In conversation with Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation by Tim Crouch
A little background information: this conversation is between Maddy Costa (UK) who saw Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation at the Royal Court in London in September 2019, and Caridad Svich (US) who read the text published by Oberon. Both of us know Tim Crouch as an actual human being and think he’s pretty great.
I am holding a book in my hands. It tells a story. It tells many stories. There is the one about a family and their loss, and about a daughter that lives in a place where much has been done to protect her/shield her from loss. It’s about a mother searching to repair the past and retrieve the child from a forest of lies, which may also be true. But it is also a story about me reading this book, holding it in my hands and wondering where my relationship to relative subjective truth and lies sits. Is theatre an act of truth-telling when we make it? Who gets to say so and why? And how is reading itself an act of imagined theatre taking place? The page, after all, is a canvas too — a site of play — and it carries within it an evocation of future embodiment. It is in the past, as a printed page, but also pointing towards some future unknown.
In the case of Tim Crouch’s Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation, the vector points that signal future and past are emblems of fragility. Unstable, barely fixed, the future in this work for live engagement is precarious and isolating, despairing and oddly charged with hope. The same hope that animates Tim Crouch and Andy Smith’s what happens to the hope at the end of the evening? Or the kind rendered possible in the profound well of grief wherein stands An Oak Tree?
It may seem perhaps foolhardy to bandy the word “hope” here, given that the story(ies) told and read in Total Immediate… are ones framed through lenses of catastrophe and failure. Yet, nonetheless, reading Total Immediate… I am knocked sideways (in a good way) by the extraordinary level of hopefulness the piece contains within its precarious pages of struggle, hurt, bleakness, and defiance.
In its stubborn insistence on acts of necessary disobedience, in its refusal to render speech acts as certain and absolute, Total Immediate…. lives, to my mind, beside another work of radical activist poetic theatre, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, wherein too the illustration of pictorial signs is part of the narrative and design of the book as art-object (meant to be read and signed). Both works exist and have been made in warring times. In Kaminsky’s case, the republic is shattered by tyranny and armed with silence as rebuke, but also as a complicit position. Silence is a weapon and a tool for expressing solidarity. I am beside you in non-speech. I am with you in this space and time with only, in the end, black pages marking the end/beginning of human history.
In the book of Total Immediate… the audience is told to do things and say things not unlike a church hymnal would. There is a ritual being enacted and we are part of it. Will our actions matter? Do our actions make a difference? As Andy Smith says in his essay in Innovation in Five Acts , “what can we do?”
Is the demand of faith in faithless times (to slightly paraphrase Simon Critchley) the truest expression of actionable hope in the Capitalocene (to use Jason Moore’s term to describe the times in which we live)?
Indeed, can we have faith in what is written in the stones of history, and here, in the inky signs of the play-text? How does a book hold its reader? How is the stage/page space held?
Shall we meet the end of the play as an end of the world? And what world do we then make when we walk out the door of the theatre?
It’s always fascinating thinking with you about work that I’ve seen and you’ve only read; but particularly so with this piece, because you’re able to see so much of it, given that the world of the play — by which I mean the design, the scenography — is contained within the book. It’s not exactly the same book that the audience hold in their hands while watching the show, but close. In that “not exactly, but close”, however, a lot of very slippery stuff happens that I’d like to tell you about.
For one thing, no one is allowed to turn a page until told. And so the entire show is punctuated, at every turn of the page, by the word OK. Not a question: time to proceed now, OK? An order, somewhat peremptory: you have our permission to proceed now, OK. There is control in the room, an electric sizzle around the question of command and complicity. (Before seeing it, I spoke to a woman who was angry that when she saw it, so many white men — she specifically said white men — would flick through the book or turn the page before instructed: the arrogance, she exclaimed! After seeing it, I wondered about that. Arrogance, yes, but also confidence. Also a refusal to obey the rules, from which comes resistance.)
The voltage on that electric charge surges once the character played by Tim himself enters the room. This figure is at once the author of the play (real) and the author of the world (fictional), and because he plays something of a cult leader, there’s a particular frisson to the way in which, as you say, “the audience is told to do things and say things not unlike a church hymnal would”. He asks: “Can I hear someone say yes?” And there is nothing — nothing! — innocent about this request. He is asking the audience to assent to his way of thinking, and his way of thinking has been, as we’ve heard, controlling of his daughter and other women in the camp, violent and implacable. And yet, people in the audience assent. And as they do, another question hovers: is this OK? Are we sure?
