Exciting news! I think I have discovered a new kind of theatre. It’s invigorating to be on the cusp of a new progression. I dream about what it must have been like to work with some of the great innovators of the last century: to train with Grotowski in the early experiments of The Poor Theatre; to collaborate with Boal as he developed Theatre of the Oppressed.
Well, here’s my opportunity. I would humbly venture to christen this new breed Theatre of the Downtrodden (cue humble fireworks and celebrations of all kinds).
Meet Crooked Tree, a theatre company set up in 2013. On their website, they describe their intended audience as “the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the depressed and the alienated”. When I first read this, I found myself feeling rather threatened. I don’t think I’m unhappy enough or oppressed enough or disenfranchised enough to partake in their work. Visualising the kind of person who meets all these criteria, I find myself besieged by middle-class guilt. The admonishment “check your privilege!” rings loudly in my ears. “Surely Geoff, you’re not nearly wretched enough to see a Crooked Tree show?”
However, the more I researched their work, the more I realized that I had rather missed the point. The company is entirely egalitarian. Their philosophy seems to be “come see our shows if you’re interested. Disagree with us if you like – we welcome it! But we’re going to make work that we like, irrespective of what you think”. Even if I’m not the so-called ‘target audience’, I’m sure I’m welcome at the shows. Experiencing art made by people who are different from us is a fantastic way to celebrate diversity. But I’ve got a little ahead of myself.
I sat down with Daniel Tremor, artistic director and founder of Crooked Tree, to discuss his style of theatre-making. He was charming, eloquent and lovely to engage with. This is something of a juxtaposition to the characters who inhabit his work: damaged, confrontational and subtly nihilistic creatures. Daniel freely admits that these colors are in him, and the nihilism in his work reflects his own flirtations with doom-laden philosophy. Crooked Tree’s stance is “we’re all fucked” (again, from the website) so Daniel’s conclusion is “why not enjoy the ride?”
Daniel used a troubling metaphor to explain his philosophy:
“It’s like humanity is on the Titanic. We’ve sailed into an iceberg of our own making and now the ship is sinking. Most people are screaming and panicking and frantically looking after their own interests. What I’m saying is: why not join me in the bar? We’ll have a drink and a laugh and at least enjoy the show.”
So Crooked Tree is about entertainment? About a jig to the gallows of our own making? Daniel agrees, but argues that the company’s work is rather more nuanced. His work is infused with pitch-black comedy because he believed people let their guard down when they laugh. Profound ideas can be smuggled in under the tarpaulin of humour. So Crooked Tree’s uncanny work is great fun to experience, but it’s also challenging notions of what we are and aren’t allowed to talk about.
In a culture of hyper political correctness, it’s important to transgress. But not simply for the sake of breaking the rules. Daniel’s company says the unsayable partly to highlight the absurdity of policing language. “Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself” (please forgive the Harry Potter reference). It’s totally absurd to think that if only we control what people are allowed to express, we’ll control what they are able to think. By magic then, the underlying causes of offensive expression will evaporate. That’s like saying if people aren’t allowed to say racist things, they won’t be racist any more.
Crooked Tree, then, is arguing that the only way to address anything is by talking about it. How can we engage with racism if everyone is terrified of racist language?
Which brings me to Crooked Tree’s current show. The Crooked Cabaret of Curiosities is an installation at Brunel museum. They are inviting people to peruse their “collection of oddities”, before they perform a double bill: The Lynch Mob and Eternal Shade. These names are evocative enough, and certainly conjure the dark giggles and innovative creativity of the work. Their website goes so far as to warn people that some might find the show disturbing.
I don’t know why they need to include this warning. When did we become so puritanical as a society? Of course everyone has a right to be offended. But that right should never supplant other people’s right to free expression. ‘Being offended’ has way too much power today. If you find the work offensive, don’t go. If you are offended but you still go, you’re entitled to express your opinions and interrogate the artists about their work. But at no point does your being offended entitle you to ban the work.
It occurs to me that ‘downtrodden’ can be used quite broadly. It doesn’t simply have to apply to the overtly ostracized: those on the economic fringes, the outsiders. It can apply to anyone who feels illegitimately constrained. However privileged one might be, I would say we all have the capacity to be downtrodden. But this is now just my perspective – I’m not speaking for Crooked Tree.
There is another side to Theatre of the Downtrodden, certainly as expressed by Crooked Tree: proactively finding a way to make the work you believe in, no matter what. Not letting limitations on funding, social taboo, accepted norms in theatre or anything stop you from doing what they do. Because what else do the downtrodden have apart from their tenacity? If that is burned out, they truly are defeated. It’s imperative that they are heard, that they make their work.
No injustice has ever been righted by not talking about it. No advance has ever been made by avoiding the uncomfortable. Perhaps my initial feeling of exclusion was my own version of not wanting to face the challenge being offered by Crooked Tree. So I’m going to see The Crooked Cabaret of Curiosities and experience for myself “trash-noir punk theatre”. Whatever that might be.
I’m a little scared, and I might be offended.
The Crooked Cabaret of Curiosities is showing at Brunel Museum 21-22 October