MAUS Theater of Berlin presents COME THICK NIGHT: A Shakespearean Gruselkabinett at FringeNYC 2014
An Interview with John Crutchfield

Indie Theater Now asked John Crutchfield a few questions about this upcoming event.

Who were the key figures who made this production happen—could be other artists, people who inspired the story, producers/producing company, etc.

The original inspiration for the play lies several years in the past now: certain themes of Shakespeare's Scottish play had begun to preoccupy me starting in 2003 or so, and I knew I wanted to distill them out dramatically, but I wasn't sure into what form to bring them. Then I was a participant in the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival (in 2005 maybe?) and saw a two-actor version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," which I found very exciting, and which helped bring into focus a number of ideas about performance and text that before been somewhat nebulous for me. I wrote a script not long thereafter, but it remained little more than a structure or "placeholder" for the play I wasn't yet able to write. It wasn't until 2013 that I finally found the right story for the play, and then the right moment and the right group of collaborators to put together a production. This too happened under the auspices of the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival. I suppose, then, that among the key figures behind this production I would have to name Jim Julien, Jocelyn Reese, and Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre--the organizers and prime movers of AFAF, along with much else of interest in Asheville's performing arts scene. Without the inspiring "cross-pollination" with other artists that happens at Fringe, I might never have had the clear idea of the play; and without the production support of Fringe I might never have found an opportunity to bring it to the stage at all. As far as the current production--for FringeNYC 2014--it could not have happened without the interest and commitment of my cast here in Berlin: Laura Tratnik and Niels Bormann--both of whom work at a level in European theatre where they could easily fill up their time with more glorious (to say nothing of more lucrative) projects. But for them, I think, the idea of performing in FringeNYC is itself exciting. And of course: without the support of Elena Holy and the FringeNYC people, this production would be impossible. Since first performing in FringeNYC in 2009, I have not ceased to be amazed at what they do, and grateful for their support of my work.

Why is this a play, as opposed to a film or a web series or a novel (or anything else)? And what is it about live theater that attracts you most, that keeps you revved and jazzed to work in this form?

In its inception, "Come Thick Night" is a play-- I really can't imagine it as anything else. It began as an idea for a live performance, and this informs every aspect of it. At risk of stating the obvious, what interests me above all in live theatre is the "liveness": the fact that performer and audience are physically co-present in an event that can be planned, but not controlled. I've always been fascinated by the "feedback-loop" of live performance, i.e. the way the audience responds to the performers, who in turn respond to the audience's response, and so on. I don't think it's too hocus-pocus to talk here of an "energy-flow." In the best live performance, something actually takes place in the room: the body, the mind, the emotions are all involved in an experience that can be quite transformative. I see a play as a kind of "ritual-machine," a device for making real things happen, or rather, for making the experience of "realness" available again. I love literary writing (and do a fair amount of it myself), but it is essentially private--unless "performed" somehow. Films are public, but there is no bodily co-presence of performer and audience, hence no feedback loop, hence no transformation. About web-series I can have no opinion, since I don't know what they are. "Come Thick Night" represents a new approach for me in that I have placed the performative aspect front and center. Ultimately, if the play is "about" anything, it is about this strange, awkward, beautiful and at times terrifying thing called live performance.

Who taught you how to be a playwright? This could be specific teachers, or role models whose work you’ve seen or read, or of course any combination.

I am still learning how to be a playwright. I never studied playwriting in any formal way, but came to it almost by chance, along the dark and solitary paths of poetry. What little I know I've learned in a haphazard way, without guidance, through trial and error, by chance encounters. Generally these encounters have taken the form of seeing other performances in which I feel something real happens, and almost always they fall off the radar of "high cultural": community theatre, street performances of one kind of another, puppetry, physical comedy, children playing, wedding ceremonies, funerals. Little I've read in the "textbooks" seems all that helpful to me, since the plays I'm trying to write are the plays I want to see. Because no one is writing them, I have to do it myself, for better or worse. I learn how to write them by writing them, and then in development and rehearsal I have to unlearn it and start over. In short, I've learned by doing. Which also means I've learned by working with other people, perhaps most importantly my friends and collaborators at The Magnetic Theatre in Asheville, NC. Sometimes I come across a new playscript that teaches me something. But even the justly honored classics--Shakespeare and, let's say, Beckett––though they continue to astound, teach me only what they did, and not what I can do. At most (though this is no small thing), they teach me that writing for the theatre, if it's worthwhile at all, should demand one's utmost creative, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual effort.

What have you learned about this play as it has evolved from first draft to the present version? And what has surprised you in this current production-what did you discover in the work that you didn’t realize was there?

I think the most important thing I've learned in this production relates more to directing than writing. The logistical challenges involved bringing a show to FringeNYC from Berlin made it almost inevitable that we would have to re-imagine the show from the ground up--in other words, that my original staging (for the premier at the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival in 2013) simply wasn't feasible. So we started over from scratch with the bare script. This was pretty disconcerting at first. But I soon discovered something interesting: without the framework of my directorial "vision" for the production, the play started moving in new and extremely interesting directions. In some ways, the "stripped down" (one is tempted to call it "naked") form of the production laid bare a kind of existential vulnerability at the center of the play. This has become the heart of the new production--which in turn necessitated a fair amount of re-writing. Naturally, this discovery wouldn't have been possible without actors of the quality of Laura and Niels: they are both fearless performers, and actually seek out and embrace those moments of maximum volatility and "exposure" in performance. In rehearsal, I've often been dumbfounded just watching them together: the quality of attention, listening, responding, even just plain awkwardness is almost unbearable. I've worked with few actors in my life who can walk the tightrope of catastrophe with such skill. It's really fascinating; and it has taught me to "trust the process" as a director. And as a writer, it's taught me what "Come Thick Night" is really about.

Without giving away any important surprises—what moment or moments do you most look forward to when you see this play being performed?

There are moments I've built into the script where things "break down," where the world of the play flies off its axis and wobbles to a halt. The characters lose their sense of who they are and where and why, and it's no longer even possible to distinguish clearly between character and performer. I really love these moments in the play: Laura and Niels are so simple and authentic, and watching them makes me feel intensely alive.

posted July 21, 2014
John Crutchfield

John Crutchfield