Lastly, most importantly, the play doesn’t end with the silence of the empty final page. It ends with the character played by Tim opening his mouth to speak, but being cut off by the blackout. This, for me, is what opened up all those questions you so acutely raise. If the author isn’t going to tell us what happens next, surely it’s up to us, up to me.
Something else I think it’s important to admit: I was a bit underwhelmed by the show itself when watching it. It’s very sparse, feels pared back to a minimum. I saw it in the Upstairs theatre at the Royal Court, which is used in its bare black box state: nothing on the walls, floor scruffy, two circles of chairs exactly as drawn by Rachana Jadhav, so exquisitely, in the book. I don’t remember any kind of lighting other than the workers; the sound design was more complex, but mostly the whole had the feel of incredibly fine couture clothing, the kind that has nothing showy about it, nothing demonstrative or extraneous, just a fabric cut with perfect intuition for how it holds to and moves around a body, all the complicated work of it hidden in its seams. Watching Total Immediate…, I could feel the artistry in the simplicity, and also felt nonplussed.
And then the very next day…
To be honest, and ridiculous, it felt like the universe opened up and the light of all knowing hit me. That’s an image would appeal to Tim’s character Miles, right? It was like I was suddenly faced with the immensity of what Tim is inviting his audience to think about. Miles is a man who stares death in the face and emerges with a belief in his ability to transcend time and space, who believes the apocalypse is here, he has a date for it, and he and the community he’s built around him are going to emerge intact. He’s had the visions, but he’s also done the calculations, and he’s created the story that holds others’ faith. Art, science, religion. The holy trinity on which our society is built.
The society as represented in the play is isolationist — the community lives within a wire fence — and colonising: a map of its whereabouts shows the sweep of South America containing Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina. And it’s dictatorial: Miles commands language and through that thought. It makes me think of the ways in which the society Tim is addressing — this capitalist one, this white supremacist one — has been constructed, but also internalised, so that we reproduce it in and from the body, in and from the psyche. I’m using “we” very loosely and dangerously here, but I hope with some justification. There’s another jolt in the theatre room when a character speaks off-book (but still, of course, on-book: this is the kind of metaphysical trick Tim excels in). As writer and as performer, Tim so quickly draws his audience into the sticky web of the world he constructs: I wonder what might happen if an audience member dared to speak off-book too.
Learning to speak off-book, to root out capitalism and white supremacy from its deep-buried places, to risk disruption, takes energy, and that energy takes faith. You’ve talked often, recently, about struggling with your own faith when it comes to theatre: we both know what a horribly capitalist industry this is at its worst. I talk often about worrying that I’m just distracting myself by going to the theatre, consuming all my time so there’s none left to do anything actively useful. I keep needing to remind myself that art is essential and integral to human nature. How does a play like this revive your faith?
Between the multiple Boris Johnson fracas in your side of the world and the Ukraine phone call/impeachment inquiry of Trump here in mine, and the nearly simultaneous and necessary urgency behind the global climate strike(s), I have been wondering if indeed we are somehow/somewhere partly inside Miles’ visions…
In tandem with Tim’s play and his ongoing collaboration with Andy Smith and Karl James, I have also been thinking a lot about Simon Critchley’s recent book Tragedy, The Greeks and Us, where he carefully explores the history, fact and philosophy of tragedy in theatre (writ large) and how its primary mode often is one of disorientation, an overwhelming experience that allows the question “what shall I do?” to arise. Cheekily, but also with a fine grain of truth, Critchley states in his book that as the threads of time unearth the past in tragedy from being a thing of the past and allow instead for the reverberations of the past to shoot through the present and future, the script is, as Bowie said, “you and me”.
This is true in a figurative sense in how the book and production of Total Immediate… have been conceived. The script — in our hands, on our tongues, in our ears, at the touch of our fingertips — is held between you (the three actors in this piece) and me (the audience, who is also an actor). We are all acting the world of this script, but the author has decided its contours and signs, while its illustrator/designer, Rachana Jadhav, has created yet another that is complementary but also slightly different, disorientating us from what we may take for granted as certain. Already the seeds are planted in our minds before we are allowed to turn a page.
So, is the script you and me? Or is the script you and almost me believing for a while that your script is ours?
(Sidebar: in church-like settings, I am often the one that is rebellious and dare myself to read ahead, just like those white men you mention. A touch of arrogance. But for me, resistance to accepting the “given”, for something else, of my own choosing. Often in church, I would sing under my breath a different hymn than the one being sung communally, just to see what would happen, but also to hear if a different kind of harmony could occur. Dissensual harmony? I was making theatre even then, as a child.)
