Tim Crouch on “How Not To Act”

You are an actor who has just been told by her director to "stop overacting".

One of the nice perks of working at Pixar (did I mention I work at Pixar? I don’t usually bring it up, since it rarely has anything to do with my blog) is a constant stream of classes, speakers, and first run movies that are available to employees at no cost. Last week, hosted by the Emeryville Center for the Arts, writer/performer Tim Crouch gave an introduction to the driving ideas behind his work, work that I’ve been completely unfamiliar with, but, as it turns out, is very much in line with my own aesthetic.

Crouch takes issue with what is largely accepted as the craft of “acting”. The punching bag he uses for this presentation is Howard Schatz’s twee coffee table tome “In Character: Actors Acting“, or, more accurately, “Actors Mugging”. Despite the largely celebratory reviews, Crouch quite rightly believes that this is only acting in the most impoverished sense of the word. For each photo, the subject is given a brief description of a situation, and then, using only their face, “act” that scenario. Hardly a promising setup, though beautifully photographed, the results are so gratuitously on the nose that the smilie at the end of this sentence feels like a more genuine expression of feeling. 🙂

One by one, Crouch would project these schmacting heads onto the main Pixar screen and read aloud the sentence that informed this particular ‘performance’, each absurdly specific and kinda stupid, possible candidates for this year’s Bulwer-Lytton prize. But Crouch has an insight… if you read a different sentence from the one that triggered the image, boom! All of a sudden, it’s INTERESTING. There’s confusion, ambiguity, and you as an audience member are forced to wonder… why? You start to justify, you invent a story around this character, yes, finally, a character, to explain why their reaction to the scenario is not at all what you expect. Why is this guy smugly smiling to himself while listening to his wife and children fighting? Why is he furiously shouting when he just found out that he’s getting an enormous raise? All of a sudden, the pictures become alive, active, dimensional, real.

It’s you, the viewer who is making this happen. A process in your brain has been triggered. You’re activated. You’re responding to the images in a way that you didn’t before. You’re struggling to resolve a dissonance. But even this is merely the dissonance between what a character is doing and what you expect him to do. The kind of dissonances that Crouch strives for in his work deal with the very nature of existence, truth, and theater.

To simplify (probably past the point of inaccuracy), Crouch creates intentional contradictions between the reality of what’s actually being done on the stage and the fictitious reality being created by the work. It’s a sort of anti-representational theater, instead of using props, costumes and scenery to create the illusion of reality, he engineers unresolvable differences between what’s true in the story and what you’re seeing and hearing on the stage. Imagine an auto-biographical monologue where a performer describes a horrific car accent from his youth, finishing with the line “I still have the scars on my back”, at which point the actor pulls his shirt up to reveal… a back utterly devoid of scars.

Well, what does that mean? Is the monologue auto-biographical or not? Obviously not, it’s just a show after all. But maybe it’s the auto-biography of a compulsive liar, or someone not connected to reality. Or maybe the scar was there and you couldn’t see it. In any case, you’re jarred from the story being told and placed back into the moment of reality, but both the narrative and the reality are richer for the momentary disconnect.

Out of context, it may seem that far too much weight is being attributed to the simple lack of a make-up budget, but one has to remember that this is but a moment in a larger series of moments all designed create this confusion. Recounted in isolation, it’s hard to know how these techniques work over the course of an entire show, but given Crouch’s obvious intelligence and skills as a performer, I’m willing to bet that his pieces are very effective indeed. Based on this all too brief presentation, I would travel quite a ways for an opportunity to see what he has to offer.