It might be frosty outside still, but down at the Unicorn Theatre we’re heading to the beach. Jeramee, Hartleby and Oooglemore opens on 12 March and looks set to be the kids comedy of the Spring. During a surreal trip to the seaside three characters attempt to work out their differences – while only ever saying one word each! We talked to the play’s director Tim Crouch about holidays, childhood and working with limited dialogue.
London Calling: Hi Tim! Thanks for talking with us today. You’ve been busy directing Jeramee, Hartleby and Oooglemore. The play starts at the Unicorn Theatre soon. For someone who hasn’t heard of Jeramee, Hartleby and Oooglemore, how would you describe the story?
Tim Crouch: It’s a cross between War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but performed by three people who only ever speak three words. Well, I’m joking: it’s not like War and Peace or Anna Karenina in the story. But it does encompass the whole range of human emotion – jealousy, rage, love, loss – all while on a day at the seaside with these three characters.
LC: The dialogue is pretty thread bare – just these three words. How does this work out?
TC: It’s a beautiful restricting device that actually makes it feel like the emotion is more articulated – certainly it makes the emotion feel more real. Because the characters can’t fully articulate words, they have to rely on all the other stuff – the body, the voice, the face. It’s a play for young people, who might have a limited vocabulary themselves. So there’s a frustration of maybe not being able to find a word or being able to express how you feel. That’s what I mean about the play encompassing the whole range of human emotions. It’s surprising how subtle one can be with three words. If you restrict your palette, you have to find new ways of expressing yourself – and that is partly what Jeramee, Hartleby and Oooglemore is about.
LC: And how did you go about getting emotion out of the three words?
TC: Well we’re still in that process now really. It’s a physical theatre piece – but it doesn’t feel like that. Dialogue is really important. Words are just as important here as any traditional play. Any of those three words – Jeramee, Hartleby, Oooglemore – when they are spoken has to have a really clear reason why they are spoken, the intention behind the words. It’s the kind of process you might do behind a traditional play, but you are doing it in detail around three words only.
We are constantly discovering how flexible and muscular words can be. Today we looked at Hartleby, and how the beginning of the word Hartleby has a “hhaar” to it, like a sigh. So on one level it’s a comedic thing, on one level it’s a physical thing, and on another we are unlocking the meaning of the word. Every time a word is used in the play, the audience needs to understand the meaning of that word.
Photo credit: Richard Davenport
LC: You directed Jeramee, Hartleby and Oooglemore in a production at the Unicorn Theatre last year – and received great reviews. What has changed for this year?
TC: I think we are clearer this year on what the story is about. You try something the first time, and it takes you a little while to work out what it is that you’ve done. Last year we made it, and now I’m in a much healthier position to say what it is that we made. There’s very much an understanding of family in this show – the idea of young kids, siblings and parents. There’s a much clearer guiding light now that anything that doesn’t speak to those ideas has to have a really good reason for being in the script. If they don’t, it goes.
LC: There’s something kind of absurdist about the play: three adults playing kids and only one word of dialogue each. Do you find that kids take a while to grasp the set up?
TC: It’s important to say that I’m not asking these actors to play children. I might not even say that Jeramee, Hartleby and Oooglemore are children. The dynamics between the relationships could as easily be adults as children. A young audience don’t have any hang-ups about that. They don’t ask: Who are these people? What age are they? What socio-economic class are they? They don’t give a damn about that stuff. They just meet the characters face on. If you try and explain too much to children, you miss all the qualities that sit beautifully on the surface.
Photo credit: Richard Davenport
LC: That’s really interesting. It’s a holiday to the seaside, which is a very family activity – but parents and children see those trips very differently…
TC: Yes. And children don’t really see themselves as children: they just define themselves as themselves. They have a whole range of difficulties and pleasures that they don’t see as uniquely child related – they see it as them related! We’ve had lots of discussions about family holidays, and the perils of being the oldest or the youngest or the middle child, and how they all see it differently. You can read that into it if you want to, but it’s not explicit.
I’m trying not to be explicit. As soon as we are explicit in rehearsal, we try to find ways not to be. That doesn’t mean we’re stop the play happening: it means we keep everything open, and openness is a really necessary quality in theatre – for any age, but particularly young people. I think children respond brilliantly to openness because they don’t look through their preconceptions. Adults are terrible theatre-goers: they’ve read the reviews; they’ve seen another production of the same play; they want to know what genre it is. These are questions a child audience never gives any time to. That’s why making theatre for young people is so rewarding.