Tim’s play begins in a state of disorientation. The young woman is in our future-present trying to locate her position/coordinates in the world at the edge of the known world. Endland. Edgeland. She begins with “eyes,” which recalls the refrain of “Look” in Tim’s play ENGLAND. What do we see when we look? Are we looking? Is this here? Or is this another here? In memory? In a script written by someone else? Do we choose to avert our eyes because we want to protect ourselves? Do we look away because things hurt?
If “eyes” are a first order (holy orders?) in the page of this young woman’s book, which is not hers but one written by a man — her father — and also too the author, what do her eyes really make out? What fiction contains her? How does she break free of this patriarchal world/script?
This act of breaking through/free makes me think of the constructed histories/herstories in Adler & Gibb, which like so much of Tim’s work centered on the slippery and entangled process of making a fiction out of truth and turning that truth into an act of multivalent (and valiant) performance. When we leave the script behind, after the final page is turned, do we release the book and become ourselves? Or does the book go inside us and re-make us in its images?
It’s interesting you mention your initial nonplussed reaction to the production with its spare, austere, workman-like setting and matter-of-factness. Non-spectacular theatre. Against spectacle. Also, your mention of couture cloth, which makes me think of the form of the garment — that first white drape of fabric — muslin usually — that is the base from which the rest will follow as the design process takes flight. If the effect of Total Immediate… in performance is that, in part, deceptively, we are inside the form without any “distractions” but the text-book from which the rest will spring, what is it that we imagine in the imagined theatre of the piece, then?
I had a perhaps curious reaction to reading the play-text, and one not unlike yours, if substantially different. One of the things that struck me about reading the piece was that, well, it is about the act of reading visual signs (printed words against white space by Crouch, and the illustrated signs of the black-and-white pencil drawings created by Jadhav) and holding in the brain the imagined world of hot sun and flattened grass where the young woman finds herself initially in the story while simultaneously the world of being in the theatre with this book. The audience in Total Immediate… is positioned to some extent in the role of the second unscripted yet scripted actor in An Oak Tree (Tim being the first actor). We open the book. We are given instructions. But there is an unsettled feeling at work between what the book demands of the audience, and the fraught situation in which the young woman and the older woman and later, the controlling figure of Miles, are embodying for us in the story of the play.
(Slight sidebar: in Tim’s work, nearly always thus far in his major pieces, there is the story of being in theatre itself, the story being told about a place somewhere else, and a third story about how everyone in the room of theatre reckons with this unseen, imagined elsewhere and how it too lives in our minds.)
I found myself as disorientated as the young woman in the story, and maybe for the first time in my nearly fifteen years of living with and encountering Tim’s work (and Andy Smith’s as well), I also found myself unwilling to fall into the story being told. Why, I wonder? Was I rejecting the fact that in Total Immediate…, the central act of storytelling is essentially representational … until it isn’t? The young woman is played by a young woman, the older woman is played by an older woman, the older man is played by an older man. Unlike in An Oak Tree, where there is a frisson between the description of the father and the performer “reading” the father, in Total Immediate…, the tension between what is described and what is seen lies in geography, in place, rather than in the body.
We know we are in a theatre, in a chair, in my room, reading a book. We know we are not in a gated community somewhere in South America demarcated on a map by a colonial hand holding a dictatorial Sharpie. So, the “place” is elsewhere. The theatre itself, its room, is an actor standing in for another place. OK, just like Illyria and so many other places in plays. But in Total Immediate…, this “place” takes on heightened meanings the more the play moves forward page by page. Isn’t the theatre a gated community? Lots of times? How did we walk in? How do we leave? Who gets to walk in? Who doesn’t and why? Who can afford it? Who can’t? And isn’t the entire world falling apart too? So, could we be coming here for a bit of salvation? Isn’t that what we have been told time and again? The theatre — barren, hot, flattened, plain — will be your salvation. But whose version of said salvation? And what if we don’t want to be saved?
There is a line in the play which reads “Jesus didn’t die so we could be reborn, lady. The stars did,” which feels like a riff on Patti Smith’s lyric from Horses: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Or at least, that’s the different song I sung underneath the line as I was reading it. Parallel lines. Parallel planes.
