work with Mike Leigh, and some don’t. Though he has determined the story of a film before he begins production, Leigh (director of the films Secret and Lies, Naked, and Vera Drake) never gives his actors scripts but rather shoots the story in chronological order. Each morning, the actors are told the premise of the scene they are going to work on that day, they improvise under his guidance, and then a polished version of their improvisation is filmed. Normally, when you do a play or movie, you have access to the whole script so that you can work on the overall arc of your character’s journey. Leigh doesn’t want his cast to do that work. He likes to keep the actor as ignorant of the future as the character is. This way he can avoid the phenomenon of the actor playing the end of the script, anticipating the conclusion of the journey.
“Some find this methodology takes away much of what satisfies them as actors — the challenge of crafting the shape of a performance. There are some great actors who refuse to work with Mike Leigh for just this reason; they don’t like being manipulated. On the other hand, there are some who trust him thoroughly and have done some of their best work with him — Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Brenda Blethyn, etc.
“I think what Crouch is doing is very much like what Leigh is doing. You didn’t enjoy yourself performing last night, and I suspect you wouldn’t want to work with Leigh.
“But sometimes what is an unhappy and unsatisfying experience for an actor is very exciting for an audience. The fact that you weren’t happy doesn’t take away from my finding it very exciting to watch you make instant choices and adjustments and find ways to undercut and play in counterpoint to Crouch’s hamminess. Out front, it was pretty dazzling. The paradox is that, though you had all these artificial hedges on all sides of you, you still did stuff that only you, specifically, could do, and it really turned out to be your evening. We in the audience knew Crouch was going to be OK because he wrote it and was controlling the event. He had the security that comes from having done this piece a hundred times or so before. So the fascination was in watching what you did. There was a bit of a David and Goliath dynamic here; you were the evening’s David and did indeed emerge with honor.
“None of this contradicts your feeling that it’s artificial and manipulative. Part of what makes it a successful evening is that it works even though the audience is never for a moment unaware of the contrivances.”
I can’t help but wonder what Del would have made of the evening. I suspect he would have casually characterized it as flashy bull and then spent the rest of the evening discussing its philosophical implications. Whether one likes what Crouch does or not, one cannot leave the show without being moved to explore the nature of identity onstage.