Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree might be the only theatrical production I’ve seen for which the actual date that I attended made a difference. The performance that I saw — the closing night of the play’s run at London’s Soho Theatre — has lingered in my mind throughout the three years since that evening. Crouch’s play is experimental theater at its finest and most compelling: haunting, profound, and endlessly thought-provoking.
An Oak Tree is comprised of only two characters, one of whom, the Hypnotist, is played by the playwright himself. The other character, the Father, is portrayed by a different actor or actress at every performance. The true innovation is that the second actor has neither read nor seen the play before. Throughout the performance, Crouch hands the other actor pages from the script to read from, or gives the actor brief instructions or lines of dialogue through a set of earphones. So the play presents, in the rawest sense, what goes into the creation of a theater piece, how exactly actors elicit the gestures, expressions, and emotions that they conjure up during a performance, and the amount of courage, trust, and openness that truly responsive acting requires.
On the night that I attended, I was very fortunate, and thrilled, that the actor playing the role of the Father was Janet McTeer. The audience wasn’t aware of this until we stepped into the theater and received the evening’s program. McTeer is a celebrated English actress who was nominated for Academy Awards for her roles in the films Tumbleweeds and Albert Nobbs, and she’s appeared more recently on stage in Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. Other actors who’ve played the Father in the London and New York runs of An Oak Tree include Joan Allen, Laurie Anderson, Frances McDormand, Lili Taylor, Adam Rapp, David Hyde Pierce, Tim Blake Nelson, Christopher Durang, Sophie Okonedo, Eve Best, even Mike Myers.
Before the show began, Tim Crouch briefly prefaced the play by explaining that he hadn’t met Janet McTeer until a few hours beforehand, when they got together to discuss the evening’s performance over coffee. From my seat in the front row of the tiered, black-box auditorium, sitting on the same level as the stage itself, I was excited to be able to observe the actors’ performances in such close proximity. Often, they were standing only six or seven feet from my seat. Something about McTeer’s posture and demeanor conveyed both strength and gentleness. Her voice was husky and warm, her eyes large and alive and curious. She was casually dressed in jeans, boots, jacket, and scarf, and she reminded me somehow of a deer, with a poise at once earthy and elegant.
The premise or plot of this one-act, hour-long play is somewhat intentionally arbitrary, and it could perhaps be swapped with any number of similar storylines. Prior to the time in which the play is set, the Father’s 12-year-old daughter was struck and killed by a car being driven by the Hypnotist. This is revealed early in the play when the Father attends a comedy-style performance that the Hypnotist is doing “upstairs in a pub near the Oxford Road,” for which the play’s actual audience is the stand-in audience. The middle portion of the play finds the two characters grappling with the aftermath of the tragic accident and their respective attempts to overcome their sense of loss and guilt. The emotional undercurrent has the right amount of gravity. It’s a fairly clear-cut and “easy” situation for an actor to respond to, even without having seen or read the script in advance. The second actor's unfamiliarity with the play's text also reflects how abrupt and bewildering the impact of grief can be after the sudden death of a loved one, providing a way for the actor to tap into that particular well of emotional complexity.
Despite its often poetic language, the play’s plot is secondary to the intricate method via which that plot unfolds. Crouch interrupts the story at regular intervals—to supply the second actor with further instructions, to ask how she or he is feeling, to get the actor a glass of water — and all of this is written into the play's printed script. Crouch remains in control as the playwright and primary actor (and he incorporates some clever jokes in relation to this), though it’s clear that the two actors are mutually dependent on one another, and at various points in the play, they feel somewhat interchangeable. It’s a study in how a person can magically become someone else before your very eyes, similar to the idea behind a famous 1973 art installation by British artist Michael Craig-Martin, to which the play’s title refers, and which insists that it’s perfectly possible to “change” a simple glass of water sitting on a shelf into a full-grown oak tree. Transformation is powered by imagination, and vice-versa.
An actor standing onstage is many people and one person. The same goes for each of us in our own daily lives. We know we are singular creatures; we are born, somebody gives us a name. We have an individual place in our families, an individual citizenship in our societies, an individual job or a series of jobs over time. We perform these roles and tasks as we’re told and as we’re taught; sometimes we break away and attempt to live our lives on our own terms, if we’re rebellious or inventive or resourceful enough. Regardless, someone continually hands us pieces of a script. Ideologies, ceremonies, expectations. Yet at the same time we know (and know well) that there is no script at all, a source of terror and freedom for every human being.
Just as the Hypnotist instructs the Father, and himself, during the play’s spellbinding final scene: “You’re driving forward in space and time.”