Reading the play eventually knocked me sideways, as I said before, but only days after I had read it. At first, I was angry. Not by anything said in the piece or even by its modes of being, but rather by suddenly feeling as if the book — which for a writer and reader who has had a lifetime relationship with books as objects and talismans and emblems that take on a different meaning — stood for something that HAD to tell me things and SHOW me things. I kept saying, No. Books don’t have to tell me anything or show me anything. They can simply be… something else.
And then… this was a few days after reading…. it suddenly returned to me. The book did. Or rather the circle at the beginning — the circle of time — and the black pages of emptiness/possibility at the end, and my anger softened, and I was back in the land of the room of theatre –
the room that has been my chosen home and also one that has kicked me out more than a few times, the one whose gates have sometimes drawn up (and often still do) and refuse entry for reasons mysterious, strange and patriarchal, but also sometimes too matriarchal, the one that says anything is possible and the one that says nothing can be done, the one that is a site of struggle and pain, but also, rare joy and fellowship/commonwealth, the one that says don’t use parenthesis and the one that says use whatever punctuation you wish to express the fact that the page is not a fixed thing but a vulnerable field that can’t ever be fully settled or colonized, the one that preaches monolingualism and the one that resists the tyranny of such, the one that renders gender as a stable state and the one that acknowledges fluidity, the one that speaks in drum(s), and the one that speaks in gesture and silence, the one that recognizes the ones that went before and the one that pretends everything is new, the one that hurts and the one that heals… for a time…
– and in this time, in the land of the room of theatre, the book was not my enemy, although it had seemed so just a few days before. That is to say, I had constructed a false image of the book because I think that the question and matter of faith — religious, spiritual, and holistic — is one that shakes me, and sometimes I do want the book to tell me things and show me things, and indeed, this book (by a writer I love) was telling me all sorts of things and showing me a great many things, but actually what it was really telling me and showing me in its own brave and bracingly elegant way was something else. It was asking me to look beyond the book, and that yes, the “script”, such as it is, really is you and me.
Yes, and the problem of the words “you and me” in theatre is that the bodies so often look alike. Which is why — despite my own taste, which sometimes prompts allergic reactions to representational theatre, and despite admiring Tim for the ways in which he disrupts representation — I’ll admit I was troubled by some of the disparities between Rochana’s illustrations and the room they represented. It’s fine that Miles and Tim look nothing alike: they’re both white men, and so — I think Tim is allowing for this insolent implication — interchangeable. But in shading and 3c hair curl Anna-on-paper looks like a woman of colour — whereas on stage was played by a white woman. That circle of chairs Rochana draws, doubling up as Miles’ cult circle and the audience circle in the theatre, contains people of various backgrounds; but most of the audience at the Royal Court were white (and, I noticed, a lot of them sounded the posh end of middle class when speaking). So who is this “you and me” excluding in fact, if not in fiction?
When I think about the kind of social change I want to see, I think about the structures of theatre and how all of them — ALL OF THEM — need to be remade. The funding structures and the power structures, the structures of commissioning work and the structures of making work. In a sidebar of my own, I write this still itchy from a play I saw yesterday — Faith, Hope and Charity at the National Theatre — that does a meticulous, honourable job of representing the lives of people living in poverty in the UK: but does this by taking real people’s stories and laying them out for a wealthy audience to pay £27 for a restricted view seat, more than double that for top price, money that is necessary to recoup the cost of paying for really excellent actors, who won’t be performing in any of the community centres represented, also at a cost, on the stage. I watched it thinking, yes, this is a very good piece of theatre — but what social change might be effected by everyone in this room, makers and audience, you and me, putting all the same time and energy and money into supporting community centres. Yes, I’m being very literal — but so was this piece of theatre.
Back to Tim and Total Immediate… and the ongoing problem of whiteness in theatre, and capitalism, and patriarchy, and the gap between its promise and what actually occurs. While we’ve been writing I’ve swapped thoughts with another friend who was actively disappointed by the play: in particular by what they perceived as a vacuum of compassion for Miles. Having experienced in personal relationships “the impact of grief on the development of fundamentalism”, they felt that Miles was too one-dimensional — more symbol of oppressive power than complicated man — and the play more ideological monologue than nuanced dialogue. Yes, power oppresses, they said, “but what about love, trust, culture and ideas — aren’t all of these great counter-balances to power?”
It’s in the character of Anna that Tim offers these things, I think. (Which makes it doubly interesting that Rochana draws her, to my looking, as a black woman, but she’s played by a white woman — isn’t that just typical of the past 150 years of feminism?) For Sol to receive these things, she has to leave the circle — leave the theatre. Tim lets her do that — only to bring her back again at the end. Sol is in both places at once: in the loving arms of her mother, freed of the ideology that constrained her, and held inside of it, apologetic, exactly as her father sees her. What possibility might lie in that double-ness, I wonder? What world might be created on a parallel plane — not like Miles’, a re-creation of all the worst of this patriarchal capitalist world, but one founded on love, trust, culture and ideas?
I think Total Immediate… deliberately asks its audiences (who will be different in Edinburgh, London, Dublin, Lisbon and wheresoever it plays after that) to contend with the difference(s) you mention, in a manner not dissimilar to the way in which, in Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree, the printed and spoken description of the character of the father was different to the second actor asked to represent him on stage. Crouch is interested in dissonance or, shall we say, the tension between what is seen and what is heard. He is open to precisely the kind of disruption and discomfort you experienced watching the production at the Royal Court.
The narrative of Total Immediate… is in great part about a narrative of dictatorial thought and colonization. Could the cult described in the story of Total Immediate… be not just a religious cult colonizing and imposing itself upon a part of South America but also, in turn, in performance, be a commentary on the cult of Anglo dominant theatre imposing itself on non-Anglo stories and spaces?
There are several stories occurring within Total Immediate…: there is the one of the daughter and the mother, of the unyielding tyrannical father, and also of a community that is unseen — the other members of the cult — who have come to witness the end of the world. But there is also the story of being in the room with this play and being part of the cult of theatre and pretending as if the book — the script — is all there is, when the script is a fiction shared by us in the room. In this case, the script holds a separate yet integral script, which is the illustrated text by Jadhav. This pictorial narrative complements the written narrative but also complicates it. Who is telling the story? Which version is “true?” Could they both be true insofar as truth and fiction are strange bedfellows in performance?
As Andy Smith talks about in both Summit (a piece which I think could be played in rep with Total Immediate…) and in his collaborative piece Commonism, who gets to be in the room, whose stories are privileged and why, and is there any ground in common? Could we walk away with another book in our hands (as audiences do in Commonism) and take action in and with our lives in a different way? Or are we to believe that our hope lies in placing our collective faith in the hands of a tyrant’s lies?
Circling back to Simon Critchley and his book on tragedy: ‘Salvation is the wrong concept when it comes to thinking through and assessing the value of human life. The world was not made for us nor we for the world. Human beings’ relation to the world is a marriage of convenience or adaptation made neither in heaven nor in nature, but on the slaughter bench of history.’ (New York: Pantheon Books, page 70)
Crouch, Smith, James and Jadhav have made Total Immediate… with a great degree of intentionality. None of these practitioners is casual about how they go about things. So, before taking them too much to task about the discomforting nature of the figurative dissonance they apply in this piece — and there are other dissonances at work too — why not ponder instead, for a moment, about how Miles’ chance to speak at the end is cut by a blackout?
Is the blackout meant to signal the eclipse awaited for by the cult members in the story?
Or is his silencing/erasure a signal that the tyrant must end his reign, and that we need to be freed from such tyranny?
Historically, tyranny crosses all colour lines.
So, one could also argue that instead of a character called Miles, we are looking at an intentionally flat symbol of tyrannical monomania.
Now, the matter of who is the in the audience and why is crucial of course. Who thinks they are welcome in the theatrical space and who does not and why?
What historical precedents have been set to alienate people from a venue and how to rectify this?
Why are some plays plays and other plays ‘black’ plays? Or ‘Asian’ plays? Etc.
Who carries the burden of representation and how are they being asked to carry it?
In effect, who is doing the labour of representing? And when is that labour being taken for granted and/or ‘used’ (in the most cynical sense) to check a ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ item line in a venue’s overall operating scheme?
I think about Arinze Kene’s brilliant provocation in Misty about what is a ‘black’ play, for instance, and by extension, to amplify his question, ‘Asian, indigenous, Latinx’, etc?
It is a question that hangs over all theatre, and one that we will all likely not fully solve in our lifetimes.
I think Total Immediate… in its own way is part of the conversation about who ‘owns’ stories. Is it really Miles’ book? Or is it Jadhav’s?
Have we been tricked and/or dictated to, to think it is Miles’?
Can we change the narrative? Can it be wrested away from white cis-het-male patriarchal systems? (And I would add here that not all white-cis-het male figures are by default patriarchal.)
When the narrative is changed, what will it change to? Will the changes allow for multiplicity or will there be an effort to replace one tyranny for another?
If this is the end of the world, and the world is not ours, could the change start there? Away from ‘the slaughter bench of history?’